As Morocco diversifies its economic partnerships, France vies for a seat at the table

France's growing interest in Morocco's resources could explain its seeming atonement of past French misdeeds after two centuries of colonial exploitation.

France thinks Morocco may be a source of future economic growth, but Rabat has widened its choices and has plenty of offers elsewhere.
Nash Weerasekera
France thinks Morocco may be a source of future economic growth, but Rabat has widened its choices and has plenty of offers elsewhere.

As Morocco diversifies its economic partnerships, France vies for a seat at the table

In the not-too-distant past, relations between France and Morocco were stiff. In September last year, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI chose not to accept French offers of help after an earthquake in the High Atlas Mountains killed thousands. He did, however, accept help from the UK and Spain.

It seemed to speak volumes, as did the year it took for Morocco to finally accredit France’s new ambassador to Rabat. As the former colonial power, France can get a rougher ride than others. Paris, whose soldiers recently had to withdraw from the Sahel, now needs its former colony on its side. For Morocco, increased trade with France is no bad thing.

France is already Morocco’s biggest foreign investor, with an $8.7bn stock as of 2022, and big French firms such as Renault and Safran have huge industrial facilities in the North African country.

Many suitors

Yet France is not the only interested party. Cash-rich China has long looked attractive to North African eyes, while other European states are shmoozing Rabat, which plays a key role in the Maghreb and Mediterranean.

Morocco's global appeal has made Paris more interested in improving relations—and they have been improving. At the end of April, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced that Paris was ready to help fund a 3-gigawatt power cable linking Casablanca to Dakhla in the Western Sahara, over which Morocco claims sovereignty.

West Sahara is claimed as the ancestral homeland of the Sahrawi people, but in recent years, the United States, Spain, and several Arab states have recognised Morocco’s claims over the sparsely populated desert territory.

Le Maire's announcement was preceded by a visit to Rabat from French foreign minister Stephane Séjourné, who said Paris backs Morocco's autonomy plan for the territory. It meant that the power cable was but one area of discussion.

Le Maire also said France would work with Morocco on solar, wind, green hydrogen, and nuclear power, while French development agency AFD would give a $375mn loan to help Morocco phosphates and fertilisers giant OCP to decarbonise.

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Read more: Morocco capitalises on its vast phosphate reserves

While there have been clear signs of improving relations, analysts note that ties are still not as warm as they were during the tenures of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. A diplomatic chill and a lack of confidence prevail.

Sticking point

In private, diplomats say the lack of official recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara from France is a sticking point. Rabat thinks Paris is pandering to Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front, which also claims sovereignty.

Xavier Driencourt, a former French ambassador to Algeria, claimed that Paris is set to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and that this "will be announced by President Emmanuel Macron himself during an upcoming visit".

There is now a flurry of diplomatic activity over timings, but Macron's trip seems like a culmination, with French ministers responsible for the interior, investment, economy, finance, and industry all having visited Morocco in recent months.

France's growing interest in Morocco's raw materials and energy resources could explain its seeming atonement or implicit acknowledgement of past French misdeeds after two centuries of colonial exploitation. French officials have kept repeating the same phrase of "building a shared future and overcoming the past." At the very least, this shows that France belatedly realises its future is linked to the southern Mediterranean.

To this end, it is building for a future in uncertain times. In Europe, Russia is waging a major land war for the first time in two generations, while views in the European Union are diverging on some of the biggest issues. Moreover, if elected, Donald Trump could threaten Europe's security protection, as afforded through NATO.

France is also struggling with its declining role, having recently been kicked out of the Sahel by states such as Mali and Niger, whose military coup leaders prefer Moscow and the mercenaries of the Wagner Group for back-up. Its ability to impact events around the world has been greatly diminished. Though it has tried, Paris has been unable to influence the conflicts in Gaza, Sudan, and Ukraine.

In short, the France that is seeking better ties with Morocco in 2024, is very different from the colonial France of the past. Whether Moroccans appreciate that, however, is a different matter.

France's growing interest in Morocco's resources could explain its seeming atonement of past French misdeeds after two centuries of colonial exploitation.

In need of a boost

Like other European states, France struggles to sustain any convincing economic growth. Rates of 0.5% and 0.8% do not set the pulse racing. Moreover, its borrowing now exceeds 116% of gross domestic product (GDP), and its 2024 budget deficit is 5.5% of GDP when the European Union's own financial rules say this should be no higher than 3%.

The government wants parliament to agree to cut spending by €10bn ($10.75bn) to €16bn ($17.2bn) to reduce the fiscal deficit. The timing is tricky with upcoming European elections, but Paris fears a downgrade by the credit ratings agencies.

