France – Maghreb: Macron, Mohammed VI, Tebboune and Saïed… The impossible equation

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Friday, 7 October 2022 12:14

Vehicles pass Algerian and French flags, ahead of the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron, in Algiers, Algeria August 25, 2022. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

Aware of its declining influence, France’s President Emmanuel Macron visited Algiers at the end of August in a bid to reactivate the country’s North African policy. However, amid ongoing regional tensions, Paris is sailing in troubled waters.

The Petit Robert dictionary defines misunderstanding as “a difference in interpretation between people who thought they understood each other, or sentimental disagreement”. These two definitions describe the formerly privileged state of relations between Paris and Rabat. Since France decided, a year ago, to drastically reduce the number of visas granted to Moroccan nationals, including Francophile figures accustomed to going back and forth between the Mediterranean’s two shores, incomprehension has been reigning on the kingdom’s side.

At the centre of the quagmire is the insufficient number of consular passes that Morocco has issued to allow the repatriation of its nationals who have been ordered to leave French territory (OQTF). Paris refused to budge even though Morocco said it could not accept people who often did not have proof of their Moroccan citizenship, hence the “difference in interpretation”.

The “sentimental disagreement” arises over the Sahara situation. Once at the forefront of supporting Morocco in this regional crisis, France has since seen several Western countries – the US, Israel, Spain and Germany – go even further, either by recognising Moroccan sovereignty over this disputed territory or by declaring that the Moroccan autonomy plan constitutes “the most serious basis for resolving the conflict”. As indicated in King Mohammed VI’s 20 August speech, Rabat now expects Paris to show further proof of its ‘love’.

The limits of “at the same time”

The problem is that any French inflexion in this direction would automatically end up irritating Algiers, with whom Macron has just ended a diplomatic crisis that lasted several months. Fully committed to a policy of historic reconciliation with Algeria, the results of which are uncertain, to say the least, Macron cannot now turn back midstream, unless he recognises the failure of his Algerian policy. He thus made sure that his first Maghreb trip during his second term was to Algeria.

In another context, for example, during the Bouteflika years, when Algerian diplomacy had become mute, the French head of state could perhaps have played a mediating role between Rabat and Algiers.

However, despite some signs of appeasement on both sides, Algerian and Moroccan diplomats have been demonstrating their growing tension on the issue for several months. Not a week goes by without representatives from the two “brotherly countries” calling each other names: the prospect of a new open conflict between the two neighbours is no longer science fiction.

In other words, the French president is walking on eggshells and should take care to refrain from expressing himself on the subject… when that is precisely what the Cherifian sovereign is asking him to do. Although the interested party announced that Macron would visit Morocco following his Algerian stay, the negotiations behind the scenes, ahead of this official trip, have hit some roadblocks.

The Tunisian card

Faced with the decline of French influence in the region to the benefit of new actors – Israel and Turkey in particular – the French president feels he can redeploy his influence in the evolving Tunisian regime. Forsaken by the US, which does not support President Kaïs Saïed’s growing autocratic tendency, the French president is more willing to work with Tunisia.

In the aftermath of a constitutional referendum that failed to respect the most basic rules of any democratic exercise, the French president described the ballot as “an important step in the ongoing political transition process” and assured the Tunisian head of state of Paris’ support in the discussions between Tunisia and the IMF.

The French president’s major challenge is to now relaunch the very strategic Franco-Moroccan friendship…

Even so, the regional context does not make the task any easier for the Élysée. Departing from Carthage’s traditional “active neutrality” regarding the Sahara crisis, Saïed saw fit to receive – in person – the head of the SADR Brahim Ghali, during the 8th TICAD summit that was held in Tunis at the end of August, which provoked Rabat’s predictable anger.

Dependent on subsidies from Algiers, Tunisia is no longer sheltered from the splinters caused by the Sahrawi conflict. Morocco has now identified it as fully “pro-Algerian”.

The French president’s major challenge is to now relaunch the very strategic Franco-Moroccan friendship, achieve a historic reconciliation with Algiers and regain his place as Tunisia’s main “sponsor”. These objectives may seem contradictory to some, even impossible to achieve “at the same time” in such a context.

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