France/Morocco: Visa problems intensifying tensions between Rabat and Paris

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Thursday, 7 October 2021 14:53

French and Moroccan Foreign Ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Nasser Bourita (r.) at a press conference in Rabat, 9 October 2017. Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP/SIPA

At the end of September, Gabriel Attal, France’s government spokesman, announced that the country would be reducing, by half, the number of visas that it grants to Moroccans. He explained that this was in response to the low number of laissez-passer passes that the kingdom had issued to its nationals, who were obliged to leave French territory (138 passes for 3,301 people that were in the country illegally).

Although Rabat did not react as strongly as Algiers, the French and Moroccan positions seem to be rather irreconcilable, with each one passing the buck.

This is a recurring problem between Paris and Rabat, which had, among other things, motivated Gérald Darmanin’s visit in October 2020. The French interior minister had then said: “that it was only natural […] that they [the kingdom’s nationals that were in France illegally] should return to Moroccan territory”.

Similarly, the best way of ensuring minors’ protection was by returning them “to their families in Morocco or to Moroccan educational centres”.

Clearly, the French authorities felt that the Moroccan response was insufficient. Member of parliament Jérome Lambert (Socialist Party) is a member of the France-Morocco friendship group. He told us that he believes the kingdom “must accept responsibility for returning its nationals”.

“Blackmail situation”

The same view was expressed by Belkhir Belhaddad, a member of the presidential majority and also a member of the parliamentary friendship group between the two countries: “Of course we must maintain cordial relations with Morocco, but also a demanding partnership in the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration.”

Although Lambert says that it would “be unfortunate to go so far as blackmail”, he is not very surprised by this announcement, which, according to him, could have been made much earlier, as the difficulties are long-standing. He sees it as a way of putting pressure on the three central Maghreb countries to make them accept that it is their responsibility to ensure that their nationals return home.

“What has changed is the way the problem is posed,” he says. In his eyes, this announcement’s timing suggests that, given the upcoming presidential election, the French government wants to show that it can be firm on issues that are important to French public opinion.

On the Moroccan side, there is anger. Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s foreign affairs minister, described this measure as “unjustified”.

A Moroccan diplomatic source denounces “this decision that France had made without consulting or receiving any prior information from Morocco.” He says “responsibility for executing repatriation measures from French territory falls under the exclusive and direct competence of the French authorities.”

Ahmed Faouzi, a former Moroccan ambassador, says: “From the outside, one has the impression that political life is now being dominated by a real ‘zemmourisation’, [Editors’ note: Éric Zemmour is a far-right French politician] which now influences President [Emmanuel] Macron’s international policy.”

We’re going to annoy the people in the ruling circles, who used to get visas easily.”

He reiterates that in order to decide whether an illegal immigrant should be expelled and given a consular pass, it is still necessary to determine their identity and nationality.

This is a complex process insofar as most of the people targeted by the authorities do not have any documents and do not easily reveal their true identities. Moreover, given the ongoing pandemic, any person who is repatriated must be vaccinated against Covid-19, which cannot be imposed.

According to Faouzi, if these two conditions are met, then Moroccan nationals are allowed to be repatriated. “We have always managed to maintain exceptional relations with France through dialogue and consultation,” he says.

He also adds that France must not forget that it needs Morocco to consolidate its economic presence in Africa.

This aspect does not escape Lambert, who says that the terms used by Macron to refer to foreign leaders and nationals are “incomprehensible”, with regards to diplomatic practice.

“We’re going to annoy the people in the ruling circles, who used to get visas easily,” said the French president on the sidelines of a meeting on 30 September with families who lived through the Algerian war.

Unaccompanied minors

This is a different issue, and yet the question of unaccompanied minors also contributes to the migratory tensions between France and Morocco.

In France, 16,760 people were declared unaccompanied minors between 1 January and 31 December 2019, 95.5% of whom were boys, according to the French justice ministry. Of these, 3.27% were reportedly Moroccan nationals.

According to Faouzi, the issue of unaccompanied minors is moreover an “epiphenomenon that should not ruin Morocco and France’s strategic and historical relationship”.

At this stage, reaching a short-term compromise on the migration issue does not seem to be on the agenda. Therefore, how will they get out of this impasse?

The former diplomat believes that it will be necessary to wait until after France’s presidential election has taken place to “serenely address the framework of our partnership”.

“This announcement is not based on any objective data regarding migration cooperation between Morocco and France, which is proceeding satisfactorily,” continues our diplomatic source. The source asserts that “the Moroccan authorities have honoured their commitments in terms of identifying and establishing [consular passes].”

“The Moroccan authorities cannot substitute themselves for the French authorities to overcome difficulties falling within their material and territorial competencies,” concludes the same source.

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