On April 24, 2022, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected as president of France with 58.5 percent of the vote ahead of far-right challenger Marine Le Pen’s 41.5 percent, yet with a high voter abstention rate of almost 28 percent. French elections, like those in the United States and the United Kingdom, enjoy widespread international media and political attention due to their foreign policy impacts on the rest of the world. However, certain regions are more directly affected by new governments in Paris, Washington DC, or London. The Maghreb countries—Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Mauritania—are in a region that is historically and currently engaged and a pivotal part of French foreign policy.
Macron’s first election in 2017 presented a potential new era to both French domestic and foreign policies due to the lost appeal by the two major blocs in French politics, the left-wing Socialist Party and the right-wing Republicans. To accurately observe what his second term may present to the Maghreb states, it is important to unpack two interlinked features: the impact of his approach on Franco-Maghreb relations over the last five years and what Maghreb countries expect to achieve from their relations with France, one of the pivotal countries in Europe.
Morocco: ‘Western Sahara’ Oriented Strategy
Rabat exceeds its value and importance in its relationship with Paris in comparison to its neighboring countries. The collaboration between the two countries includes politics, economics, trade, tourism, culture, security, and religious reform; the latter was evident when Morocco supported France in providing reformed religious training to French imams in an attempt to counter radical ideology. Apart from being Morocco’s major trading partner, France is seen in Morocco as a supportive ally that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and, most importantly, is aligned with Rabat on the Western Sahara issue. Because of these factors, Morocco supported French military intervention in Mali in 2013.
France is seen in Morocco as a supportive ally that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and, most importantly, is aligned with Rabat on the Western Sahara issue.
France’s takeover of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union between January 1 and June 30, 2022 presented a major opportunity for reciprocal interests between Rabat and Paris. Macron’s promise to establish a stronger European-African alliance requires Moroccan support, while Rabat’s desire for recognizing its sovereignty in Western Sahara demands French mediation with Spain and Germany which have expressed opposition to said sovereignty. Two headquarters of Marcon’s political party, La République En Marche, were opened in the cities of Agadir and Dakhla. While the latter city’s location in Western Sahara is perhaps an indirect attempt by Paris to recognize Rabat’s sovereignty over the region, it may also equally empower the geostrategic importance of Western Sahara for France.
For years, France has supported Morocco’s proposal of a Western Saharan autonomy plan within the Moroccan kingdom, and the United States has recognized it during the Trump Administration. Rabat hopes to see similar future diplomatic stances by Madrid and Berlin. Washington’s pro-Rabat policies over Western Sahara derive from Morocco’s acceptance to normalize ties with Israel and the US’s attempt to further enhance security in the Sahel in order to target terrorist activities there just as France has attempted to do for close to a decade.
Algeria: The Legacy of the Past
Algeria is arguably considered to be Morocco’s political competitor for leadership in the Maghreb region, its most consequential rival in Western Sahara as Algiers hosts the Polisario Front (Western Sahara’s resistance movement), as well as its rival over stronger relationships with France. During the 2017 French presidential elections, Macron visited Algiers, a move that concerned Rabat over his North African priorities.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian War, a history that remains deeply ingrained in both the Algerian and French domestic cultural spaces. The first four decades since Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule reportedly witnessed a cooperative relationship between Paris and Algiers. But in 1992, when the Algerian government suspended its legislative elections to prevent a victory by Islamist parties, French criticism led to a fragile diplomatic relationship. Algerian politicians such as late president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-2019) and others allegedly exploited anti-French discourse to preserve their position, influence, and relevance, yet maintained good relations “in secret.”
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian War, a history that remains deeply ingrained in both the Algerian and French domestic cultural spaces.
Macron described the French colonization of Algeria as “a crime against humanity” during his visit to Algiers in 2017, a comment that sparked outrage among far-right French audiences. According to observers, Macron’s comment was arguably an attempt to garner support from registered French voters of Maghrebi origin, over one million of whom are of Algerian descent. This political maneuver was later confirmed when Macron stepped back from the comment as he justified the ‘bright side’ of France’s presence in Algeria and decried Algeria’s political anti-French “rewriting” of history.
By the end of 2021, Paris and Algiers exchanged statements of heated accusations, with Macron questioning Algeria’s pre-colonial history as a ‘nation’ and criticizing its political history. In response, Algeria recalled its ambassador to France and banned French military aircraft from its airspace to reach troops fighting armed groups in the Sahel. The complexity of the issue pushed Macron to label the Algerian government as a “political-military system” and Algeria to call out France’s “inadmissible interference in its internal affairs.”
The impact of the legacy of the Algerian War on French elections in particular, and French politics in general, reflected the French institutional ideological rift on the issue across the political spectrum. While Macron claimed to “heal the war’s lasting wounds,” the lack of such healing revealed its demagogic limitations. On the other side of the spectrum, former far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour called for an end to the “regret” toward the Algerian War and emphasized the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that claims that white French and European citizens are being replaced by non-European Muslims from the Middle East and Africa.
Warmer statements were later made by Macron’s office in an attempt to improve ties before the Paris International Conference on Libya in November 2021 in order to support regional efforts to help that nation. However, while Algerian officials considered them acceptable, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune refused to attend the meeting.
