Can France afford to lose Morocco?

Published January 2nd, 2023 - 08:06 GMT
Bourita (R) with French FM Colonna
Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (R) receives his French counterpart Catherine Colonna in Rabat, on December 16, 2022. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

France’s influence in its former colonies in Africa is waning, to say the least. Mali has gone, Burkina Faso wobbling. But can Macron afford to lose Morocco?

Just recently it was reported that Wagner mercenaries were working for the government of Burkina Faso, a French satellite in West Africa which rarely takes the media spotlight, certainly not in the English-language mainstream press. This has started to spook the West, not to mention the Ghanaian government which regards them as a possible threat, as it appears to London and Washington that France is losing its influence in its former colonies and that – inevitably – Russia will replace it as a hegemony. 

They are right to be worried. This is already happening, albeit slowly, with the fall of Mali and the shift towards Russian assistance in Burkina Faso. All eyes are now on this west African state to see if it will go the full nine yards and break ties with the Elysee, although many would argue that even though this has not happened formally, in many ways it’s already done. It followed the textbook format of its neighbour Mali whose military junta clashed with Macron from day one; French media was banned for reporting on the opposition (always called ‘terrorists’ by the junta governments), followed by the expulsion of the French military. 

In the case of Mali, it was first French troops, then the media, then NGOs. In the case of Burkina Faso, NGOs and French troops are still there in small numbers but given the current paranoia from the present junta who only seized power a matter of months ago and their officers’ belief that it is the French which is supporting the previous leader, it is only a matter of time before the elite in Ouagadougou follows the Mali example.

50 percent gold reserves to Paris?

When that happens, then Burkina Faso will be once again featured on CNN and BBC as the new story of Africa’s failure to move beyond the military occupation post-colonial model of governance. Yet this French African satellite made the headlines just recently when a video clip of the new Italian Prime Minister went viral claiming that it was the French who “took” 50 percent of its gold reserves and, as a consequence, enslaved the country producing migrants which end up in boats seeking refuge in Italy. 

In fact, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s arguments were largely wrong. France doesn’t actually keep any of Burkina Faso’s gold, but it does keep some control of its economy – and many other West African francophone countries – via a currency set up by the French, which today, is largely regarded as a colonial hangover and rope around these countries’ necks. 

Meloni’s rant is factually incorrect, but its argument is a good one. If these countries could break away from the shackle of France and its colonial relationship with the Elysee, they might have a better chance of developing both politically and economically.

If Burkina Faso takes the next step in kicking out French troops from its country and looking more towards Russia for support, then there is a real danger that other francophone African states will follow the trend and France – and the West – will be out of half of Africa at the very least. Such an exodus would be unprecedented and may well be seen as part of the ‘great reset’ we all keep hearing about. But there are winners as well as losers.

And does the West completely have to concede defeat in such a scenario?

Morocco connection 

This is where Morocco comes in. Just recently, Macron sent a minister to Rabat to work with the Moroccans and prepare the ground for his own visit to the King in January. The fallout between Macron and Morocco, it could be said, is based on the former’s tougher stance on immigration. In reality, it is based on Macron’s failure to commit to a lucid stance on Rabat’s claims to Western Sahara. Media reported that relations had been restored when the Minister did the ‘grip-n-grin’ photo shoot with Morocco’s foreign minister and announced that all was well. But this is not the real story.

The truth is that the elite in Rabat are sick to the back teeth of Macron and France. Forget Burkina Faso and Mali. No one on the entire continent is more exhausted with the French than the Moroccans as their special relationship with the Elysee, in the end, gave them nothing but a migraine and a permanent feeling of the ‘morning after’ regret. 

The elite in Rabat would dearly like to go completely ‘non-aligned’ in the world and affix themselves to no Raft of Medusa, whether it be the EU, US, Russia or even its former colonial master, the French. The reality, though, is unlike Burkina Faso, which still relies heavily on French aid, the Moroccans are aware of the extent of French investment in Casablanca and are therefore tied to Paris whether they like it or not. But that link with French firms in Morocco may be the only contingent connection Macron may well have if things continue as they have been.

Grip-n-grin press conference

In the press conference in Rabat, for those with an astute sense of observation and protocol, Bourita did an extraordinary thing: he gave his speech in the local dialect darija, requiring his host to put on the earphones for translation. This has never happened before and, quite apart from being a diplomatic faux pas, it sent a double-barrelled message to Macron: Your time is almost up. We’re ready to shut down all relations with France if we have to.

And yet, it is Morocco and its relations with France which could save both Macron and the West in Africa. Morocco’s influence on the continent is growing at an impressive rate and is especially prevalent in these former French colonies, where it already has a banking presence there.

It is true, though, that the entire Arab world is moving towards the non-aligned model.

“The Arab world remains resistant to the prevailing trends in global geopolitics that insist on viewing the region’s engagements with the US, China and, to a lesser extent, Russia through the lens of great power competition,” writes Hafed Al-Ghwell. 

“In fact, most of the region is and will continue to align itself away from such a simplistic, patronizing dynamic by using the intensifying competition to pursue its own interests”.

The DC-based expert could have been talking about France and Morocco, which certainly shows the wounds of colonialism which can be seen everywhere in Morocco, not least of which in the painfully slow, humiliating process that Europeans have to go through simply to acquire residency – a bureaucratic nightmare which is a direct tit-for-tat reaction to how Moroccans are treated, it is believed, in Europe.

There’s no question that the Moroccans are battling with a complex with the French, who still seem to believe that it’s their role to point out Rabat’s human rights abuses, particularly with the recent string of arrests of those who don’t toe the line.

Yet while following the trend of GCC countries to become more ‘non-aligned’, Rabat can get a payback that only Abu Dhabi and Riyadh could dream of: it could replace France and become the new ‘go to’ player in the region for the EU and the Americans, exactly how Türkiye is between the West and Russia.

Morocco’s elite in Rabat though don’t have a great track record at seizing initiatives, its critics would argue. The administration is a long way from being called ‘dynamic’. It’s as though the entire machine is waiting for the palace to give the order to embrace the English-speaking world, where, in truth, all the foreign investment Morocco needs is waiting to be exploited. 

The often typical ‘two steps forward, three back’ jive which Morocco sometimes appears to be a victim of on the world circuit – recently by enjoying the spotlight of the World Cup, which was quickly overshadowed by the bribery scandal in the European parliament -  could be replaced by playing a central role in keeping these African francophone countries with the West, making Morocco a regional superpower which the US, France and the EU would have no choice but to respect.

Martin Jay is an award-winning British journalist based in Beirut who has worked for a number of international media titles including CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera as well as reporting on a freelance basis for the UK’s Daily Mail, The Sunday Times plus TRT World.

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