A game of high-stakes telephone is threatening to amplify tensions between France and its former colony Morocco. On Sunday, Rabat issued a strong condemnation of statements attributed to the French ambassador to the United States François Delattre, who in 2011 reportedly described Morocco as a “mistress with whom we sleep every night, with whom we are not particularly in love, but we must defend” — a veiled allusion to the kingdom’s controversial stance on the disputed Western Sahara territory — by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, as quoted in French publication Le Monde on Thursday. The Elysée is denying the comments were ever made.
The anger from Rabat, which deemed the statements “outrageous and acceptable,” comes a few days after the head of Morocco’s domestic intelligence services (DST) Abdellatif Hammouchi was served with a French lawsuit alleging complicity in the torture of Sahrawi activists from the Western Sahara. Adding insult to injury, Hammouchi was alerted of the suit by seven police officers at the Moroccan embassy in Paris who had sidestepped all diplomatic channels. Morocco’s response? Summon the French ambassador in Rabat to protest the charges and delay the scheduled visit of France’s special environmental envoy to Morocco on Monday. With Paris’ tepid attempts to diffuse the situation getting zero traction (the French government called the incident “regrettable”), tensions remain high after a new torture lawsuit was filed Sunday against Hammouchi, this time by former boxer Zakaria Moumni, who was detained for nearly two years between 2010 and 2012.
The spat threatens to draw Paris into a sensitive issue on the African continent, which it has more or less skirted around successfully — until now. On February 17, the Polisario Front Representative in Paris — a separatist group claiming the Western Sahara, with the backing of neighboring Algeria — accused France of “blocking the settlement of the question of Western Sahara.” Five days later, Polisario representative Omar Mansour spoke for the first time before the French National Assembly to request that France help create a U.N.-linked body to monitor human rights in the region.
Little wonder that Morocco is on the defensive when it comes to the disputed territory, especially with the country’s other stalwart Western ally — the United States — wavering on the subject. In April 2013, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice introduced a resolution, which was narrowly defeated, that would have extended the U.N.’s Western Sahara mandate to include human rights violations. Now, the extent of France’s support is looking questionable as well. Hence, perhaps, Morocco’s’ recent African charm offensive, which debuted this August when King Mohammed VI directed his diplomatic corps to prioritize relationships with “our brothers on the continent.” This month has the monarch touring sub-Saharan Africa, in what many view as a precursor to Morocco’s return to the African Union. (The country pulled out of the organization in 1984 in protest of the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.)
Even as Rabat is working to bolster ties on the African continent — presumably to gain some allies on the Western Sahara front — France is seeing its relationships sour, and not just with Morocco. Take Rwanda, which welcomed the recent launch of a French genocide trial against former intelligence chief Pascal Simbikangwa as a symbolic end to France’s longtime lethargy in regards to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, but continues to protest France’s refusal to extradite Rwandan war criminals to be tried at home. In Mali, too, feelings are mixed towards the former colonial power. Nearly one year after French troops ousted jihadist fighters in the north, resentment at times outweighs gratitude, with heated accusations of imperial meddling coming sporadically from Bamako.
If the lawsuits against Hammouchi go to trial, look for similar accusations to emanate from Rabat, adding to France’s negative press on the continent. This as the Elysée’s misjudged campaign in war-torn Central African Republic drags on, with a parliamentary vote planned for Tuesday to extend the mission’s duration. Despite its efforts to pull back from its engagement on the continent, France’s Africa problem will get worse before it gets better. If it does get better at all.