France torn between Morocco and Algeria

Energy needs and historical ties have pulled France toward Algeria. Meanwhile, relations with Morocco have grown strained, but this might change.

Morocco has flourished under the rule of King Mohammed VI (L), but this newfound power has put French President Emmanuel Macron in a delicate geopolitical quandary. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Relations between France and Morocco have become tense
  • Much hinges on the Western Sahara issue
  • Paris needs access to Algerian energy

Following the devastating earthquake in the High Atlas Mountains on September 8, 2023, which resulted in thousands of fatalities and the destruction of numerous villages, Morocco declined an offer of emergency aid from France. This refusal was the starkest indication yet of the deepening diplomatic rift between France and its former protectorate. For most of 2023, the Moroccan embassy in Paris had been without an ambassador. In March, in response to an attempt by French President Emmanuel Macron to de-escalate tensions, a Moroccan official stated that the “relationship is neither friendly nor good, neither between both governments nor between the Royal palace and the Elysee” – a straightforward, undiplomatic slap in the face of the old power. 

To understand the roots of the growing chill in Franco-Moroccan relations, besides recent public disputes, one must consider Morocco’s shifting alliances, France’s diplomatic challenges and both nations’ interactions with Algeria. The disruption of the longtime friendship between France and Morocco likely reflects new geopolitical trends, as evidenced by Paris’ diminishing influence in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Morocco’s metamorphosis

Morocco’s transformation under the reign of King Mohammed VI – who acceded to the throne in July 1999 after the death of his father, King Hassan II – is striking. From 2000 to 2021, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has more than doubled, soaring from $1,492 to $3,795. The United Nations Development Programme reports that between 2011 and 2018, the kingdom halved its multidimensional poverty index.

Cities like Tangiers or Casablanca have become modern economic powerhouses thanks to a business-friendly climate, strategic international alliances that draw in foreign direct investment (FDI) and massive efforts to improve youth education. Morocco is steadily establishing itself as an African hub, leveraging its prime position bordering both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and increasingly pivoting toward the African continent.

France has benefited from Morocco’s development, with the kingdom its top commercial partner in Africa. In 2022, French exports to Morocco amounted to 6.6 billion euros, making France the country’s second-largest exporter with a 10 percent market share. French FDI stock in the same year stood at 8.1 billion euros, 30 percent of all FDI, with 1,300 subsidiaries in the kingdom, while Moroccan FDI in France was also notable, with a stock of 1.8 billion euros, up from 370 million euros in 2013.

In light of this robust economic bond, the severity of the diplomatic crisis is particularly puzzling.

Diminishing diplomatic clout

A key factor to consider is the waning influence of French diplomatic power. First, its loss of momentum is likely tied to diminished foreign policy independence following Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to rejoin NATO’s integrated military command in 2009. Earlier, from the 1960s when General Charles De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO command structures up to Jacques Chirac’s firm condemnation of the invasion of Iraq, France’s unique diplomatic position held a certain allure for the Global South. By adopting an Atlanticist approach, it forfeited this appeal.

Second, French diplomacy is in a state of crisis due to internal reforms. Two elements are particularly significant: the gradual erosion of the French Foreign Ministry’s influence through past decades and President Macron’s ambition to further reform diplomacy, allowing any high-ranking civil servant to function as a diplomat. This “de-specialization” of the diplomatic corps is widely viewed as imprudent, as foreign service demands on-the-ground knowledge and a skill set honed through overseas experience.

The outcome has been a centralization of diplomacy in the hands of a small group of decision-makers around the president. Consequently, French diplomacy now suffers from a lack of expertise and is driven by Mr. Macron’s impulsive and often overly optimistic actions. His approach has oscillated between clumsiness – as in Algeria in 2021 when he accused the country’s leadership of capitalizing on the legacy of the Franco-Algerian war – and naive hopes that dictatorial regimes can easily be transformed.

French diplomacy has struggled to adjust to new global realities.  But specific events in Franco-Moroccan relations also shed light on the heightened tensions.

Grievances on both sides

Paris’s decision to halve the number of visas issued to Moroccans between October 2021 and December 2022 was met with displeasure in Rabat. The measure, which also applied to Algerians and Tunisians, aimed to pressure these nations to repatriate citizens residing illegally in France. However, the strategy was not particularly effective and even caused logistical issues (with truck drivers, for example). 

Morocco’s grievances also stem from legal actions initiated against its high-ranking officials in France during the mid-2010s and more recently. As a result, Rabat suspended judicial cooperation with France in 2014-2015.

The situation was further exacerbated in the summer of 2021 when France accused Moroccan intelligence of espionage using Israeli-made Pegasus software. The surveillance allegedly targeted a vast number of individuals, including the Moroccan king, French politicians and President Macron himself. Despite Moroccan authorities denying involvement, the incident strained the relationship between President Macron and King Mohammed VI.

Stephane Sejourne
Stephane Sejourne, a member of the European Parliament and close ally of President Macron, was accused by Moroccan media of having played a pivotal role in the adoption of two resolutions critical of Rabat. The move was described as part of a broader strategic effort to check Morocco’s diplomatic and security achievements. © Getty Images

In December 2022, a scandal involving allegations of corruption of European Parliament (EP) officials by Qatar actually also implicated Morocco. Italian EU lawmaker Pier Antonio Panzeri and several associates were linked to Moroccan diplomat Abderrahim Atmoun and Moroccan intelligence, according to investigations by Belgian authorities. The lobbying efforts were reportedly designed to sway the EP in Morocco’s favor.

Subsequently, on January 19, 2023, the EP passed a resolution denouncing Morocco for the unfair trial and imprisonment of journalists and regime critics based on what human-rights NGOs called “fabricated evidence.” The Moroccan parliament responded on January 23 with a vote to “reconsider its relations with the European Parliament,” with Moroccan media insisting that France had influenced the EP’s decision.

