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Gusty winds from home chase Hollande on Morocco visit

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

Everything in President Francois Hollande’s first official visit to Morocco went according to script. Or, almost everything. Mr. Hollande’s gracious hosts did everything in their power to make his visit a success. There were also no major disagreements to start with. From the makeup of the accompanying delegations to the program of the visit or the tone of the discussions, it was clear both parties saw eye to eye in most of the issues at hand.

But neither the gracious hosts nor the accommodating guests could do anything about the perfect storm that the socialist president thought he had left behind in Paris.

On the eve of flying to Morocco, opinion polls showed that French public confidence in François Hollande’s leadership had sunk to a record 27%. (Even extreme right wing leader Marine Le Pen’s level of support was at a higher 32% rating). As Mr. Hollande stepped out of the country, the daily Le Monde added fuel to the firestorm by disclosing that his campaign treasurer, Jean-Jacques Augier, owned shares in Cayman Islands-based companies. The new disclosure came on the heels of the embarrassing admission by former minister of finance, Jerome Cahuzac, according to which he owned undeclared foreign bank accounts for the purpose of tax-evasion. Such a scandal-ridden atmosphere was not exactly the best backdrop for Mr. Hollande’s long-awaited visit to Morocco.

A “chasse gardée”-no-more

The traditionally-close ties between French “influencers” and Morocco have survived the leadership transitions in both countries. During the last few years, however, France was facing increasing competition in its former North African “chasse gardée”. Especially since the accession to the throne of King Mohamed VI, Morocco began diversifying its international partnerships and alliances in order to be better able to cope with the challenges of socio-economic development and regional security.

Even without stirring any new polemics, Mr. Hollande had enough concerns on his mind during the visit. The “political Tsunami” he thought he had left behind in Paris chased him to Rabat.

Oussama Romdhani

The North African kingdom has been seeking new venues of cooperation in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. With the limited prospects of inter-Maghrebi integration, Morocco ambitiously pursued stronger ties with the European Union. It entered into an Association Agreement and eventually acceded to EU Advanced Status. Hedging its bets, it set its sights on closer relations with the United States (with whom it signed a Free Trade Agreement, in 2004, and entered into a Strategic Dialogue, in 2012). Morocco has been also developing closer ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and with other nations such as China. Chinese imports from Morocco, including phosphates in particular, have for instance increased by 30% in 2011.

But what particularly got the attention of French, was the end of their position as top exporter to Morocco, last year. Whatever the reason for that, whether it was the fall of French wheat exports or the increased competitiveness of Spanish exports due to Iberian financial crisis, Spain has become Morocco’s “top supplier” -- not France.

Huge Economic Stakes

Despite the rising competition, France still remains Morocco’s first business and trade partner. “We are the number one investor in Morocco, with 6 billion Euros during the last decade and 1 billion in 2012,” noted President Hollande during his visit to Morocco.

France’s exports to Morocco have amounted to 4.3 billion Euros in 2012, although declining overall by a 9% margin. 750 French companies are now based in Morocco, employing 140,000 workers.

So it was not surprising that when Hollande came to Morocco, he was accompanied by no less than 60 business leaders. No major contracts were announced this time. Still, thirty agreements (totaling 300 million Euros) were signed during the visit. “De-localization” of jobs being unpopular with French trade unions, both sides expressed interest in the more palatable concepts of “co-production” and “co-localization”. The idea is to agree on “win-win projects”, i.e. projects that could provide French businesses with lower costs of production in Morocco while keeping part of their activity at home, or to agree on trilateral ventures linking French businesses with Moroccan and African partners. During the visit, King Mohamed VI called for the identification of “new fields of co-production, such as the already pursued globalized activities of car making, aeronautics and agribusiness”. Moroccan businessmen, with their wide network of business interests in Africa, tried to interest French investors into “trilateral ventures” in sub-Saharan Africa. They clearly had the blessing of their governments. “Both countries have agreed to support and develop the dynamics of internationalization of Moroccan and French companies in the direction of Africa,” said a joint statement at the end of Hollande’s visit.

Comparative edge

From a regional perspective, the French have been appreciative to the King for helping in the war in Mali but also for managing to keep his country away from regional turmoil and instability, by anticipating the crises which swept away Tunisian and Egyptian regimes.

The visit was therefore an occasion for the French president to salute Morocco’s ability to salvage the paradigm of moderation and gradual reform long-cherished by the West. “Morocco is in control of its own process of change. And that’s not easy. Going backward, falling into anarchy or withdrawing into oneself will constitute new threats for the region and the whole world,” said Hollande.

This favorable perception seems to be largely shared by French public opinion. A recent poll showed that 71% of the French had a positive impression of Morocco. As Tunisia and Egypt have learned after their revolutions, the outside perception of stability and security is crucial for attracting foreign tourists and investors. It has also become obvious to all that continued tourism and investments inflows are crucial for maintaining the stability of non-oil rich Maghreb nations as they face the fallouts of the nagging “youth bulge”.

France and Morocco see therefore a stake in keeping the relationship ripple-free. The French are today the first private investors and public fund-providers for Morocco. They are also the first nationality among foreign tourists visiting the kingdom. In 2011, there were 3.3 million French tourists who brought to Morocco a total of 1.7 billion Euros in revenue.

A “balancing Act”

Observers of French-Maghreb relations were nonetheless curious to see if Hollande succeeds in his balancing act of achieving greater proximity with Morocco, without jeopardizing the better relations he has managed to built with Algeria during his last visit there last December.

Many held their breath, for instance, to see if President Hollande would distance himself, one way or the other, from France’s already-stated position on the Western Sahara. Well, he didn’t. He just re-stated what already established policy on the issue. “France supports the Moroccan autonomy plan as a serious and credible base for a negotiated solution, in conformity with U.N. Security Council,” said a joint statement by the two heads of state. Much like the U.N. special envoy Christopher Ross, he said the current situation in the Sahel “makes it even more urgent” to reach a settlement of the Sahara problem. That is all he was willing to say.

President Hollande was not interested in stirring any controversy about an issue which had previously poisoned the relations of his predecessors with either Algiers or Rabat. Sometimes, with both.

Hollande knows that he still needs the good-will of the two Maghrebi nations, Algeria and Morocco, for all kinds of reasons including the ongoing French military intervention in Mali. Both countries have allowed French military jets to cross their airspace; and are said to be providing precious intelligence to Paris in the fight against Jihadists in West Africa and the prevention of terrorism in Europe itself.


The “Tsunami” at home

Even without stirring any new polemics, Mr. Hollande had enough concerns on his mind during the visit. The “political Tsunami” he thought he had left behind in Paris chased him to Rabat. Political developments in France seriously competed for the attention of the president’s official delegation as well as that of the 40-member press team supposed to be covering his 4th trip abroad.

It is not clear to what extent the controversy at home distracted Mr. Holland from his Morocco visit. But the serious domestic political crisis definitely prevented him from gaining any new capital from his second visit to the Maghreb.

The big remaining question, however, is whether the mounting political woes at home will allow Mr. Holland to focus adequately in the future on his foreign agenda, especially that his country is waging a war in Africa and is engaged in an increasingly-difficult battle to safeguard its economic interests abroad.

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Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

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