A France vs Morocco World Cup contest, 110 years in the making

As the Atlas Lions prepare to face Les Blues, Al Jazeera looks at the recent history between Morocco and its former coloniser, France.

There’s always a first time – even for those who have known each other for more than a century.

On Wednesday, Morocco and its former coloniser, France, will face off in a World Cup semifinal, the first time the two sides meet in a football contest outside of friendly games and exhibition matches. But a long and complex history – and present – shadows relations between the nations separated by the Mediterranean Sea.

There are more than 780,000 people of Moroccan origin in France, according to the French Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies. And a recent visa dispute has made it difficult for relatives in Morocco to visit them.

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose government introduced the visa restrictions, is expected to be in the stands during the semifinal.

The French colonisation of Morocco

If the Morocco side – in their first-ever World Cup semifinal – need extra inspiration against France, they have more than a century of history to dip into.

France signed the Treaty of Fes with Morocco’s Sultan Abdul Hafiz in 1912, officially making Morocco a French protectorate and spending the subsequent years establishing a colony there. During World War I, France conscripted some 40,000 Moroccan soldiers to fight in its colonial army.

But anticolonial resentment against France was growing and gained further ground during World War II – a period that saw many former European colonies achieve independence. In 1944, the newly formed Istiqlal Party issued a Proclamation of Independence for Morocco.

The statue of Hubert Lyautey, who served in Morocco, Algeria, Madagascar and Indochina when they were under French control, is offered with red painting Monday, June 22, 2020. Two statues related to France's colonial era were covered in graffiti Monday amid a global movement to take down monuments to figures tied to slavery or colonialism. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)
A statue of Hubert Lyautey, who served in Morocco and other former French colonies, spattered with red paint on June 22, 2020, in Paris amid global protests to take down monuments to figures tied to slavery or colonialism [Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP Photo]

In 1952, an anti-colonial uprising in Casablanca was violently repressed by French authorities, who subsequently outlawed the Moroccan Communist and Istiqlal parties and exiled Sultan Mohamed V to Madagascar.

This move galvanised resistance to colonial rule further and, eventually, France allowed Mohamed V to return to Morocco. The sultan declared independence on November 18, 1955, and the French protectorate ended in March 1956.

A colonial legacy

After independence, several domestic policies were implemented to help the country move away from French influence while retaining good relations with what remained a vital diplomatic and economic partner.

In 1973, King Hassan II enacted a series of economic reforms in the private sector that transferred more than 50 percent of foreign-owned enterprises – most of which were French-owned – to Moroccan ownership.

In the 1980s, the king implemented an Arabisation policy of the schooling system, switching the language of instruction from French to Arabic. Thirty years later, the policy was reversed for secondary school maths, science, and physics.

France has remained Morocco’s primary foreign investor and trade partner and has subsequently made efforts to retain friendly relations.

These have included several high-profile diplomatic meetings, including a 2007 visit by France’s then-President Nicholas Sarkozy to Morocco to oversee the start of the construction of Al Boraq, a high-speed train service that France was financing 51 percent of.

Two months later, the two countries played each other in an international football friendly in France. The game ended in a 2-2 draw.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, left, with France’s then-President Nicolas Sarkozy during the latter’s visit to Morocco on October 24, 2007 [Eric Feferberg/Reuters]

But complex relations rarely follow a straight path. In 2014, Morocco suspended judicial cooperation with France after authorities in Paris attempted to question Abdellatif Hammouchi, the head of Morocco’s domestic intelligence service, over torture allegations. Diplomatic tensions eased a year later and the countries resumed cooperation.

In 2018, King Mohammed VI and French President Emmanuel Macron boarded the new high-speed rail link for its inaugural trip between Tangier and Morocco’s capital Rabat.

It’s complicated

In many ways, relations appear to be on the upswing. Earlier this year, Macron backed Morocco’s plan of autonomy for Western Sahara under its rule. A movement led by Western Sahara’s Polisario Front has long sought independence from Morocco.

Macron’s move came after former US President Donald Trump recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory in December 2020, a stance unchanged under President Joe Biden’s administration.

But niggles remain. In September 2021, relations between the countries took a hit after France announced they would reduce the number of visas issued to Moroccan and Algerian nationals by 50 percent and by two-thirds for Tunisians.

The French government said it was a response to the North African governments’ refusal to take back asylum seekers sent away by French authorities.

Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita described the move as “unjustified”. Bourita said he had issued 400 consular documents to Moroccans being expelled from France, but they had refused to take a mandatory COVID-19 test needed to re-enter the North African nation, which he said was “the problem of France”.

It’s clear that both nations recognise the importance of their bilateral relationship. Macron is scheduled to visit Rabat in January 2023. But first, the football teams of the two nations will square off in a historic World Cup semifinal. If history is any guide, it won’t be an easy game for either side.

Source: Al Jazeera