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Niger, Morocco Turn Their Backs on France as Macron Withdraws Troops

PARIS — France’s standing in Africa’s Sahel region and in North Africa is being challenged, forcing Paris to recalculate its relations and cooperation with Niamey, Rabat and other capitals on the continent.

Last Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the retreat of French forces from Niger and the return to Paris of Ambassador Sylvain Itte. Macron’s announcement came two months after a military coup in Niger. The junta that took control of the country demanded almost immediately that Itte leave the country. It also demanded that the 1,500 French soldiers stationed in Niamey withdraw. In parallel, thousands of people demonstrated again and again outside the French military camp and the French Embassy, burning French flags and waving anti-French banners. 

Paris declined both demands, repeatedly insisting that the junta had no legitimacy to issue such decisions. But the announcement by the Elysee Palace to recall the ambassador and withdraw troops reflects the current understanding that it cannot force the hand of the junta and can no longer guarantee the safety of its envoys there.

An emerging “anti-French alliance” 

France indeed has reason to worry. Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso — three Sahel countries that have undergone military coups over the last four years — have formed an anti-French alliance. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday, Mali Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop accused France of deliberately destabilizing the Sahel region, allegedly by recently liberating jihadis on the trilateral border of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. 

When the military coups took place in Mali in 2021 and Burkina Faso in 2022, demonstrators waved not only anti-French slogans but also anti-West and anti-American ones. This is hardly the case now, as France has been designated the one and only enemy. The junta in Niger did not ask Washington to withdraw its 1,100 troops stationed in two locations in the country, nor did it ask Rome or Berlin to withdraw their small military presence in Niamey. Also, while France was forced last year to bring home all of its 1,450 soldiers stationed in the north of Mali, Germany confirmed to Reuters on Sept. 20 that it still has 887 soldiers on Malian soil.

The growing presence of Russia’s Wagner Group in the region — not only in Mali and Burkina Faso but also in Libya and Sudan — is a further harbinger of the regional anti-French wave in the Sahel region and beyond. mirroring a well-organized misinformation campaign in Mali a few years ago, where Russia was suspected of funding activists and influencers to amplify anti-French propaganda ahead of the 2021 coup. The junta and other fragile regimes seek a scapegoat for the ongoing economic crisis and rising threats to personal security, making post-colonial France a convenient target. 

Trouble in Morocco too

France has not only the Sahel region to worry about in Africa. Its already-complicated relations with Morocco became more complicated two weeks ago when Rabat refused to accept the French assistance offer after the earthquake on Sept. 8. Morocco also refused help offered by the United States and Israel, explaining it opted for assistance from Spain, Great Britain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates Emirates purely for efficiency reasons. 

An embarrassed Paris tried to minimize the refusal. “It’s a bad quarrel, a completely inappropriate quarrel,” Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told French BFMTV channel. “Morocco has refused no aid, no proposal. This is not how things should be presented,” she added, insisting that “Morocco is sovereign.” Colonna added that Morocco “is alone in a position to determine what its needs are and the pace at which it wants responses to be provided.” 

The French Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor on Tuesday that “Paris allocated 5 million euros to NGOs present in Morocco to assist with emergency needs,” noting that they are at the disposition of Rabat for any medium-term or long-term assistance they would require. Still, it seems that in the meantime, Morocco has no intention of turning to France for any such help. 

The Moroccan refusal topped several developments over the last four years that have negatively tainted bilateral relations.  

Morocco is unhappy with France’s stance on Western Sahara. Paris defended Rabat’s positions for years at the United Nations but never took the extra step of officially recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the region. The American and Israeli recognitions — and the step in that direction recently taken by Spain (recognizing the Rabat-pushed autonomy plan for the region) — only increased Morocco’s frustration with France.

Adding to Rabat’s anger were Macron’s efforts over the past two years to rehabilitate ties with Algeria, which supports the pro-independence Western Sahara Polisario Front. Algiers broke off diplomatic relations with Rabat in 2021. As such, the visit of Macron to Algiers in August 2022 was perceived by Rabat as a provocation. 

Another sensitive point is the Pegasus affair, which was first revealed in 2021. Morocco was among the countries accused of using Israeli NSO’s Pegasus spyware to eavesdrop on the conversations of several French personalities, including the president himself. Rabat rejected the accusations and filed defamation claims against the French media Forbidden Stories, which first broke the Pegasus affair. The decision by the European Parliament at the end of January to conduct a hearing on the issue only aggravated tensions between Rabat and Paris.

On a visit to Gabon last February, Macron was asked by journalists about his personal relations with Moroccan King Mohammed VI. He said that relations were “friendly,” but his response generated an unusually angry reaction from the Palace in Rabat. “Relations are not friendly, nor good; not between the governments, as they are not (good) between the Royal Palace and the Elysee,” Rabat replied in a statement.

Morocco’s ambassador to France ended his mission last January, just when the European Parliament announced it would conduct its hearing on Pegasus. Rabat has not nominated a new ambassador to the French capital. Also, no date has been set for the long-awaited visit by Macron to Morocco. Chances of such a visit taking place in the near future are slim to none, it seems. 

Source : Al Monitor