Tags : Morocco, France, Pegasus, Qatargate, Emmanuel Macron, Mohammed VI, Algeria, Western Sahara,
These quarrels have led to a lasting divorce between long-time allied countries. However, there are ways to reconnect.
By Hamdam Mostafavi and Charles Haquet
A conversation during the summer: here is the last proven exchange between French President Emmanuel Macron and the King of Morocco Mohammed VI. Was this moment the occasion for an invitation to the kingdom, as Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna mentioned this weekend? Nothing is less certain, as the Cherifian kingdom hastened to deny any visit included in the official agenda.
However, everything started well between the two men. Barely a month after his inauguration in 2017, the brand new French president flew to Rabat. He then had the delicate mission of restoring relations which had deteriorated during Hollande’s five-year term. In February 2014, the indictment for acts of torture of Abdellatif Hammouchi, the head of Moroccan intelligence, close to the king, cast an icy chill on relations between the two countries. The incident had become “a real state affair”, recalls historian Pierre Vermeren, author of Morocco in 100 Questions (Editions Tallandier). The quarrel lasted almost two years, with serious consequences: those of depriving French intelligence of Moroccan security information. Bernard Cazeneuve, Minister of the Interior, did not hesitate to make the trip to Rabat and to decorate this same Hammouchi… with the Legion of Honor. But this was not enough, as Pierre Vermeren notes, « something was broken until the end of François Hollande’s mandate ».
The Pegasus affair is not over
Everything still remains to be repaired, as the events of recent days have shown: Rabat did not accept the humanitarian aid offered by Paris after the earthquake and offered no sign of thaw. “What is happening today is not a storm in a clear sky. There have been numerous warning shots,” recalls Kader Abderrahim, lecturer at Sciences Po and author of Geopolitics of Morocco (Ed. Bibliomondes ). Among other things, the Pegasus scandal which, in 2019, saw this same Hammouchi return to the forefront: the head of Moroccan security used this Israeli spyware to listen to opponents and enemies in France, but also… Emmanuel Macron. In Paris, the pill has still not passed.
Rabat has its own grievances. Recently, at the end of 2022, the kingdom could not bear to be singled out by Brussels for corruption and suspicion of interference in the same way as Qatar. And, worse still, to be targeted in January by MEPs on the question of press freedom, during a vote in which Stéphane Séjourné, head of the centrist Renaissance group and close to Emmanuel Macron, was one of of the main architects. Instead of defending Morocco with its European Union allies, Paris is using its influence in Brussels to take revenge on Pegasus. At least that is the perception that Rabat has, which, for its part, has still not digested the visa issue. In the fall of 2021, in retaliation for a lack of cooperation on immigrants turned back by France, the French decide to halve the number of visas granted to Moroccan and Algerian nationals, and those issued to Tunisians by 30%. Outraged by this measure which mainly affects the country’s elite, Moroccans cannot bear to be put in the same basket as the enemy Algerian brothers.
In the Maghreb, « at the same time » does not work
, especially since the latter now have the favor of Paris, say the Moroccans. Emmanuel Macron seems ready to do anything to repair the relationship with Algiers. Like François Hollande before him, he laid a wreath on the Bezons bridge, where around a hundred Algerians were killed on October 17, 1961. In his speech in Algiers, then a simple candidate, he affirmed that « colonization [was ] a crime against humanity. For Rabat, Macron submits to Algiers. Seen from Morocco, the omnipresence of the influential historian Benjamin Stora in the president’s entourage embodies this Algerian preference. It is therefore impossible for the French executive to apply to the Maghreb the “at the same time” policy dear to the French president. A hot topic illustrates this well:
A former Spanish colony, this desert expanse, located in the south of Morocco, is claimed by both Rabat and the Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, which controls 20% of it. “For every Moroccan, the question of Western Sahara belonging to the Cherifian kingdom is an existential issue,” recalls Kader Abderrahim.
Historically, France has never shown hostility to Rabat’s demands. In 2001, Jacques Chirac even called this area the “southern provinces” – Moroccan terminology. But since then, nothing has changed. Paris remained stuck to the position of the United Nations: the organization of a referendum.
On Western Sahara, France lagging behind
Except that this position was mistreated by a certain Donald Trump. On December 10, 2020, there was a twist: the American president announced that the United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. In exchange, Rabat undertakes to normalize its relations with Israel. In March 2022, Spanish President Pedro Sanchez in turn announced that the Moroccan “autonomy” plan for the territory of Western Sahara is “the most serious, realistic and credible basis for the resolution of the dispute”. As a result, “France, although considered a supporter in this issue, finds itself lagging behind,” summarizes Frédéric Encel, geopolitologist and columnist at L’Express. Worse, with appetite coming with eating, Moroccans are urging Paris to align on the positions of their allies!” Note, however, that Washington has so far been content with verbal recognition. Neither Trump nor the Biden administration have translated this “Moroccanness” of Western Sahara into international law.
For France, the equation is complex. Aligning with Madrid, even through a symbolic declaration, would mean siding with Rabat, which would inevitably lead to a deterioration of relations between Paris and Algiers, which do not really need it…
So, what to do? The question arises all the more acutely as Morocco, emboldened by these diplomatic successes, becomes more and more aware of its attraction. And he lets his “French friend” know. « Of course, Rabat does not have the means to cut itself off from France and Europe, but it now shows a certain arrogance towards Paris, remarks Pierre Vermeren. Their message is clear: « We « we no longer need you », which leads them to dialogue with the Americans, the Israelis, the Russians.
A Conference on the Maghreb
For this historian, a way to get out of this crisis from above could be to organize a major Maghreb conference: “Based on a massive investment plan in the three countries, it could seduce an Algerian power faced with a severe industrial shortage and the inexorable decline of its oil resources. » In any case, he continues, “it will be very difficult to go back on the question of Western Sahara since the commitment of the Americans and the Spanish…”
One thing is certain, the French are convinced that Franco-Moroccan relations must enter a new era. Hence the current reflection, in Paris, on the creation of a new partnership, based in particular on security issues in the Sahel, the two countries having an interest in working together on this subject. A way to put a damaged relationship back into motion, but in a more symmetrical way. It also remains to find the right moment. For former American ambassador Gordon Gray, who has worked in the Maghreb for a long time, « we have to be patient. Wait to see how things will evolve after this tragedy. » And also remember, like Kader Abderrahim, that a « break between Rabat and Paris is not obvious, as the figures say the opposite: « »Nearly 1.5 million Franco-Moroccans in France and over 50,000 French nationals in Morocco, where there are 6 consulates, 45 French schools and 38 CAC 40 companies ». All of which are unlikely to leave tomorrow…
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