The Moroccan national team have made history as the first Arab or African football team to reach the semi-final of the FIFA World Cup. On the way Morocco has beaten Spain and Portugal, as well as Belgium, reviving memories of colonial rivalries.
Now, Morocco faces France in the semi-final, and has a chance to beat its most recent colonising nation. As with the games against Spain and Portugal, history is shaping the narrative. This has prompted a flood of racist comments about Moroccans on social media, invoking the 8th century thwarted Islamic expansion into what is now France. It all suggests that bigotry is ingrained in too many European minds, rooted in the continent’s historical interaction with the Muslim world.
France’s engagement with the Muslim world began shortly after the Conquest of Iberia in 711. Just ten years later, Muslim armies headed north and in 732 the Umayyad governor of Al-Andalus, Abdel Rahman Al-Ghafiqqi led an army of 20,000 troops just 200 miles south of Paris. They were met at the Battle of Tours by a Frankish army led by the de facto ruler of “Francia”, Charles Martel. Al-Ghafiqqi was killed in battle and the Umayyad army was defeated, bringing to an end Muslim expansion into Western Europe.
Throughout the Middle Ages, engagement between what are now called Morocco and France was mostly limited to war outside their respective borders. Both Moroccan empires, the Almoravids and Almohads, sent armies to the Iberian Peninsula to push back against the Christian Reconquista. In the east, the famous Muslim leader Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi (“Saladin”) liberated Jerusalem using a Moroccan army contingent against Frankish crusaders. Many settled in Jerusalem after its liberation in 1187. The occupation state of Israel destroyed most of the Moroccan Quarter in the Old City to expand the Buraq (“Western”) Wall plaza, but one of the gates of the old city is still called the Moroccan Gate in honour of those who helped to liberate Jerusalem.
In the 17th century, Morocco and France enjoyed a period of relatively warm relations and exchanged ambassadors. Soon, though, the Barbary pirates became a bone of contention between the two. Many of the corsairs were Andalusian refugees who were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition. They set up forts on the Moroccan coast and began to attack Christian-owned vessels in the Mediterranean in revenge for their expulsion.
In 1766, France made its first attempt to invade Morocco with the Larache expedition. It failed. War broke out again in 1844 between France and Morocco over the latter’s support for the Algerian resistance. Morocco was forced to end its alliance with Emir Abdelkader, the Algerian spiritual and resistance leader. France also forced the Sultan of Morocco to sign the Treaty of Rabat in 1912 making the country a protectorate state, while giving Spain the freedom to expand in Morocco.
While Morocco was not officially made a colony by France — the Sultan was kept in place as head of state — the French operated very much as a colonial power. They took over Morocco’s agriculture, state policing, taxation at the ports and natural resources. The French occupation of Morocco was just as brutal as their colonisation of the other Maghreb countries. French forces committed an array of war crimes against the Moroccan people.
However, France faced particularly stiff resistance in the Atlas region. Dubbed the Amazigh Triangle, Moha Hamo Zayani (“Moha” is a localised abbreviation of the name Mohammad), Moha ou Said and Ali Amhaouch led the resistance of the Zaian confederation near Khenifra. The Zaian War lasted from 1914 to 1921 and ended with most of the heavy resistance being subdued, although Moroccan fighters moved to the high Atlas to continue guerrilla resistance well into the 1930s.
In the north of Morocco, in territories outside of France’s control, another resistance movement was growing at that time. Abdel Krim Khattabi, a local Amazigh leader, managed to unite various tribes in the Rif region and defeated a Spanish army of 23,000 men at the Battle of Annual in 1921. The battle was a disaster for Spain as it lost control of the Rif. A few months later, Abdel Krim established the Rif Republic and began pushing Spain out of Northern Morocco.
As Abdel Krim’s exploits grew, he attracted the attention of France. In 1924, he fought and defeated the French at the Battle of Ouerega. That defeat, and seeing Abdel Krim’s forces moving close to Fez, alarmed the French, who turned to an alliance with Spain and invaded the Rif with a combined force of half a million troops. The overwhelming numbers and use of chemical weapons against the Rif population eventually forced Abdel Krim to surrender.
Another legendary stand against French forces was at the Battle of Bougafer in 1933. The Ait Atta tribe from Ouarzazate held out against 80,000 French soldiers for forty days, only surrendering after negotiating favourable terms.
The Istiqlal (Independence) Party was formed in Morocco in 1943 to promote freedom from French colonialism. The movement received support from Sultan Mohammed V and its leaders gave a determined speech about independence in Tangier, which was an international zone at the time. In an attempt to disrupt the speech, the French authorities started a massacre in Casablanca known as the “Senegalese Blow” in which hundreds of civilians were killed.
In 1954, Mohammed V was forced into exile in Madagascar and replaced by his cousin, Ben Arafa. A year later, following national protests and an escalation of violence from Moroccan resistance cells which organised into the Army of Liberation, Mohammed V was returned to Morocco. The country won its independence from France officially in 1956.
Post-independence, France enjoyed friendly relations with Morocco as one of its largest trading partners. Two per cent of Morocco’s imports came from France in 2021. However, despite decades of close ties, relations have deteriorated over the past two years over the issue of entry visas for Moroccans going to France, as well as the French position on Western Sahara and its improved relationship with Algeria.
This has led to Rabat turning away from France gradually in favour of building more ties with the US and China. The move is seen by France as a serious threat, as it signals that one of the Maghreb nations is leaving francophone influence.
There are approximately one-and-a-half million Moroccans living in France; it’s the largest Moroccan diaspora community. They face a lot of racism, particularly under the notorious Islamophobic French laws, and are marginalised economically along with other Maghreb and West African communities in France.
Consequent tensions came to the fore after Frances’s win over England in their World Cup quarter-final; Moroccan fans in Paris were already celebrating their team’s victory against Portugal earlier in the day. Fighting soon broke out between the Moroccan and French supporters, since when the rhetoric has become more heated, with online accusations of disloyalty aimed at French Moroccans supporting the Moroccan national team. With some French fans invoking the Battle of Tours as the motive for France to beat Morocco in the semi-final, it seems that they are incapable of moving on from their colonial past.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.