Morocco seems to be faring better and is expanding economically. Support for Paris remains strong in government and business circles, but politically and even culturally, the North African kingdom has had eyes for others.

Moroccan colleges now teach in English, not French, for instance. Rabat agreed to normalise relations with Israel in return for Washington recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Keeping its options open, Morocco is also receptive to Chinese investment as part of Beijing's giant Belt and Road Initiative, while its trade with Russia has grown since the invasion of Ukraine.

Morocco sells food to Russia, while Russia sells Morocco oil and gas. Morocco then turns a blind eye when the Russian oil and gas are resold to Europe from Morocco's Mediterranean ports.

Spain has replaced France as Morocco's top economic partner, with bilateral trade exceeding €21bn in 2023, while trade with France was worth €16bn.

Diversifying partnerships

The kingdom seems determined to diversify its base of economic partners and is prepared to play its cards well. Its positioning (along the major Mediterranean and Atlantic trade routes) is one of its biggest attractions.

Over the last five years, Paris has bristled as Morocco awarded contracts to companies from Spain, China, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Australia, and Canada. It even picked Israeli satellites over French ones that were launched in 2017.

French firms are involved in big Moroccan construction projects, including stadiums, hotels, telecoms infrastructure, ports, airports, and high-speed rail links between cities such as Kenitra, Marrakech, and Agadir, yet they want warmer relations. At a recent economic forum, which brought business leaders together with Le Maire and his Moroccan counterpart Nadia Fettah Alaoui, delegates heard the revealing phrase: "France needs Morocco to open the door to Africa."

Several Moroccan industries look impressive, including banking, insurance, tourism, air transport, real estate, communications, infrastructure, and agriculture.

French companies want to collaborate with their Moroccan peers in the new Atlantic Africa Initiative, which aims to break the isolation of landlocked African countries and connect them to a network of roads and ports so that they can export their goods by sea. These lucrative mega-projects have financial backing from the United Arab Emirates and big international institutions.

Read more: Atlantic Africa: The new economic bloc on the block

Spain has replaced France as Morocco's top economic partner, with bilateral trade exceeding €21bn in 2023. Trade with France was worth €16bn, while trade with Germany was worth €7bn. The UK is now the top importer of Moroccan goods.

While France remains a key player in Morocco partly because it has a large expatriate community living there and partly because French tourists contribute so much to the Moroccan economy, Rabat has diversified, especially in renewables.

Green energy

A prime example is Xlinks—an ambitious proposal to build one of the world's largest renewable energy projects, transmitting electricity from southern Morocco to Britain via a 4,000km undersea cable to power 7 million homes.

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Read more: Morocco to light up Britain

Investment costs are huge, but various states, banks, and companies, including big Arab investors, have signed up. If it goes ahead, the project would use Saharan solar and wind energy to supply around 8% of Britain's energy needs.

Rabat is also working to extend a pipeline to transport green hydrogen to European markets by 2030—a project strongly supported by Berlin. If Morocco can attract global investors, up to $60bn will be invested in green hydrogen by 2050. According to the German Fraunhofer Institute, it aims to become the world's largest hydrogen producer with a capacity of 160 terawatt-hours.

Around 400 projects are seeking to produce thermal energy from Moroccan solar and wind sources in a major push to decarbonise by the end of the decade. This fits Europe's desire to transition away from dependence on fossil fuels. Russia's war on Ukraine turbocharged that process, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for green hydrogen to be part of the transition solution.

French sources told Al Majalla that Paris was still "very interested in renewable energy projects in Morocco, and we want to invest in them" but that the nation was keen "not to repeat past mistakes in the energy field".

Political choice

Le Maire picked up the point about past mistakes, saying: "We only engage in energy with countries with which we have strong friendship relations and complete trust; it is a political choice." During a speech in Rabat, Le Maire expressed his admiration for the construction of a Moroccan technology university and praised his hosts.

"I have studied a lot of literature, but I have not had the same level of education provided by modern Moroccan universities," he said.

"We have full confidence in Moroccan engineers, people, and institutions to build a common economic and industrial future."

It was recognised that France knew that Morocco had specialist knowledge in fields such as renewable energy, artificial intelligence, and precision industries.

Victor Lequillerier, an economist at Bpifrance Institute, a French innovation agency, said: "Morocco's strategy is to enhance its presence in the global value chains system, so some French offers may be less ambitious than the Moroccan economy's aspirations."

A nation known for mastering the art of seduction, the French may yet need to use all their charms to woo this resurgent former colony.

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