France seeks to rekindle an old flame

France seeks to rekindle an old flame

France seeks to rekindle an old flame
Morocco’s growing role in Africa and indeed internationally is of more importance to France. (Shutterstock)
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There has been in recent years a rift in the longstanding and complex relationship between France and Morocco. There have been signs however that the two countries are working toward a reset.
Earlier this week, France’s First Lady Brigitte Macron hosted Morocco’s Princesses Lalla Hasna, Lalla Asmaa and Lalla Maryam at the Elysee Palace. The sisters of Morocco’s King Mohamed VI undertook the visit under special instructions from the monarch.
This high-level visit took place shortly after France’s Ambassador to Morocco Christophe Lecourtier’s recent comments that “France had looked at Morocco through an outdated lens” stressing the importance and potential of enhancing ties. Lecourtier’s work has been relentless, echoing the efforts of his government.
Notably, in October 2023, France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire visited Marrakech to discuss economic relations with his counterpart Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch. In a gift to the scriptwriter on Valentine’s Day, France’s Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Sojourne reiterated the country's commitment to bolstering ties with Morocco while speaking in France’s National Assembly.
Despite President Emmanuel Macron choosing Rabat as his first overseas visit as leader, a growing rift in ties has become particularly evident since 2021 when France announced a visa restriction for nationals from Maghreb countries due to a reported increase in illegal immigration. Tensions increased as France steadily improved its relations with Algeria. Morocco and Algeria hold opposing positions on the status of Morocco’s southern provinces and Rabat rightly took this to mean Paris was rejecting its claims and indeed the cordial ties that had existed previously.
These diplomatic concerns have been exacerbated on the personal level, with the uppity and somewhat presumptuous style of Macron stonewalled by the rigid protocol of Morocco’s palace. In 2022 Macron announced to waiting reporters in Algiers that his next trip was to Morocco, only for Rabat to officially communicate that an invitation had not been extended.
Last year was particularly challenging for France-Morocco relations. In January, the EU Parliament held a discussion and vote on freedom of expression and journalism in the country. This motion was reportedly led by President Macron. On the same day, Morocco recalled its ambassador to France Mohamed Benchaaboun as it perceived this vote to be an interference in its domestic matters, and an attempt to defame the country. This ambassadorial position remained vacant until November, when Samira Sitail was appointed. Similarly, Morocco delayed the accreditation of Ambassador Lecourtier for almost a year. His eventual audience was late in the afternoon following those of a dozen other foreign emissaries to Morocco. 

Morocco offers economic and political stability as well as a business environment that is lucrative for France.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The most notable sign of this rift was in September, following the devastating earthquake in the Atlas that killed and injured over 7,000 people. As international aid and rescue support poured into the country, Morocco was quick to decline France’s offers, with Macron having again breached protocol by seeming to address Moroccans directly. Following this snub, Morocco simultaneously accepted similar assistance from other Western nations including the UK and Spain.
This tension comes amid the wider context of France’s waning influence in Francophone Africa, a region that for long shared deep ties with France during and after colonial rule. Since 2020, the Sahel region has seen at least six coup d’etats including in Mali, Chad, Niger, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. As subsequent governments were overthrown in the region, anti-French sentiment was quick to emerge as the common theme. The leaders of the military juntas have criticized France’s foreign policy in the region, sought to sever defence, diplomatic and cultural ties with France, and called for French troops and diplomats to exit the country.
“Today, Morocco has a new status in Africa at a time when France is clearly losing influence in the region,” said Abdelmalek Alaoui, president of the Moroccan Institute for Strategic Intelligence. In this context, Morocco’s growing role in Africa and indeed internationally is of more importance to France as it loses allies in the Sahel. As Morocco seeks to adopt the English language and establish independent ties with the West and the Global South, France has no option but to reengage or risk losing further influence.
There is no doubt that as Morocco’s regional and global status expands, domestic appetite to accept France’s traditional paternalistic approach toward the country has reduced. However, despite these growing differences, both countries realize the vitality of their shared economic and cultural ties. France remains the leading foreign investor in Morocco, and with over 800,000 people of Moroccan origin in France, they form the country’s second-largest immigrant community.
While France’s renewed effort to work with Morocco is partly economically motivated, it is also an attempt by Paris to retain influence over FranceAfrique — France’s traditional sphere of influence in postcolonial Africa. Morocco offers economic and political stability as well as a business environment that is lucrative for France. France will also begin to draw on Morocco’s capacity to power Europe from renewables, a geopolitical reality which will temper Paris’ fascination with Algiers and indeed prompt a review of its stance on the Saharan issue.

Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.
X: @Moulay_Zaid

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