Morocco filed a lawsuit late Tuesday against a French human rights group who is suing the chief of its domestic intelligence service, known by its French acronym DST, for complicity in torture.
The move threatens to re-ignite a rare diplomatic quarrel with former colonial power France prompted by a game of high-stakes telephone in February, which had Rabat condemning inflammatory statements attributed to a French ambassador, as quoted by Spanish actor Javier Bardem in a French periodical. The row heated up when DST chief Abdellatif Hammouchi was served with a French lawsuit outside of diplomatic channels. Despite overtures from French President François Hollande himself, Morocco suspended judicial cooperation with its longtime ally, and launched a charm offensive on the African continent in search, it would seem, of new friends.
Beyond the slight to Morocco’s reputation – the offending statement referred to the country as “a mistress… with whom (France is] not particularly in love” – the issue here looks to be Paris’ support for Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara. (The lawsuit irking Rabat was filed by a French-based activist organization working on behalf of refugees from the region.) Yes, the Elysée has traditionally backed Rabat’s position on the disputed territory, notably urging against a resolution for the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to the region to monitor human rights last year, taking a stance off kilter with much of Europe. But in the lead up to a U.N. vote on the extension of its Western Sahara mission in April, that support has been, if not flagging, then certainly less visible.
But despite the very tangible freeze on judicial cooperation – i.e., delays in prisoner transfers, extraditions, and civil procedures for dual French-Moroccan citizens — and Tuesday’s lawsuit, the potential gains for Rabat are few. Morocco can ill afford a long-lasting chill with its primary economic partner and foreign investor. The Elysée has denied its ambassador made the alleged “mistress” statements, meaning a formal apology is unlikely. An overt show of support for Morocco’s Western Sahara stance is equally out of the question, what with France under renewed pressure from domestic activists over the issue.
What’s more, the Moroccan parry is ill timed. With French voters lukewarm about his Africa endeavors – see Mali, C.A.R. – President Hollande is unlikely to invest energy in what is after all Rabat’s fight: the Western Sahara. In light of his recent efforts to move away from France’s historical “gendarme” role in Africa, the unpopular French leader may be particularly recalcitrant to be associated with the sensitive issue. And despite the rumblings in Rabat, Hollande looks focused more than ever on his domestic agenda in the wake of his Socialist Party’s disastrous performance in municipal elections Sunday amid troubling gains made by the far right. For now at least, Morocco’s indignation is shaping up to be little more than an irritation for the Elysée, which has more immediate problems to resolve.