Paris soothes Rabat's ruffled feathers

Paris soothes Rabat's ruffled feathers
5 min read
13 February, 2015
Analysis: Since decolonisation, France and Morocco have been close allies. In recent years, the relationship has strained owing to Morocco's prickliness over Western Sahara, and undiplomatic language by a French ambassador.
In recent years, relations have been rocky between France and Morocco [AFP]

France's relations with its former colonies in North Africa have often been somewhat stormy. French paternalism has often caused offence, as two of the most egregious incidents in recent years demonstrate.   

A few years ago, during Jacques Chirac's presidency, Algiers reacted with fury to a new French law requiring teachers in France to teach about the country's colonial past, illustrating the benefits to the colonised, alongside its many abuses. And then, in 2011, Paris grossly misjudged the revolution in Tunisia by offering military aid to the beleaguered Ben Ali regime - just days before it collapsed. 

Morocco, however, has generally avoided major diplomatic crises - at least since President de Gaulle expressed his displeasure at the settling of accounts between the Moroccan Royal Palace and the king's former tutor, Mehdi Ben Barka, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Paris in October 1965. 

France vies with Spain as Morocco's dominant trade partner, consuming 22.6 per cent of Morocco's exports in 2012 and providing 12.5 per cent of its imports.

Providing €2.1 billion ($2.4 billion) in 2011, 40 per cent of the total, France is also the biggest source of Morocco's remittance income and also provided 3.3 million tourists - 35 per cent of the total - in that year. It also provided direct investment of €919 million ($1,050 million) in 2012 and holds 51 per cent of the total foreign private investment stock in Morocco, with 750 French firms involved, employing more than 80,000 Moroccans.

Strains begin to show

In short, the two countries have been stalwart allies, particularly over the Western Sahara issue, for many years. In April 2013, President François Hollande visited Casablanca, in response to a visit to Paris by King Mohammed VI just a month after the president had been elected. 

Over the past year, however, Franco-Moroccan relations have been strained, to say the least.  The row began over some unguarded comments in February 2014 - provoked by the chronic conflict in the Western Sahara - by France's ambassador to the United States, François Delattre. 

     [Morocco is] a mistress with whom we sleep every night, of whom we are not particularly in love, but we must defend.
- Alleged comments of Francois Delattre

He apparently opined that Morocco was, "…a mistress with whom we sleep every night, of whom we are not particularly in love, but we must defend".

Morocco's government reacted to his comments with hurt and surprise, not least because they were made in response to criticism of the North African kingdom in a Spanish documentary on the Western Sahara. 

Moroccan observers discerned the dark hand of its rival, Algeria, behind the comments and noted other problems in the Franco-Moroccan relationship, not least French neo-colonial arrogance. 

A few days before the ambassador's comments, the head of one of Morocco's intelligence services, Abdellatif Hammouchi, had been detained and questioned by French police while on a visit to Paris after Moroccan activists in France accused him of practicing torture in Morocco. 

That was followed by a member of Morocco's opposition-in-exile forcing his way into the French hospital room of a Moroccan general to berate him, while the general was receiving treatment. 

Then, some time later, Morocco's foreign minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, also the head of a major Moroccan political party, the Rassemblement Nationale des Indépendants, was subjected to a humiliating strip-search at a French airport.

In the wake of that incident, the foreign minister delivered several acutely critical comments towards France, stating at the start of 2015 during another visit to Paris that "the age of French custodianship over Morocco is ended", blaming Paris for a "lack of political will" in restoring good relations with Rabat.  

Moroccan magazines also pilloried the French president - one even caricaturising him as a petty Hitler because of anti-Muslim attacks in France. French heavy-handedness had, in short, awakened Moroccan resentment over the country's colonial past and over the metropolitan country's attitudes towards its massive Moroccan migrant community.  

     French heavy-handedness had, in short, awakened Moroccan resentment over the country's colonial past.

The kingdom's displeasure was underlined when no official Moroccan representative attended the massive solidarity march in Paris after the assassinations of twelve members of the Charlie Hebdo staff and security personnel last January.   

Morocco had already suspended judicial cooperation with France, thereby blocking joint police investigations, prisoner transfers and extraditions. It had also blocked cooperation over terrorism - a serious matter for France, given its commitments to the security crisis in Northern Mali and the emergence of the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis) in North Africa.

Morocco had, after all, arrested a member of the Jund al-Khilifa group, affiliated to the Islamic State group, which had killed a French tourist in Algeria's Kabylia region last September.

Patching up relations

In reality, however, the two countries still need each other. 

France needs the reassurance of Moroccan goodwill in the context of its often-tense relations with Algeria, concerns about terrorism and its ongoing atavistic paternalism towards the South Mediterranean and North Africa, now challenged inside Europe by Germany and in the region by Islamist extremists. 

France buries hatchet with Morocco after diplomatic row: Read Hakim Ankar's analysis here

Morocco needs French support over its determination to maintain its annexation of the Western Sahara. The United Nations, after all, will soon begin its sixth-monthly review of its observer presence there and French support will be essential to avoid growing United States pressure for an investigation of Morocco's human rights record there. 

Not surprisingly, therefore, France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, promised to repair relations at the start of January and a new legal and judicial cooperation protocol was signed by the end of the month. 

A full restoration of cordial relations, however, had to wait for an intervention by Morocco's king, Mohammed VI, who made a private visit of reconciliation to President Hollande at the start of February. Morocco's ruffled feathers, in short, have finally been smoothed down.