The French ambassador’s claim that the Moroccan development commission gave France a progress report sparked outrage, serving Le Gal’s mission to embarrass Moroccan state institutions.
Washington, D.C. – Amid the controversy the French Ambassador to Morocco, Helene Le Gal, caused when she alleged the head of Morocco’s New Development Model Committee (CSMD), Chakib Benmoussa, gave her a presentation about the committee’s work, many social media users and commentators quickly attacked Benmoussa and called for his resignation. Some commentators even questioned his patriotism and fealty to Morocco.
If ever it turned out that Benmoussa shared a status update of the new development model, he would have committed a serious mistake and violated the sanctity of his duties. However, no one can say for sure whether or not he made the mistake, and all the statements and posts condemning him remain based on speculation and assumptions.
Many of those who rushed to attack Benmoussa were too hasty to judge and did not take into consideration the general context of Moroccan-French bilateral relations in recent months, nor the character of the French ambassador and her non-diplomatic, condescending tone towards Morocco. A careful examination of these elements might lead to different conclusions than the sensational narrative circulating online.
France losing its predominance in Morocco’s economy
The first element to consider is that, for several reasons, bilateral relations between Morocco and France have not been at their best for more than nine months. The main reason is France’s displeasure at losing its historical position as Morocco’s first trade and economic partner to Spain after maintaining the position for more than five decades.
France has not only lost its status as Morocco’s major economic partner, but also its position in terms of public tenders with Moroccan cities to equip public transit systems. After French companies were long the main provider of buses to the Moroccan market, Spanish companies became strong competitors in the past few years. Spanish companies were awarded the overwhelming majority of deals Moroccan cities recently concluded in the field of public transportation at the expense of French companies.
For instance, Spanish company ALSA has not only snatched transportation contracts in the cities of Tangier, Agadir, Marrakech, and Khouribga, but also won similar deals in Casablanca and Rabat.
It seems Morocco is also leaning towards contracting with Chinese companies to build the new high-speed railway between Casablanca and Marrakech—a move that would raise eyebrows in France, which has been accustomed for over decades to regard Morocco as its backyard and its milk cow to bring cash flow to the French economy and create thousands of jobs.
Divergence on regional issues
Additionally, Morocco and France diverge on several crucial regional issues, notably the Libyan crisis. Morocco played a leading role in hosting the Skhirat Agreement in 2015, which the UN considers, to this day, as the only framework capable of leading to a political solution in Libya. Meanwhile, France supports renegade General Khalifa Haftar, self-styled leader of the Libyan National Army, who turned against the Skhirat Agreement and the international political process.
France has also attempted to play an exclusive leading role in the conflict without taking into account the concerns and interests of Morocco. France did not lift a finger after the exclusion of Morocco from the Berlin Conference in January.
In September 2019, France convened a ministerial meeting to discuss the Libyan crisis on the sidelines of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. While it extended invitations to the US, Russia, Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Italy, China, the UK, as well as the representatives of the African Union, and the Arab League, it excluded Morocco.
Another proof of the deterioration of Moroccan-French relations in the past nine months is the failure of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to meet with his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, on the sidelines of the 74th UN General Assembly. Le Drian, meanwhile, met with the Algerian Foreign Minister, Sabri Boukadoum, to discuss economic and political issues, including the situation in Libya and Mali, as well as the Western Sahara conflict.
For the French minister to meet with his Algerian counterpart to discuss the issue of Western Sahara, which directly involves Morocco, and to avoid meeting with the Moroccan FM, knowing that such meetings have become a tradition between the Moroccan and French FMs in recent years, means that relations between Morocco and France are strained.
Macron’s unceremonious tweet about Morocco
Amid the silent tension between the two countries, French President Emmanuel Macron made a condescending tweet towards Morocco at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He urged Morocco on March 14 to take the necessary steps as soon as possible to repatriate French citizens stranded in Morocco. The tone of the tweet contrasted with another tweet he had just published in French and Italian, in which he spoke ceremoniously about a phone call he held with the Italian president regarding the COVID-19 crisis.
