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French foreign minister in Morocco ahead of Macron visit

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna is in Rabat to prepare for next month's visit by French President Emmanuel Macron.
FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

PARIS — French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna met Friday in Rabat with her Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita. Both ministers said that the encounter was productive, reflecting the deep and long ties between the two countries in various domains.

Colonna arrived to the country Thursday night for a series of meetings to prepare an visit by the French president in mid-January.

Colonna traveled to Rabat the day after the historic semifinal soccer game in Doha between the French and the Moroccan national teams, with the Blues defeating the Lions of the Atlas 2-0. Many French fans of Moroccan origin celebrated in the streets of Paris after the game. They have dreamed of victory for the Lions and were disappointed by the defeat, but proud that the Moroccan team got as far as it did.

French President Emmanuel Macron had traveled to Doha for the game. Shortly after it, he congratulated the Moroccan players on their great performance at the Doha World Cup, tweeting, "To our Moroccan friends: Congratulations on this beautiful journey. You are making football history."

A statement issued that evening by the palace in Rabat read, "After the semifinal match of the 2022 World Cup, … King Mohammed VI had a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron. On this occasion, the sovereign expressed to the French president his congratulations for the qualification of the French team in the final of this prestigious competition."

The complicated colonial history between France and Morocco had been a frequent topic ahead of the match between France and Morocco. It clearly continues to overshadow bilateral ties and relations between the two civil societies. Beyond that difficult history, several disagreements between Paris and Rabat have emerged in the past year and a half. Only two months ago, after several months of tensions, dialogue resumed with a telephone conversation between the two leaders.

The three main issues of divergence between Paris and Rabat are visas, the Pegasus spyware affair and Western Sahara.

Throughout 2021, Paris had demanded that Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia take back nationals residing illegally in France. Then in September 2021, Paris decided to force their hands, dramatically reducing the number of visas it accords. Now that dialogue on the visa issue may be resuming, Macron will likely pursue the issue during his January visit to Rabat.

In parallel, in July 2021, shortly after the release of the Pegasus Project report on the use of spyware developed by the Israeli NSO Group, the French newspaper Le Monde revealed evidence that the Israeli-developed surveillance software was found on the phones of French politicians aligned with Moroccan interests. Rabat rejected accusations of espionage against French former ministers and lawmakers, but the news strained the already complicated relationships between the political leaderships as well as between security agencies on both sides.

The Western Sahara issue is older. Morocco has been pushing for years for the international community to recognize its sovereignty over this region. The 2020 Abraham Accords, with the American recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the area, have brought it back to international attention. Last March, Paris took a step in Rabat’s direction. Joining a shift in stance on the issue by Spain, the French Foreign Ministry acknowledged, "The Moroccan autonomy plan is a serious, credible basis for discussions." Still, France is wary not to anger Algeria, which strongly opposes Morocco on Western Sahara. It is yet unclear whether Macron will agree to take further steps on the issue to please Rabat when he arrives there next month.

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