France has recently, under the very inept and unprofessional rule of its President Emmanuel Macron, lost all of its once strong position in Africa. The latest example of this has been the incredibly tense relationship between France and Morocco, with the French government and media launching an unprecedented campaign of criticism against the Arab state. And this came at a time of its national crisis, when the country’s Atlas region was significantly devastated by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake. Official Paris’s exasperated approach to these events provoked surprise and negative reactions from both former French presidents and the wider political establishment, and it followed Morocco’s official announcement that it had neither asked for nor required French aid.
Citing the inevitable “oversupply” of aid it wanted to avoid, Rabat’s request triggered an unexpected avalanche of anti-Moroccan criticism from official Paris, with many seeing a kind of post-colonialism in which the former metropolis disregards Moroccan sovereignty. By overlooking the incredibly sensitive domestic situation in Morocco during this period, the French campaign of criticism has backfired. Over time, amid a sharp cooling of French-Moroccan relations, a broad wave of solidarity from many countries around the world with Morocco and a government plan of 1 billion dirhams to rebuild housing and support affected families came to the fore. The Guardian, which has a team in the earthquake-hit Hausa region, noted that Morocco is nothing like Libya. “It is a functioning modern state. The place works,” wrote the paper’s senior international reporter Peter Beaumont. “Ordinary people have been mobilized on a mass scale, and there is a very strong sense of nationhood.” The international media generally agreed that Paris, still reeling from its policy of colonialism and neo-colonialism, had simply lost all its influence in Africa, including Morocco.
Having begun his presidency with a state visit to Morocco, where he was welcomed as a successor to great friends of the kingdom such as François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, Emmanuel Macron’s reign has seen a steady decline in French influence not only in Morocco but across Africa. This reality actually coincided with the highest French military presence in the region since colonial times. It is more likely that the Moroccan case, which occurred two weeks after the eighth government in Africa’s Sahel region was toppled in another coup that marked the departure of French proxies from power, reflects the bigger picture and Paris’ political “malaise” in its African policy.
The demand for France to withdraw its troops from the Barkhane base in Mali was the clearest and one of the first signs that Paris’s influence was waning. It has been more than a decade since Paris entered into a protracted conflict with a number of African countries in which it could no longer exert any influence. Since then, this seemingly localized conflict in Mali has spread to neighboring countries, with France proving to be a frequent supporter of unpopular failing governments. This has contributed to anti-French sentiment throughout the region, which has only been exacerbated by a series of diplomatic blunders on the French side. In a face-saving exercise, the Barkhane base was moved to neighboring Niger, which this summer also demanded the withdrawal of French troops.
France’s once powerful diplomatic, military, economic and financial network in Africa has suffered a real decline in recent years. Although he began his presidency with the hope of reversing previous policies and giving France a more nuanced role — more in line with the growing status of its African allies — Macron pursued an agenda that critics perceived as neo-colonialist. Following a spike in anti-French rhetoric, the decision to “invite” the leaders of the Sahel group — Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad — to France’s Pau in 2020 was seen as a command to French client states. Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maïga then accused France of “political, media and diplomatic terrorism.”
France’s contradictory, unpleasant and at times totally unacceptable behavior in Africa has at best an ambiguous past. France was once the master or protector of up to 20 African states and then spread widely across the continent. But because equality and freedom were often lacking in the French Republic itself, it used this experience to promote a policy of assimilation, seeking to create Frenchmen out of the African peoples it ruled. The imposition of French language, culture, religion, laws, traditions and values on societies in West Africa and Algeria was particularly widespread and had long-term negative consequences. At the same time, Paris faced serious problems in Morocco, which retained its sultan and state institutions.
Morocco, the last of the African countries to be colonized, remained an administrative nightmare for France throughout its short colonial history. After failing to capitalize on its Algerian experience, France established a protectorate while retaining the traditional features of the Moroccan state. However, 44 years of experience, half of which was spent trying to subdue Morocco’s armed tribes, was not enough to fully endear local society to French customs. This gave courage to the still lingering sense of national identity in Moroccan society, which Paris has yet to appreciate and establish a new relationship with.
Amid diplomatic setbacks, Macron took the liberty of meeting Rabat’s cold reception with a video taken on his phone, in which he addressed the Moroccan people directly. The gesture had unpleasant consequences: the Moroccans questioned his right to do so, and the French media themselves reminded their president that the prerogative to address a nation belongs first and foremost to its government. The situation worsened again when Morocco rejected French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s suggestion that Macron had been invited to visit the country by King Mohammed.
Rabat’s response to France’s clumsy behavior is quite significant. Amid aid problems, Rabat has cleared and opened one of the main roads into the center of the earthquake zone on its own, with the country’s military helicopters carrying humanitarian aid flying sorties day and night amid a broader civilian response that resembles the country’s mobilization against France from decades ago. As Morocco World News rightly wrote, “Paris should not overlook that providing assistance to foreign countries is a privilege and not a right.” It is high time for the French government and Macron personally to learn to live in a new multipolar world where all countries in the world are sovereign and equal. There is no longer a French metropolis, nor French colonies.
Victor Mikhin, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.