Macron’s tweet caused an uproar as thousands of Moroccans poured out their anger over his condescending tone. The tweet also prompted the Moroccan Minister of Tourism Nadia Fettah to issue a statement in which she said that “Morocco in no way acts by injunction or on an inappropriate order from foreign authorities. Our country treats tourists of all nationalities on an equal footing.” ”
In addition, Moroccans were dissatisfied with the appointment of French ambassador Le Gal because of her condescending character, lack of productive diplomatic experience, and left-wing orientations. While France has for decades appointed influential and respected personalities to lead its diplomatic mission in Morocco, it has not taken the same approach with Le Gal, who has become notorious for her indifferent attitude towards Morocco.
In an interview with the “Economies et Entreprises” magazine in April, Le Gal used a dry tone when speaking about relations between France and Morocco. At no point did she describe the bilateral relations as excellent, strategic, or friendly, as has always been the case when French officials spoke about Morocco. She rather described them as “fluid” and “dense.” Le Gal also failed to express her gratitude for the efforts Morocco had made to repatriate more than 20,000 French nationals who were stuck in Morocco after the border closure.
Nor did Le Gal mention ministers Bourita and Fettah or ambassador Benmoussa by name, but rather referred to their positions. The French ambassador’s choice of words suggested that there is a tension in bilateral relations and that France is unsatisfied with the steps Morocco has taken over the past few years to diversify its economic and political partners, to reduce its economic dependency on France, and to establish its position as a main economic partner for many sub-Saharan African countries.
Morocco-France rift comes to the surface
Le Gal’s tweet came less than 10 days after Moroccan news outlet Le360 published a report alleging that the French embassy had hired Omar Brouksy, a former journalist at Agence France-Presse- known for his unfriendly tone towards Moroccan institutions as an officer in charge of bilateral relations and civil society organizations.
The news report prompted many observers to question the rationale behind such an alleged appointment and to wonder whether it means France is leaning towards further escalating its latent tension with Morocco. Immediately thereafter, the French embassy in Rabat released a statement in which it denied the allegations, stressing that the French embassy is in “the service of the French-Moroccan friendship and works in full transparency with the Moroccan authorities.”
For a Moroccan website known to have close links to state institutions to publish such news is a clear indication that there is a rift in the relations between Morocco and France. It also suggests that Morocco is not satisfied with Le Gal and her approach to communication with Moroccan authorities.
The allegations contained in the Le360 report were arguably a tacit message from Rabat to Paris that the latter should review its policy regarding the diplomatic figures it sends to Rabat, and that Morocco is not satisfied with Le Gal’s lack of tact and diplomatic touch when dealing with Moroccan institutions.
Le Gal’s tit for tat
The context in which Le Gal posted the tweet about the new development model makes the hypothesis of foul play very plausible. The meeting that Benmoussa held with her was arguably similar to the meetings he held with ambassadors of other countries, such as the US and the UK, which indicates that he did not brief her on the development model’s details. Nevertheless, The French ambassador perhaps published the tweet as a tit for tat for the news that accused the French embassy of hiring a journalist hostile towards Morocco, as well as for the bad press coverage she receives in the country.
Le Gal is aware that a tweet such as the one she posted would create controversy in Morocco and embarrass Moroccan state institutions. This is exactly what happened. No sooner than Le Gal tweeted about her meeting with Benmoussa many started questioning his patriotism and allegiance to Morocco, as well as the credibility of the development model the King entrusted Benmoussa with drafting.
Today’s world is characterized by quick intertwined events and fast-spreading news. False news and allegations often take the form of truth solely because of their rapid spread, making reality a casualty. The truth was likely a casualty in the controversy Le Gal’s tweet caused.
Whoever called for the resignation of Benmoussa or questioned his patriotism did not do so based on absolute truth or full knowledge of the facts, but rather on a hasty and incomplete reading of reports on what happened during Benmoussa’s meeting with Le Gal. These commentators might have erred against Benmoussa and created a controversy unwelcome in a state that is striving to focus on crisis intervention, providing a service to the French ambassador and helping her succeed in her mission.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.