Breaking with a decades-long tradition of having Morocco as the first destination for a French President’s first official visit to North Africa, Francois Hollande’s two-day (April 3-4) stop in Morocco came three months after his historic trip to its rival Algeria in December.
The French President’s trip to Casablanca, the economic capital of Morocco, which was carefully planned by French and Moroccan business circles, and during which he was accompanied by nine ministers and more than fifty business leaders, signaled that France is aiming to consolidate relations with its main ally in the Maghreb. Hollande seeks to reclaim the Republic’s status as Morocco’s first commercial partner after losing that title to Spain last year.
Despite the fact that his trip took place amid a political storm in France around the indictment of the former Minister, Jerome Cahuzac, Hollande’s agenda remained unchanged as he proceeded to sign thirty contracts and agreements particularly in the areas of rail transport, food, water treatment and renewable energy.
Considering recent developments in the region, including France’s military intervention in Mali, it is clear that the business partnership between the two countries was not the only thing on the agenda. Francois Hollande stressed France’s strong relationship with Rabat; its main, reliable and stable partner in the Maghreb. He thanked Mohammed VI for his support of the French military intervention in Mali, which the King went as far as to defend during the Islamic summit in Cairo, and for Morocco’s cooperation in dealing with a number of security threats in the wider Sahel region.
Also on the agenda for discussion was the Western Sahara, on which Morocco seemed optimistic and expecting a friendly gesture from its French ally. Although France supports the Moroccan autonomy plan as a ‘serious basis’ for discussion and a ‘negotiated solution within the framework of the UN’, it is unlikely that Hollande will explicitly support it as he has to tread carefully not to alienate Algeria, on which Paris is relying for its war in Mali.
Hollande’s visit to Morocco illustrated the strong bilateral relations between Rabat and its former colonial master. It was not only about developing the economic partnership as many expected, but also about politics as France seeks to strengthen its relationship with its main stable ally in a volatile region and biggest trading partner outside the EU.
Adra El Azzouzi is a King’s College London postgraduate, with international academic track record in Middle Eastern politics. She currently interns at ECFR as MENA Programme Assistant. Prior to that, she worked as a researcher at Chatham House.