Traditionally close partners, Morocco and France have seen their relationship deteriorate in recent years under a variety of pressures. Much analysis has focused on the role of high politics and diplomatic considerations, such as the question of the sovereignty of Western Sahara. This article argues that while these are important, bottom-up approaches must also be considered. In particular, we highlight the impact of visa restrictions on inter-societal links, and how these affect the core of bilateral relations by damaging the human fabric of politics.
The “exceptional partnership” between France and Morocco is a thing of the past, or at least severely damaged. Over the last two years, new crises have erupted at regular intervals. The most recent source of tension arose from the French response to the earthquake in the province of Al-Haouz, which sparked outrage, both in the debates about the refusal of French humanitarian aid and in Macron’s expression of support, in which he addressed the Moroccan people directly, an exclusive prerogative of the king.
Several factors have contributed to the deterioration in bilateral relations, including the question of sovereignty over the Sahara, accusations of spying via the Pegasus software, and European resolutions criticising Morocco’s violation of press freedom. But it can be argued that the real catalyst was France’s migration policy, and in particular the visa restrictions imposed on Maghreb countries in September 2021, because this strategy struck at the heart of Moroccan society, even within its most privileged sectors.
While there are recent positive signs, including the meeting between the French ambassador, Christophe Lecourtier, and the Moroccan king in October, the first time since Lecourtier’s appointment in December 2022, and the appointment of a new Moroccan ambassador to France, Samira Sital, after months of vacancy, it is too early to conclude that all crises have been averted. The succession of tensions in recent years has altered France’s once privileged position within the kingdom. Despite these positive signs, it is important to understand what has broken down, or at least changed, in this traditionally “exceptional” bilateral relationship.
If international relations are understood as inter-societal relations that depend beyond diplomacy on human relations, embedded in a sociological and political environment, then migration offers a window through which to observe the entanglement of high-level decision-making, social relations, and subjective perceptions. Through international migration, the point where the international and the domestic meet, can be observed, as well as where the boundaries between the inside and the outside become blurred.
Anatomy of a decision: political struggles and electoral considerations
The first was a political crisis between Paris and Rabat. Morocco was accused of being uncooperative in readmitting some of its citizens who had been subject to the “obligation to leave the French territory” (OQTF). Paris, which saw this as an act of political resistance – although, let’s not forget, the context was that of a pandemic and generalised border closures – announced a reduction in visas for Moroccans, artificially increasing the refusal rate from 18% to 50% (figures based on an interview the author conducted with a French civil servant).
Let’s first unpack the numbers behind the decision. Between January and September 2021, 3,301 OQTFs were issued to Moroccan citizens, but only 80 people were repatriated to the country, which corresponds to an implementation rate of 2.4% – justifying France’s retaliation. However, repatriation is conditional on obtaining a consular laissez-passer (LPC), which must be requested by the French administration during the retention period (90 days since 2019). Once France has made the request, the decision is in the hands of the country of return, which checks the nationality of the person concerned, which is particularly difficult for undocumented migrants. The decision can also be influenced by other diplomatic considerations, which is what France denounced in 2021. However, if we define the percentage of cooperation as the ratio between the number of LPC requested and the number obtained, the lack of cooperation appears less dramatic. In the case of Morocco, only 552 LPC were requested by the French authorities (16% of OQTF) and 138 were granted during the aforementioned period, Morocco therefore cooperated in around 25% of the cases, compared with 5% for Algeria. If the figures provided by the Interior Ministry are correct, the analysis reveals that the lack of cooperation from Morocco, which exists, is not as dramatic as what was presented by France.
Notably, the crisis between France and Morocco took place in the context of the 2022 presidential election where security discourses and proposals to control and limit immigration, led by the far-right, were prevalent. In this context, the ability to implement the OQTF appeared as a test of legitimacy for Macron, in charge of “protecting” France from the perceived threat of migrants, particularly Maghrebi migrants, who were portrayed in public discourse as terrorists, delinquents, or a threat to the sacrosanct French identity. Visa restrictions would therefore be part of what some have called “Macronian voluntarism”, which does not shy away from “radical” measures, even if it means sacrificing diplomatic relations on the altar of domestic security. It is a context that the Moroccan government struggles to understand, as its solid knowledge of French society left room for hope that politicians would not fall prey to the demagogic and xenophobic rhetoric of the far-right, which is attracting growing swathes of public opinion.
An attack at the heart of Franco-Moroccan relations
In essence, a social crisis was unfolding that affected the very heart of the Franco-Moroccan relations, a human relationship whose threads run across the Mediterranean and whose density can be measured in terms of the numerous family, cultural, intellectual, and economic links. By limiting the number of visas to Moroccans wishing to visit France, Paris targeted its main sphere of influence in the kingdom, namely the francophone and francophile communities, for whom the visa restrictions meant the loss of a right they took for granted, and therefore a deep humiliation. It meant families missing births, weddings or funerals, artists missing shows, doctors kept away from conferences. In short, the policy struck a raw nerve, because of top-down strategies that failed to take into account the human impact of such approaches. French policymakers are either blind to the consequences of this measure on the social network at the core of Franco-Moroccan relations, or lack basic knowledge of the sociology of such mobilities.