A meeting of the French-Algerian Ministerial Committee which was scheduled for last March 24th was canceled for the second time this year. The meeting, aimed at restoring relations and cooperation between the two countries, was initially designed to be an annual event, and yet has not been conducted for five years. Algeria’s current relationship with France has been equally impacted by historical and current strategic motives. On the one hand, Algiers believes that Paris is behind convincing Madrid to gradually accept Rabat’s proposal of Western Saharan autonomy. On the other, President Macron invited around 200 Harkis (Algerians who served in the French army during the Algerian War of Independence) to the Elysee celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Evian Agreement that ended the war and resulted in the independence of Algeria.
Libya: The Maghreb’s Conflict Zone
France under the administration of former president Nicolas Sarkozy played a pivotal role in the Libyan uprising against its former ruler Muammar Qadhafi and the resulting conflict. On March 19, 2011, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States led the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ airstrikes which were later taken up by NATO, and became known as the “first official ‘Responsibility to Protect’ action.” The Libyan conflict has now fallen under a multilateral complex of external interests and involvement between the US, UK, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates Qatar, and Egypt. It appears that President Macron has chosen to support autocracy over liberal democracy if the former guarantees France’s ambitions in challenging political Islam and militarily defeating terrorism within its borders and across western Africa. This explains France’s alignment with the UAE and Egypt in its support for General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army, in contrast to Turkey’s support for Libya’s former Government of National Accord (GNA).
It appears that President Macron has chosen to support autocracy over liberal democracy if the former guarantees France’s ambitions in challenging political Islam and militarily defeating terrorism in western Africa.
Accusations of Macron’s favoritism of Haftar have limited the French president’s efforts regarding Libyan reconciliation. Although the destructive military intervention in 2011 was arguably a product of Sarkozy’s administration, France’s Libya policy under Macron has lacked consistency and efficient outcomes, and that is perhaps due to Paris’ unclear approach toward the Libyan conflict between the role of a neutral mediator and a biased partisan. Moreover, France’s inability to define its interests in competition with other regional and international players in Libya also reflects an overarching soft power crisis among European actors.
Tunisia: The Calmest Relationship
Despite being its main trading partner, France’s recent approach to Tunisia has been motivated by its fear of isolation from developments in neighboring Libya. In May 2020, France initiated developing military bilateral ties with Tunisia in an attempt to overcome its alleged declining influence in a former colony that has been receiving military aid from the US and Turkey.
For most of the post-Arab Spring, Tunisia has been celebrated by France and the European Union as the exceptional democratic experience in the region, which led the latter to remove it from a blacklist of tax havens. In a similar role played by Morocco, Tunisia has also committed itself to joint efforts with France toward investigating and tackling radicalization, particularly following the 2016 Nice attack which was conducted by a Tunisian living in France. However, unlike Algeria, Tunisia’s relations with France since its independence in 1956 have been relatively stable.
While Tunisia’s expectations of economic boosts from French investments have not been met, its political and business classes cannot risk jeopardizing the relationship at any cost.
While Tunisia’s expectations of economic boosts from French investments have not been met, its political and business classes cannot risk jeopardizing the relationship at any cost. France hosts some one million Tunisians and there are an estimated 140,000 employees working in more than 1,500 French companies in Tunisia and France. Overall, Tunisian-French relations are heavily determined by economic interests and the Libyan issue. As much as Tunisia wants to remain neutral in the Libyan conflict and rejects being exploited as a pressure tool by foreign actors, it is aware of its responsibility as an ally to France and the West. Macron, however, has somehow showcased a level of silence toward recent political developments in Tunisia that affirms his contradictory politics. Tunisian President Kais Saied seized executive power in July 2021 and suspended the elected parliament; until now, Macron’s continuation of cooperative relations with Tunisia under Saied’s rule perhaps indicates his favoritism to anti-Islamist leaders at any cost.
Macron’s visit to Mauritania in July 2018 was the first French presidential visit to the country since 1997, which points to a level of coldness in the relationship. Like its Maghrebi counterparts, Mauritania is a former French colony. According to Human Rights Watch, Macron’s monitoring of Mauritanian authorities’ silencing of freedom of expression is perhaps restricted by Paris’ willingness to benefit from a strategic security relationship with Nouakchott in the military operations against terrorism in the Sahel.
The Potential Future of France-Maghreb Cooperation
Macron’s attempts during his first term to reassert France’s presence in the Arab world was also evident in Iraq and Lebanon, where he tried to play a vital role in rebuilding cultural ties, seek investment opportunities, and increase political influence. While some Maghreb countries are more interested in geopolitical support, like Morocco, than economic assistance, like Tunisia, Macron’s ability to deliver on both sides of the spectrum seems to be limited by his administration’s actions on other issues in the region. For instance, it is hard to justify Macron’s alleged concern with the military’s role in Algeria’s political system while his government is working on augmenting a prominent alliance with Egypt, another North African country with a central role for the military institution.
One question remains as to how centrist Macron will be in his approach toward the Maghreb countries and their diasporas in France. So far, his initiatives to hold summits and conferences related to the region may lack realistic implementation and remain as symbolic diplomacy. To be sure, Macron’s approach to the Maghreb countries may be symbolically liberal in the short term—with vague anti-colonial comments for French-Algerian voters—and strategically conservative and interest-oriented in the long run—as is evident in a Moroccan proposal for Western Saharan autonomy and in alignment with common Rabat-Paris geopolitical interests. The Maghreb countries and peoples hope for a relationship with France that reflects and ensures political stability and economic incentives. In order to secure broad trust in such a relationship, Macron’s public global agenda must showcase a willingness to offer both, without being limited by an interest-centric approach.