France urged to use 'earthquake diplomacy' in aid dispute with Morocco

North African diaspora rises to challenge in contrast to French government's troublesome official response

A collection point for earthquake victims at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens, northern France, ahead of a football match between Morocco and Burkina Faso. AFP
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French leaders are being advised to show humility and explore avenues to “earthquake diplomacy” after Morocco turned down initial offers of humanitarian assistance following the Marrakesh disaster.

While worldwide reaction has been prompt and constructive, France’s role as the North African state’s former colonial ruler and the focus of the Moroccan diaspora makes it an obvious source of aid and expertise.

Some 1.5 million people of Moroccan origin live in France. The flow of migrants has continued since Morocco gained independence in 1956 following unrest and violence that was serious but never comparable with Algeria’s bloody fight for statehood.

But despite the historic links, Morocco pointedly limited its initial appeal for international help to four countries – the UAE, Spain, Britain and Qatar – following the devastating earthquake on Friday night that has claimed at least 2,900 lives.

The exclusion of France was interpreted as a diplomatic snub. “Relations between the two countries are not good,” said a member of the heavyweight France 2 television team sent to present the station’s flagship news programme from the stricken country.

Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin told FranceInfo radio that his country should show humility and, amid the marked build-up of tensions, “put its flag in its pocket”.

Some are pinning hopes on the potentially healing effects of “earthquake diplomacy”. Pierre Vermeren, a French historian and Sorbonne professor, is among them. Morocco’s early unwillingness to seek French aid was a clear political sign, he said, but the disaster also offered a chance “to find a common language”.

Frustration among those ready to travel to the country has filled the TV channels. Tanguy Charrel, leading a rescue mission from a French firefighters’ charity, said his team was ready to go into action but needed authorisation from the Moroccan authorities. Other organisations reported similar obstacles, though some volunteers began work anyway.

Throughout France, volunteers are working tirelessly to handle the food, tents, medicine and other essentials donated in an outpouring of generosity as Morocco faces the aftermath of the earthquake.

Their efforts contrast sharply with the official impasse over the disaster.

Issues ranging from the disputed Western Sahara and relations with Algeria to French visas and electronic spying allegations explain Franco-Moroccan frostiness.

When the earthquake occurred, Morocco’s monarch Mohammed VI was in France, reportedly for medical treatment, though he flew home on Saturday. He will have seen President Emmanuel Macron’s immediate expression of shock and solidarity. But little love is lost between them.

Mr Macron has angered Rabat by refusing to recognise Moroccan sovereignty in the Western Sahara. The territory is also claimed by Algeria and the grievance is aggravated by France’s policy of rapprochement with Algiers. Diplomatic ties between the neighbouring Maghrebin countries were severed in 2021.

Morocco is additionally furious at France’s “unjustified” decision to cut the number of visas for its nationals wishing to settle there. The restriction, also covering Algeria and Tunisia, reflects French claims of foot-dragging by all three countries on the repatriation of illegal immigrants.

And in the so-called Pegasus affair, France accused Morocco of using Israeli spyware to monitor Mr Macron’s mobile phone conversations, a claim denied by Rabat. As a result of the tensions, Morocco has had no ambassador in France since February.

In a video message aimed at Moroccans, Mr Macron dismissed the polemic as a “non-existent” but divisive distraction, insisting France would stand alongside Morocco in the long term. But many observers are unconvinced.

“First of all there is resentment from the southern Mediterranean countries towards the West and Europeans,” Pacsal Ausseur, director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies, told Nice-Matin, a newspaper circulating along the Mediterranean coast of France with its large Moroccan population.

“France, as former colonial power in Africa, acts as a sort of lightning rod for this discontent.”

The first 72 hours after a major earthquake are regarded as crucial for pulling people alive from the ruins. Before-and-after satellite images of villages such as Ijoukak, a picture-postcard mountain community reduced to rubble by the force of the earthquake, demonstrate the importance of a rapid response.

That period was already about to elapse when France’s foreign minister, Catherine Collona, was telling French media “we have full confidence” in Morocco’s ability to manage the crisis. She dismissed as “inappropriate” questions on why Morocco appeared to have sidelined France.

She said France had already set aside €5 million ($5.37 million) for NGOs working to mitigate the damage and suffering. It is just as well, however, that Moroccans in France – and non-Moroccans who simply want to help – have risen to the challenge.

The French-Moroccan actor, director and humorist Jamel Debbouze, flew to Marrakesh as news of the earthquake broke, donated blood and stressed the need for aid efforts to continue “on all levels”. He urged tourists not to abandon Morocco, since their presence was essential to the country’s recovery.

From different strands of political thinking, the leaders of Paris’s socialist-run city council and the greater Parisian Ile de France region, led by the conventional right, have also set examples, each pledging €500,000 (US$537,000) to aid efforts.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent is appealing for €100 million in donations. Rebuilding the flattened areas of Morocco will take years and France will doubtless play its part.

Updated: September 14, 2023, 6:42 AM