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Macron's tightrope act with Algeria and Morocco

Macron's tightrope act with Algeria and Morocco
5 min read
24 October, 2022
In-depth: Grappling with an energy crisis at home, and losing ground on the African continent, Macron's diplomatic choices in the Maghreb seem reduced to two options: implausible balance or risky allegiance.

Building bridges with Algiers without burning those established with Rabat has become French President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic mission impossible.

Since his first election victory in 2017, relations with both North African frenemies have cast a shadow on Macron’s diplomacy in the region, with colonial open wounds, economic interests, and politicians’ egos playing key roles in shaping this controversial tripartite relationship.

Today, grappling with a nationwide gas crisis at home, and losing ground in the African continent, Macron’s diplomatic choices in the Maghreb remain limited.

“To grasp Moroccan diplomacy we need to be aware that the king's informal one-to-one relationships are often more important than the relationships between formal institutions,” explained the France-based socio-political analyst Wassim Ouameur in an interview with The New Arab.

Indeed, the apogee of Franco-Moroccan relations was during the mandate of Jacques Chirac under the infamous “Mamounia diplomacy”, a method of informal, personal diplomatic ties.

This one-of-a-kind diplomacy died under the socialist administration of Francois Hollande and Macron showed little interest in reviving it.

“Macron and Mohamed VI have shown a certain coldness in their relationship,” added Ouameur.

Their ties, however, had started on a good note in 2017. Newly elected Macron broke the long-standing presidential tradition of starting the mandate with an official visit to Algeria. He went instead to Rabat and stayed in the King’s palace in what media described as a "friendly visit”.

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Since then Macron has visited Morocco several times, mainly to inaugurate France-sponsored projects in the North African Kingdom.

Although speculative, the first signs of coldness started showing right after the Pegasus scandal.

In 2021, the daily Le Monde said the cell phones of French President Emmanuel Macron and fifteen members of the French government may have been among potential targets in 2019 of surveillance by spyware made by the Israel-based NSO Group. The Moroccan king was also among the targets.

According to the French newspaper, the client was an unidentified Moroccan security service. Macron said he asked Morocco and Israel for clarifications. Rabat has denied all the allegations.

Since then, communication between the two leaders, Macron and Mohammed VI, has reportedly stopped, despite their geographical proximity.

Macron visited Algeria in August. [Getty]

In the last two years, the Moroccan King has spent some time in his residence in the 7th arrondissement in Paris, a stone's throw from the Élysée, according to the pan-African magazine Jeune African.

In August, Macron visited Algeria to try to heal colonial-era wounds he had reopened with his statements in 2021, when he dismissed Algeria’s history and said the country's past "was rewritten to seed hate against France".

In a video with his supporters earlier this summer, the French leader said a visit to Morocco could happen in October.

But with the month coming to an end, Macron has yet to deliver on his promise. 

Instead, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, accompanied by fifteen ministers, headed to Algiers in September to “mend the friendship," saying "gas is not on the table".

Abdessalam Jaldi, a Moroccan international relations specialist, argues that Franco-Algerian relations can not be reduced to the issue of gas, although Paris clearly endeavours to secure an energy deal with the country.

“It is important to understand that for historical reasons (the 132 years of French colonisation of Algeria), demographic reasons (the weight of the Algerian diaspora and the pieds noirs in France), and geographical reasons (the 1,200 km of Algerian maritime space directly bordering the French Mediterranean coast), Algeria will occupy for a long time, in the eyes of France, a place of first importance that neither Morocco nor Tunisia will be able to replace,” Abdessalled Jlaidi, a Moroccan political analyst, told The New Arab.

Nevertheless, the French diplomatic rush is indeed stimulated by the social anger rocking France over gas shortages after halting its partnership with Russia during the invasion of Ukraine.

“French domestic social unrest over purchasing energy and fuel prices will further hasten the French government to conclude an agreement with Algeria,” socio-political analyst Wassim Ouameur argues.

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At home, Macron is facing discontent over shortages at gas stations, along with labour strikes and fierce opposition in parliament, which may try to bring down his government this month over a disputed budget bill.

Blessed with a gas reserve of 4,504 billion cubic meters, Algeria has the strategic power to negotiate deals and friendships on its own terms as world powers thirst for gas supplies amid the global energy crisis.

Ouameur expects the Western Sahara dispute to be at the heart of these terms, as both Rabat and Algiers pursue tactical gambits to checkmate each other in the decade-long dispute.

“But at what price [will Algeria agree to supply France with gas]? The recognition of the Sahrawi SADR [self-declared state claiming authority over the disputed territory of Western Sahara]? Probably not, it would have irreversible consequences with Morocco,” added Ouameur.

The France-based expert argues that Macron will most likely try to stick to neutrality on the dispute - an implausible option as both countries are pushing allies to pick sides in the geopolitical conflict.

Leaving Rabat out of French official visits to the region raised doubts as to whether Paris had already made its choice between North African partners.

Today, Paris and Rabat have no official diplomatic envoys, and state-owned and state-influenced newspapers are running anti-France pieces. Rabat’s latest decision to replace French with English as the first foreign language at schools was widely interpreted as burying the last memory of its former coloniser.

But Paris is Rabat's primary foreign investor, primary trade partner, and primary creditor - by far.

Ouameur argues that taking a "clear-cut" position on the North African discord is unlikely to happen at least during Macron’s mandate.

“The French President sees himself as a sort of 'chosen one' who will solve what no one has been able to solve before him, whether it concerns internal or external issues,” said Ouameur.

“France will try to play the balancing act, the real question is whether Morocco or Algeria will, this time, accept this attitude,” added Ouameur.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma