Zaid M. Belbagi
In the latest iteration of what has become an incredibly fraught relationship between France and its allies in Africa, the French media and government pursued an incredibly short-termist and regrettable agenda against Morocco during a moment of national crisis last week, as the country’s Atlas region reeled from a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. The approach, which raised eyebrows among former French presidents and the wider political establishment alike, followed a Moroccan missive that it had neither requested nor required French aid.
Referring to inevitable “supply gluts” of aid that it wished to avoid, Rabat’s request resulted in a surprising avalanche of anti-Moroccan press, which was anchored in the postcolonial and protested at the very iteration of Rabat’s sovereignty on this issue. Seemingly missing the incredibly sensitive domestic situation in Morocco, the French discourse backfired.
With the passage of time, the unavoidable reality of Morocco’s national solidarity and the government’s 1 billion dirham plan to rehouse and support affected families has come to the fore. The UK’s Guardian newspaper, which has a team in the Haouz region affected by the earthquake, pointed out that Morocco is not like Libya. “It is a functioning modern state. The place works,” said senior international reporter Peter Beaumont. “Ordinary people have been mobilized on a mass scale, and there is a very strong sense of nationhood.” The international media broadly ended the week with this discourse, highlighting how far Paris had departed from the global consensus.
Having begun his presidency with a state visit to Morocco, where he was hosted as a successor to great friends of the kingdom such as Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, Emmanuel Macron’s rule has witnessed a sustained decline in French influence, not just in Morocco but in the wider region. This reality, not for any want of military involvement or hard power, has actually coincided with the highest French military presence in the region since colonial times. Rather, the Moroccan affair, which came a fortnight after an eighth Sahelian government was overthrown in yet another coup that signaled the departure of France’s proteges from power, is reflective of a wider malaise.
The request that France withdraw its troops from its Operation Barkhane base in Mali last year was the most overt sign that its influence was on the wane. More than a decade after France embarked on a clearly defined and relatively popular operation aimed at clearing extremists from urban areas, Paris’ mission descended into a prolonged conflict in which it could no longer have any influence. The localized conflict has since spread to neighboring countries, with France often backing unpopular, failing governments. This contributed to anti-French sentiment across the region, which has only been exacerbated by a catalog of diplomatic errors on France’s part. In a face-saving exercise, the Barkhane base was moved to neighboring Niger, which this summer also called for the country’s departure.
France’s formerly robust diplomatic, military, economic and financial network in Africa has endured a veritable decline in recent years. Though he commenced his presidency with hopes to change the narrative and pursue a more nuanced role for France – more in line with the growing status of its African allies – Macron has pursued an agenda that critics have perceived as neocolonialist. Following a spike in anti-French rhetoric, the decision to “invite” the leaders of the G5 Sahel – Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad – to the French city of Pau in 2020 was viewed as a summoning of client states. Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maiga accused France of resorting to “political, media and diplomatic terrorism.”
Controversial, unpleasant and at times thoroughly objectionable, France’s behavior in Africa has a checkered past at best. Once the master or protector of up to 20 African states, the tricolor was then writ large across the continent. But with the equality and freedom of the French republic often lacking, France used the experience to advocate a policy of assimilation, seeking to create Frenchmen and women from the African peoples it ruled. The imposition of French language, culture, religion, law, traditions and values on societies in West Africa and Algeria was particularly wide-scale, with lasting consequences. It did, however, face serious challenges in Morocco, which retained its sultan and institutions.
Morocco, the last of the African countries to be colonized, remained an administrative nightmare for France throughout its short colonial history. Not able to establish a department of France as in Algiers, France settled with a protectorate, retaining the traditional facets of the Moroccan state. However, the 44-year experience, of which half was spent trying to pacify Morocco’s armed tribes, was not sufficient to fully ingratiate the local society with French customs. This experience emboldened a residual sense of national identity, which some in Paris are yet to appreciate.
Amid the diplomatic fallout last week, Macron took it upon himself to meet Rabat’s cold shoulder with a smartphone video, in which he took it upon himself to directly address the Moroccan people. The gesture backfired, with Moroccans questioning his right to do so and with the French media itself reminding their president that the prerogative to address a people belongs first to its government. Matters took another turn for the worse on Saturday, when Morocco rejected French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s suggestion that Macron had been invited to visit the country by King Mohammed.
Rabat’s response to France’s intrusion has been material. Amid the fallout over aid, Rabat reopened one of the main roads into the heart of the earthquake zone, which had been blocked by debris, and the country’s military helicopters have been flying sorties day and night amid a wider civilian response that is reminiscent of the country’s mobilization against France decades ago. Paris should not overlook that providing assistance to foreign countries is a privilege and not a right.