Western Sahara

Western Sahara, a vast territory along North Africa’s Atlantic coast, has been the subject of Moroccan sovereignty claims since Spain withdrew in 1973. Rabat’s quest for control over the area has been a persistent point of contention with Algeria, which has supported the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, since its declaration of independence in 1976. In Rabat, Algeria’s support for the Polisario Front is seen as a strategic move to curb Moroccan territorial expansion and secure Algerian access to the Atlantic.

The United Nations, through its mission MINURSO, has sought to mitigate hostilities and has advocated for a self-determination referendum since 1991. As an alternative, Morocco offered “extended autonomy” for the region under Moroccan sovereignty. However, the proposed referendum has stalled, with both sides attempting to sway the demographic balance in their favor, leading to a stalemate. France, while backing the UN’s efforts, has historically supported Morocco’s position at the UN, countering Algerian-led destabilization attempts. 

Things changed in December 2020. United States President Donald Trump, in a complete reversal of the U.S. position, recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for its signing of the Abraham Accords on Arab-Israeli normalization. Some 60 other countries, including Germany, Spain and Israel, followed suit. But not France. 

Read more on Western Sahara

It gave Rabat more leeway, and it more openly supported self-determination of the Algerian province of Kabylia. Algiers broke its diplomatic relations with Rabat in December 2021. In a speech in August 2022, King Mohammed VI stated that the Western Sahara question was “the prism through which Morocco considers its international environment and … the measure of sincerity of friendships and the efficiency of partnerships it would establish.” The message was clearly aimed at France.

French leadership may have an ulterior motive in their dealings with Morocco, aiming to curb its ascent. The French elite might harbor discomfort over the emergence of their former protectorate as an independent and assertive player on the international stage, particularly in light of Morocco’s burgeoning ties with the U.S. and its strengthened security relationship with Israel.

Morocco’s critics occasionally label it a “narco state” due to its significant production of cannabis, a major source for European markets. Positioned at the northern gateway to Africa at the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco is also perceived by some as leveraging its strategic location as a bargaining chip in managing migrant flows to Europe.



Less likely short-term scenario: France maintains a balanced approach between Algiers and Rabat

France finds itself in a delicate position toward Algiers, especially in light of its stance on Morocco, for several reasons.

First, for multiple decades, France has tried to maintain its traditional delicate balance between the two countries, never shutting the door to Algeria. Cynics could say it is also a divide-and-rule strategy.

Second, the ongoing energy crisis in Europe has heightened France’s reliance on new gas providers. Algerian natural gas represented 8 percent of its imports in 2022. While a year ago France planned to increase its Algerian gas imports by 50 percent, some Maghreb media report that during the first half of 2023 Paris actually boosted it by 90 percent. This makes it challenging for France to take a firm stance on the Western Sahara issue.

Third, the substantial Algerian demographic within France presents a complex socio-political dynamic. Many individuals of Algerian descent have not fully reconciled their identities between their ancestral homeland and France. There is a concern that overt French support for Morocco over Algeria could spark unrest anew in the volatile suburbs of France.

Fourth, some analysts speculate that President Macron aspires to be the leader who resolves the longstanding post-colonial tensions between France and Algeria, a historical issue that has persisted for 60 years since the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Achieving this would be a significant historical feat.

Given these factors, French leaders are hesitant to make a definitive choice between Morocco and Algeria, as doing so could disrupt the intricate equilibrium they are striving to maintain. 

This scenario of status quo was the most likely throughout most of 2023. However, on October 19, Morocco appointed a new ambassador in Paris, Franco-Moroccan journalist Samira Sitail. Additionally, on October 30 at the UN Security Council, French permanent representative Nicolas de Riviere paid tribute to MINURSO’s reconduction for a year and reiterated France’s support for the initial Moroccan plan of autonomy. The remarks were clearly meant to seek a rapprochement.

More likely short-term scenario: France bets on Morocco

On November 13, the French Ambassador in Rabat Christophe Lecourtier announced the end of visa restrictions in an interview on Moroccan Radio 2M. Most notably, he apologized for the measure and stated that France would be a “constant, loyal, dynamic and creative ally” of Morocco regarding Western Sahara. Atypically, he also praised the King’s “admirable” governance. Observers believe it is an indication that Mr. Macron might be preparing to take the next step, namely recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. 

Cooperation with the kingdom is essential in matters of migration controls and intelligence to counter terrorism in Western Africa, as well as for trade and investment. Economic ties with Morocco are at stake: the high-speed rail project extending from Casablanca to Marrakech could potentially be awarded to a Chinese firm instead of a French one, despite the latter having constructed the Tangier-Casablanca section. Additionally, earlier this year the head of the French business association had been advised to delay his planned visit to Morocco, indicating the sensitive nature of current Franco-Moroccan relations at the time.

Several French politicians think Algerian leadership is all too happy to seize the opportunity to make France beg for gas. The former French colony recently added an anti-French verse to its national anthem. Algeria’s rapprochement with Moscow in 2022 as it joined BRICS was a clear signal that the country intends to keep its options open. There are good odds that Algiers will quickly disappoint Paris. French leadership may likely determine that Algeria is a lost cause and that Morocco, an old friend and ally, is its best bet. In May, former French Minister of Justice Rachida Dati and leader of the center-right Les Republicains Eric Ciotti visited Morocco with a clear message in favor of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. 

Given the very recent detente and the expectations created, it seems unlikely that Paris could now backpedal. In this context, Mr. Macron’s recent critique of Israel’s bombings in Palestinian territories may be interpreted as an attempt to appease the predominantly pro-Palestine Algerian population, both in Algeria and France.

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