Morocco’s response to French aid after the earthquake

Reverse humanitarian diplomacy?
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Spain and Britain set up a camp to recover earthquake victims, under the supervision of the Royal Armed Forces. Image credit: Anfas press/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Morocco was hit hard by the earthquake in the evening of September 8th, and has been scrambling to organise rescue and first aid operations to the affected areas since – notably the hard-to-reach and most badly hit villages of the Atlas mountains.

On Monday 11 September, it was announced that Morocco had accepted the aid offer from four countries: Spain, United Kingdom, Emirates and Qatar – referred to as “friendly countries” by the Moroccan Interior Ministry.

One notable country is left out of the list, although being among the first to offer help: France. It is not a simple hazard. How should this refusal be understood?

A reverse form of humanitarian diplomacy?

First of all, by exercising what we could call a reverse form of humanitarian diplomacy, Morocco claims control over its own crisis management. The country seeks to not simply be subject to whichever state and INGO that decides to intervene – and the chaos that then sometimes ensues. A reverse form of humanitarian diplomacy, because it is performed not by the state detaining the means to help or seeking by diplomatic means to make others react, but by the one in position to choose where to receive aid from – and where not to.

It isn’t new that states control where to receive aid from. A stark example was how it took a week for the UN and the Syrian regime to finally agree to open up two border crossings to let international aid in to the earthquake affected areas in February this year, amidst international sanctions against the regime. The most affected areas were also controlled by opposition groups fighting the regime.

Yet, this – for the moment – “non merci” to the French state is definitely being noted in France, where many are shocked by this political statement in the midst of a crisis. Aid workers who were ready to leave the day after the earthquake now have to, frustratedly, follow the developments from afarReports have also come out of Morocco of aid being slow to reach the hardest hit areas, underscoring the tension.

France and the francophone world

France maintains different forms of relations with countries in the francophone world, whether former colonies, protectorates or with other histories tying them together.

Morocco has for a long time been seen as a country with a relatively good relationship with France. France is Morocco’s largest commercial partner, and the French constitute the largest foreign community in Morocco. In France, where descendants of immigrants are not counted per se in the registries (ie. once someone has become French, they are French – full stop), the Moroccan ‘diaspora’ is estimated to be the second largest after the Algerian. Morocco is also among the countries besides France hosting the most French schools (lycées) and French cultural centres.

Some countries have a tense relationship with France, such as several Sub-Saharan states like Chad or Mali, where France has been central in recent years’ security and stabilisation efforts, or Algeria refusing to be part of the International Organisation of the Francophonie. Other states have for long maintained a close relationship with France. Lebanon is an interesting case here.

The case of Lebanon

As a former French protectorate, Lebanon has a long history of relations with France: with a large Lebanese diaspora in France, French or dual French-Lebanese citizens residing in Lebanon and the French language is estimated to be practiced among around half the Lebanese population.

Looking back at the massive explosion that hit Beirut on 4 August 2020, it was remarkable how the Lebanese welcomed President Emmanuel Macron with acclamation and as a kind of savior in a time of crisis. The political crisis in the country was an important backdrop here, and it was commented that Macron had never been as popular at home. In Beirut people asked him for help to replace their leaders. To which Macron replied: “Lebanese are a sovereign people. It is not up to me to do it, but you”.

Three years later, the disappointment over France’s lack of action towards the political leadership in Lebanon has meant that Macron’s reputation has fallen significantly among the people.

Morocco using the opportunity to take a stance in its relations with Paris

Zooming back on Morocco now: how come the North African kingdom has refused help from France?

Of course, as analysts rightfully remind: Morocco is a sovereign state with its full right to decide which states are allowed access and how to organise the first aid – as French Foreign minister Catherine Colonna also first responded when the news came out, trying to minimise the controversy. It is also important to remind that Morocco already disposes a good emergency response capacity: the army was quickly deployed to help, its regional hospitals also put in motion and local networks of associations on the ground were rapidly coordinating to help. It is also a way for Morocco, seeing itself as an emerging regional power, to maintain control – showing a form of national pride, as Sylvie Brunel, a geographer and former head of Action contre la faim, puts it. Yet, it is also a clear message being sent to France, who can no longer just expect a privileged access – France has to wait its turn. The number of commentaries in the French press over the past few days is a testimony to this and the fact that the message has definitely been made note of.

What most observers point to is a degrading relationship between President Macron and King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Morocco has not appointed a new Ambassador to Paris for months, after recalling their Ambassador in February 2023, and several state visits have been postponed. As some observers, like Béatrice Hibou, a French researcher working on Morocco, puts it: Macron has managed to antagonise a country that until recently didn’t manifest any strong anti-France sentiment or post-colonial resentment. She also points to a recent visa-issue being a contentious one that really set its marks on the relationship: at the end of 2022, France decided to cut by half the number of visas granted to Moroccans – following two years of reduced travels between the countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Visas were denied for CEOs, individuals visiting their families and students alike – and Hibou claims it will take years for the relation between the two countries to improve after this.

The ability to choose where to receive help from

Thus, by exercising this reverse humanitarian diplomacy, Morocco seeks control over its own crisis and crisis response – and sends a clear signal at the same time. How humanitarian the measure is will depend on those you ask. It has indicated the same to neighboring Algeria – with which relations have been more than tense for many years.

At a time where devastating news are coming out of Libya, with thousands estimated dead and gone missing after the massive floods – a country already ravaged by a civil war, it is also worth asking if not all countries find themselves with this ability to choose among which to accept help from and not.