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Algeria, Morocco and the French trap

February 8, 2023 at 9:37 am

A Moroccan man holds his passport in front of his computer displaying a Schengen visa in the capital Rabat. [FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images]

It is easy to say that France has fallen into the trap of the chronic conflict between Algeria and Morocco by virtue of its historic and current relations with the two countries. However, it is wrong to say that France has succeeded in trapping Algeria and Morocco by keeping its relations lukewarm at best with one or other of the two. In this three-way relationship, there are always two parties embracing while the third awaits its turn.

Diplomatic tension between Algeria and Morocco is now the rule rather than the exception. During all periods of tension, though, France has been present in one way or another. For the past eighteen months or so, this part of North Africa has lived with this crisis at a more dangerous level and the fear is that its exhausting repercussions will spread to neighbouring countries. Today, for example, Tunisia is unable to make its own decisions without taking Moroccan and Algerian reactions into account. The same goes for Mauritania and Libya, and even for Mali and Niger. The matter applies even to France, with the difference that the Algeria-Morocco conflict does not cause French diplomacy to lose its independence, and does not negatively affect its foreign policy.

France’s presence was acceptable to both Algeria and Morocco as long as it remained within the limits of what was permitted. Today, this presence has become more visible, more reactionary and sometimes astonishing. Whenever French relations with one of the two countries improved, the other was upset, believing that it would lose out as a result. Whenever relations with one of the two countries deteriorated, the other rejoiced, believing that this would be in its favour.

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Observers cannot remember an occasion when France was able to reconcile the North African neighbours within the past twenty years, at least, and have excellent relations with both countries at the same time. The balance has always tilted in favour of Morocco for many complex reasons in which the objective overlaps with selfishness and emotions. Algeria has always resented the warmth of Franco-Moroccan relations, but it has learned to live with it.

I find it hard to believe that France’s “inability” to establish balanced relations with both Algeria and Morocco at the same time is something beyond its capabilities. At best, French officials do nothing to upgrade their country’s relations with Algeria and Morocco to an equally good level. In the worst-case scenario, it is a calculated and deliberate choice, the aim of which is to benefit from one country and keep the other chasing France’s approval, and also to preserve the massive gap between the two. Just as it is the first to benefit from the differences, France will be the first loser with the most to lose if the Maghreb countries succeed one day in forming an independent political, strategic and economic bloc.

We should not forget that France has a long history of adopting a “divide and rule” policy in the Maghreb countries ever since the colonial era. There is nothing preventing it today from reviving this policy, especially with the huge amount of rivalry in the region.

In an analysis of the crisis between Algeria and Morocco, the Economist reported last week that France has “dumped Morocco in favour of Algeria” after being driven by the gas crisis resulting from the Russian war in Ukraine. Of course, there is a lull in relations between Paris and Rabat, which is being met with a revival between Paris and Algiers. The lukewarm diplomacy is expressed by Morocco’s insistence on keeping its embassy in Paris open but without an ambassador for a long time within the past two years, as well as King Mohammed VI spending a significant period in France in the middle of last year without meeting President Emmanuel Macron. The revival with Algeria is expressed in friendly speeches and exchange visits between Algerian officials and their French counterparts — the visit of the Algerian army chief of staff to Paris at the end of last month was unprecedented — and plans for a state visit by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to Paris.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to give in to the hypothesis of a deep and thorny crisis existing between Morocco and France. It is also wrong to talk about normalised relations, after which there will be no tension between Algeria and France. What distinguishes France’s relations with both Morocco and Algeria is that they are affected by whims and moods as much as they are affected by strategic interests and crucial decisions. They are emotional relationships that are sensitive and fluctuate easily for the worse, even for reasons that seem trivial to neutrals, and easy to fix in ways simpler than the mind can sometimes imagine. Hence, the alleged tension with Morocco may be resolved by a phone call lasting a few minutes between the Moroccan monarch and the French president, and the alleged honeymoon between Algeria and France can be ruined by an article in a French newspaper or a passing statement made by a French politician, even if it is insignificant.

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The Economist was wrong, though: France did not favour Algeria and dump Morocco. France is just managing another chapter in this eternal series. It just so happens that the details of this chapter tend to be in favour of Algeria this time for two reasons that are as important as they are simple. The first is that crisis-stricken Europe sees Algeria as a good and practical alternative to Russian gas, and in its quest for gas, Europe cannot bypass France for obvious reasons. The second is that Morocco has recently chosen to play hardball with France and the Europeans, and then decided to escalate tension in the middle of last month when the European Parliament voted against Morocco on human rights issues related to detained Moroccan journalists and activists. Since France is the closest to Morocco and the most willing to bear its blame and anger, Rabat chose to point the finger at Paris rather than anywhere else. France contented itself with ignoring the issue and avoiding escalation, at least officially.

In the context of the reality of the tripartite relations and the suspicion that dominates these relations, it is easy to suggest that Moroccan anger is motivated in part by French-Algerian rapprochement and Rabat feeling that it is occurring at its expense.

French relations with the two largest Maghreb countries are complex even without a crisis between them. However, with all of this conflict, which is expanding daily and getting more dangerous, the matter has turned into a quagmire.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 6 February 2023

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.