President Francois Hollande arrived in Morocco on Wednesday fresh from battling an explosive tax fraud scandal that risks overshadowing his landmark two-day visit to the former French colony.
Hollande, who was welcomed by King Mohammed VI in Casablanca, has sought to limit the fallout from the scandal and insisted before leaving Paris that ex-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac who was charged in a tax fraud probe “did not benefit from any protection.”
The president has been quick to condemn Cahuzac’s actions, saying he had committed an “unforgivable moral error” and denying any knowledge of a secret foreign account belonging to the ex-former minister once responsible for cracking down on tax evasion.
But critics have pounced on the scandal.
On the eve of Hollande’s visit, Cahuzac was charged with “laundering the proceeds of tax fraud” after finally admitting having had a foreign bank account for around 20 years.
After greeting Moroccan crowds in Casablanca, the country’s economic capital, the president will hold talks with the king and then speak to the city’s French community, an occasion when he will be hard pushed to ignore the tax scandal.
As the embattled president began his trip, the French opposition grilled the government in the National Assembly, demanding accountability.
For the moment there have been no changes announced to the visit, which aims to consolidate “a high-level relationship” with France’s top trade partner in the Maghreb, according to the office of Hollande, who is being followed by a large French press corps.
Morocco was upset that the president chose to visit its arch North African rival Algeria on his first visit to the French-speaking region three months ago.
But the page has since been turned in French-Moroccan relations, which Paris has described as “intense and fluid,” stressing Hollande’s good rapport with the king, who was the first head of state he received on becoming president last May.
Human Rights Watch has urged the French leader to raise concerns about “persistent” rights abuses in the kingdom, including torture in detention, unfair military trials, curbs on press freedom and the exploitation of child domestic workers.
Reporters Without Borders also said it had asked Hollande to raise press freedom concerns with the Moroccan authorities.
The first day of the visit, in which at least eight ministers and 60 French business leaders are taking part, will see some 30 agreements and contracts signed, notably in the transport, agriculture, water treatment and renewable energy sectors.
On Thursday, after visiting the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, Hollande will head to Rabat to meet Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and make a keenly awaited speech to parliament.
“He will use this forum to speak on the main issues” in the region, including Syria, Mali, the Arab Spring and Middle East peace process, said a source travelling with him.
Hollande is likely to emphasise that “Morocco has found the right path, is going in the right direction, in the context of the Arab Spring, which offers much potential but also brings risks,” according to a French diplomat.
He will also hail “the very clear position” of the king in favour of the French intervention in Mali, expressed at an Islamic summit in Cairo in early February.
On the Western Sahara, the ex-Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975 in a move not recognized by the international community, France continues to support Rabat’s proposal of autonomy under its sovereignty as a “serious and credible basis” for talks, and seeks a negotiated solution brokered by the U.N..
Algeria-backed Polisario Front separatists, who are demanding that Sahrawis be allowed to vote in a referendum on self-determination, called on Tuesday for France to revise its position.
Hollande Morocco trip clouded by French tax scandal