US President Joe Biden picked up the phone and offered his condolences to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI last Monday after the devastating earthquake hit the Kingdom, according to the White House. However, there have been no calls or contact from President Emmanuel Macron of France. Nor have there been any meetings between senior officials of France and Morocco. Moreover, Rabat does not seem to be in a hurry to appoint a new ambassador to Paris. To make matters worse, Morocco rejected the French offer of aid after the earthquake.
What is left for the French president to do in order to break the ice in what is now a very cold relationship with one of France’s most important partners in North Africa? Perhaps a scapegoat will be necessary. He could, for example, sacrifice his foreign minister by pinning the blame on her for his failure to manage his foreign policy, not only in the Maghreb, but also across Africa.
The minister’s recent faux pas in telling a French news channels that Macron’s visit to Morocco is still moving forward — a Moroccan official source said that the visit is neither on the agenda nor scheduled — seems enough to justify her being sacked. However, it will not be easy for Macron to take such a step at this time. He is not accustomed to acknowledging, even in principle, any flaw or negligence on the part of France in dealing with this crisis. He prefers instead to place the blame on unknown parties that he alone holds responsible for putting sticks in the spokes and hindering all his efforts to get relations back on track.
Last February, he said that he would continue to move forward in strengthening France’s relationship with both Algeria and Morocco, away from “the current controversy,” as he put it. At that time, he meant a resolution approved by the European Parliament urging the Moroccan authorities to respect freedom of opinion and expression. The Moroccans regarded this as “targeting” and “blackmailing the Kingdom,” and a statement was issued without delay to express the parliament’s “disappointment regarding the negative position and the ineffective role played during the discussions in the European Parliament, and the consultations regarding the recommendations hostile to our country, by some political groups belonging to a country that is considered a historical partner of Morocco.” This was a clear reference to France.
The French president, it is clear, now prefers to continue the policy of denial and escaping forward, instead of confronting the problem and seeing things as they really are. It is not too far-fetched to think that he could repeat what he did on a previous occasion when he completely denied any role played by France in exacerbating the crisis with Morocco. This would raise two questions and he would answer them as follows: Has there been any decision by the European Parliament that was made by France? No. Did France add fuel to the fire? No, we must move forward despite these differences.
This is why it would be unlikely for him to dismiss Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna from her position, and even if he was forced to do so, we would not expect this decision to have any major dramatic repercussions or consequences on the Moroccan file in particular, especially with most of the strings of the external game remaining in the hands of the Élysée Palace.
It is clear that for Paris to get out of the hole that it has dug for itself may not involve changing people as much as amending policies. It also appears to be multifaceted, as its relationship with the other Maghreb country, Algeria, is not at its best, and there have been successive setbacks along the African coast which will definitely complicate France’s efforts to regain its traditional role in this part of Africa. The question that the French are asking today is, who is responsible for this terrible decline? Will France be able to regain any of its lost prestige in its former colonies? It has not shrugged off the blows of having aid rejected by Morocco. Macron’s hopes that French planes loaded with emergency aid would land in Marrakesh before any others have been dashed. It must have hurt French pride that the Moroccans welcomed aid from the British and Spanish.
Although a comparison here, by all standards, seems flawed, have some forgotten how the French president was received two years ago in Beirut after the massive explosion in the port? He received a hero’s welcome, with many Lebanese asking him to save them from the crises they were facing. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition calling on him to restore the French mandate over Lebanon.
The French know that Morocco is not Lebanon, but that does not mean that Macron did not aspire to play the white saviour role in Morocco as well. It was not to be, and will have potentially catastrophic consequences because the humanitarian intervention card that was played by the Élysée Palace was played too early, and many Moroccans saw it as a live symbol of colonial control and superiority, which they no longer accept. It is a real obstacle to mending French-Moroccan relations.
It may now be claimed that Macron did everything possible to contact the Moroccan monarch as soon as news of the earthquake spread, to offer condolences and assistance. According to some media reports, Mohammed refused to speak to him. The French president resorted to writing on X: “We are all devastated after the terrible earthquake in Morocco. France stands ready to help with first aid.”
What can he do now? Perhaps he should understand the reasons for Morocco’s anger and not try to ride in on the back of disasters. Maybe then the Moroccans may respond positively. Although he knows very well what they want from him, his hesitation over taking decisive approaches and abandoning the grey areas is that he sees the regional scene from just one angle. He still believes that what he may consider to be short rebellions will remain limited. Will his approach be successful in the end? Only time will tell.
Translated from Al Quds Al Arabi, 21 September 2023
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.