The Moroccan population is thus subjected to a “permanent state of exception”, in which populations from the Global South are the subject to policies that are initially exceptional, but in the long run become normalised and routinised exclusionary practices, permanently altering the ability of some to move freely.
Racial hierarchies, social hierarchies
The visa crisis also highlights the discriminatory and discretionary nature of visas, which reify a former racial hierarchy inherited from colonisation, coupled with a social hierarchy rooted in the capitalist economy, in which not everyone has equal access to mobility. Regimes of mobility for some, or even of ultra-mobility, and regimes of immobility for others, coexist alongside a range of intermediate regimes in which the ability to obtain a visa depends on a set of political, diplomatic criteria that are by their very nature deeply arbitrary. The rights of some people, in this case Moroccans, are seen as adjustment variables, and visa applicants suffer the full force of the symbolic violence of administrations that decide on their ability to move freely, a right protected by Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their intimate data – bank statements, residence status, employment contract, reasons for visits, networks in France and Morocco – are scrutinised in search of the slightest hint of an intention to overstay the visa, in short, anything that could justify its refusal. Administrative practices that are ostensibly neutral, but more often arbitrary, increasingly stigmatise Moroccans, and this stigmatisation has a long-term effect, as a refusal leaves a mark that makes any subsequent visa application more difficult. Some French officials have even admitted, in previous research projects carried out by one of the authors, to resorting to arbitrary decisions to circumvent the laws protecting the rights of visa applicants, in the absence of any other solution to reach the 50% refusal target. Finally, the conditioning of visa policy on the management of irregular immigration contributes to the conflation of the legal traveller and the irregular migrant, both of whom become subject to a “presumption of guilt”, always susceptible to disrupting the French ‘social order’.
Adding insult to injury: the intimate violence of visa denial
This situation does not go down well in Moroccan society. On the one hand, they feel insulted by French society without even being a part of it, sharing the pain of their fellow citizens and fellow believers who experience daily the violence of the racist and Islamophobic rhetoric that rhythms French political and media life. The feeling of humiliation and degradation is fed by their profound knowledge of French domestic debates, debates that are all the more puzzling for a population that has so many links with France. On the other hand, they feel that their country is unfairly accused of being incapable of managing its territory, its borders, and its population on the move – a tension that can be seen, for instance, in the reaction of Morocco after the earthquake, which was keen to demonstrate its sovereignty. It is a deep sense of humiliation that is spreading through Moroccan society, which is tired of what is seen as a constant attack on the links that France and Morocco share.
This violence is not only symbolic. It is also expressed at the deadly borders of the EU, where thousands of migrants embark on dangerous and sometimes deadly journeys for lack of legal routes. Moroccans, but more generally Africans, are treated as postcolonial bodies, to be governed because they are considered inferior rather than equal in international mobility, deprived of their most basic rights and relegated to their subaltern positions in international hierarchies. This is why, as a Moroccan, it is such an insult to be refused a visa to France. And this is also why, two years later and despite a “return to normality”, the offence has not yet been forgiven, and remains a central point of contention between France and Morocco.
A struggle for the right to mobility
The current crisis between France and Morocco highlights a paradigm shift in which global hierarchies, of which migratory hierarchies are only one example, are increasingly being criticised and challenged, in Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. The right to mobility has become a global social and political struggle against an unjust and degrading migratory order.
At the root of the tensions between Paris and Rabat, as revealed by the visa issue, is a lack of knowledge, or perhaps a reluctance to accept, the changes taking place in Morocco, and other African countries. Rabat has diversified its international partnerships in recent years and is striving to become a leader in African and global affairs, a change that Paris may have underestimated. As emerging middle powers with growing regional influence, these countries refuse to accept the unequal treatment that they still too often receive. France’s behaviour and refusal to embrace change is perceived as condescension, the last vestige of an old colonial sense of superiority. Morocco’s resistance to the French visa restriction strategy is not only a visceral reaction, but also a means of sparking a debate on the right to mobility. It serves to reconcile French and European narratives on migration, which are seen as negative and Eurocentric, and, in the long term, to strengthen African leadership, on migration issues . Today, France is confronted head-on by the African countries it colonised, and the strife is slowly turning into a divorce – fuelled by perceptions of racism and arrogance, mostly related to how Moroccan citizens, used to travelling to France, have become collateral damage of an aggressive visa policy. If Paris does not soon recognise the importance of the human ties between the two countries, it risks doing irreparable damage to the bilateral relationship– and to its cherished position in the wider Maghreb.
Note: This article reflects the views of the authors and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford.