Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer
It was a bold move from Emmanuel Macron to visit Morocco as the first Maghreb destination, shortly after having been elected president. Macron’s predecessors frequently opted for visiting Algeria first, instead of its long-standing regional rival Morocco. Both countries constituted the invaluable core of the French empire in North and West Africa and the post-independence relationship between colonizer and colonized has been complex and often ambivalent.
Nevertheless, Macron’s choice to promote Morocco to France’s first state visit destination is not totally a surprise. Aside from some periods of accumulating tension, France and Morocco have always been on good terms with each other. This relationship caused both countries to substantially influence one another in an abundance of facets.
French involvement in Morocco is especially evident and worth taking a closer look at. The former colonizer, who granted Morocco independence in 1956, remains Morocco’s largest trading partner as well as its chief investor. Two fitting illustrations of France’s endeavours are the recently erected Renault fabrication plant in hub-city Tanger, and the establishment of a Moroccan equivalent of the Train à Grande Vitesse. This high-velocity rail service is the commencement of fulfilling Morocco’s wish to modernize its infrastructure. The “fastest train in Africa” will make traveling by train in Morocco considerably less time-consuming. Macron has vowed to ensure France’s commitment to the Moroccan cause of realizing economic emergence, industrial development and the implementation of political and institutional reforms. A logical consequence is that France has the honor to call itself Morocco’s paramount bilateral donor.
When it comes to the political sphere, one does not have to search long to unveil French influence. Strong Franco-Moroccan political ties have the by-result of spawning a growing stream of concerns regarding the return of ‘Françafrique’. French general consulates are in abundance in Morocco, a phenomenon not quite unique to the country. The extensive network of French embassies and consulates across much of Africa is a remnant of colonial times. Less overt, or obvious, instances of the French finger in the political pie of Morocco are the joint action programs on climate change, combating terrorism, and the growing presence of French cultural institutions.
Even the more trivial Moroccan domains couldn’t escape the French claws,inevitably bearing the mark of its former colonizer. During a meeting in Marrakech, I asked a young Moroccan sports journalist who had just recently launched the site League Live for his opinion on the fact that many football trainers for the Moroccan squad are born and raised Frenchmen. He confirmed that the Moroccan football federation has a tendency to appoint French trainers, but that it doesn’t stop there. French staff is also deployed to train the Moroccan youth squads. Not merely in the light of the national squads, but also concerning that of the Moroccan clubs. As expected, the French style of playing has now become the status quo in Morocco.
Not unimportantly, when asked for Morocco’s chances at surviving the group stage of the upcoming World Cup, the journalist advocated for discarding the French way of playing. Instead, “parking the bus”, a highly defensive tactic that aims at conceding as few as possible goals, ought to take precedence.
Is France driven by genuine goodwill? Or are there underlying motives that hint to self-interest? A mixture of both? Could that be possible?
Like any other country, France craves expanding its operations into broader markets, and Africa is the “new” El Dorado. The continent’s riches, when it comes to natural resources, attracts an abundance of foreign partners. Morocco possesses a great deal of natural resources itself, such as phosphate reserves and fish, but the kingdom is also seen as a potential portal and connector to the African hinterland.
During colonial times, the French only shared their hegemony on the African continent with the British. Now in 2018 a lot has changed. France’s near total domination has vanished into thin air. With Germany, the United States, and most notably China and India joining the fray, France has receded substantially compared to their position only a decade ago. France’s deteriorating competitiveness is a chief culprit, which is mostly due to the floundering French economy. The economically booming states of China and India easily outgun France when it comes to financial means. But it is primarily the former Francophone Africa turning its back on France that proves to be fatal for the latter’s languishing domination in Africa. From Senegal to Madagascar, they yearn to reduce their dependence on Paris. This also explains why many African countries turn to non-French investors and benefactors.
It is, in addition to the already strong bonds, Morocco’s envisaged role as the gateway to the new El Dorado that explains France’s reinvigorated interest in bolstering its partnership with the kingdom. In 2013, King Mohammed VI explicitly stated that the African continent is Morocco’s top-priority in light of international relations. The kingdom’s expanded political and economic footprint in Africa marks the inception of a new era in multilateral collaboration between Morocco and the other, predominantly Sub-Saharan, African states. Morocco’s recent return to the African Union and its accession in some regional cooperative pacts couldn’t have a better timing.
Obviously, France cannot miss out on this opportunity. France’s narrative is one that emphasizes the shared quest that both countries are to embark on: pursuing joint interests, involving multiple facets of life.
Former French Prime-Minister François Mitterand stated in 1957 that “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21th century”. The daunting fear of losing Africa is still relevant to contemporary France. This says a lot about the current relations between the two. Although de jure decolonized, Francophone Africa is still of the utmost importance to France. Plus, it remains connected to its former colonizer as if nothing has changed ever since the struggles for independence were ultimately rewarded with independence.
Admittedly, France preserves various and important stakes in the cultural, political and economic ties between Africa and the self. But this is nothing in comparison with the power and status that it once enjoyed in the African Backyard. Regardless of the still evident French influence, it is slowly waning.
It is the latter and a hint of optimism that make me conclude that the fear that Mitterand voiced is finite.