France and Morocco have a relatively relaxed post-colonial relationship but ties are still not without tensions that risk being exposed when their national football sides clash in a World Cup semi final in Qatar.
The relationship France has with Morocco is not nearly as traumatic as with neighbouring Algeria, which fought Paris in a bloody seven-year War of Independence that scars both nations to this day.
But as in any post-colonial relationship, Morocco, which won independence in 1956, has its grievances with France, most notably over the question of visas.
Over a million Moroccans are believed to live in France and security forces will be on alert during the match Wednesday for any clashes like those in Brussels that marked Morocco’s shock win over Belgium in the group stages.
There were exuberant scenes in central Paris on Saturday when Morocco overcame Portugal in the semi finals but only minor incidents were reported amid a heavy police presence.
“The relationship between Morocco and France is not a replica of France’s relationship with Algeria. The relationship is calmer,” the Moroccan writer and political scientist Hassan Aourid told AFP.
“There are unquestionably segments of Moroccan society that have a very emotional relationship with France,” he added.
– ‘Language of elite’ –
But Aourid acknowledged that the growing influence of pan-Arabism and Islamism meant there were now also segments in society for whom France is not just a Western country, “but the enemy who dominated and colonised Morocco”.
In a sign of the emotional complexities of the game, many on the Moroccan team were born outside the country, including in France, such as manager Walid Regragui and defender Romain Saiss.
France are the overwhelming favourites to win the showdown and keep alive their hopes of retaining the World Cup.
But with Morocco emerging as the breakout team in this World Cup — and with rousing support from across the Arab and African world — it could yet pull off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the competition.
Moroccan independence put an end to 44 years of French and Spanish protectorates over separate parts of its territory.
Since then, France has become Morocco’s leading economic partner and by far the main foreign investor. And French culture remains very popular among Moroccan elite, most of whom were trained in French institutions.
Ruled by King Mohammed VI, the country is seen as a Western ally in North Africa, and in 2020 he angered some in the Muslim world including Algeria by re-establishing ties with Israel and pursuing security cooperation with the Jewish state.
But elsewhere in Africa, France has seen its influence eroded in recent years by new competitors, as shown by growing numbers of schools teaching in standard Arabic and English as well as the presence of China’s controversial Confucius Institutes.
The younger generations in particular “have seized on English because it is the language of new technology and social networks, but also because French is seen as the language of the elite,” the prominent young Moroccan novelist Hajar Azell told AFP.
– ‘Feeling of hostility’ –
The rise in importance of relationships other than with France has led to a loss of “economic and political influence” of France in Morocco, Beatrice Hibou, a director of research at France’s CNRS institute, told AFP.
But the greatest source of tension stems from a decision taken by France at the end of 2021 to halve to the number of entry visas granted to Moroccans every year, citing its reluctance to readmit illegal immigrants who have arrived in France.
Rabat had slammed the move as “unjustified”.
“We must not underestimate the question of visas, which is crucial,” said Hibou, adding that Morocco saw the French move “as a slap in the face, with a real anti-French feeling and a great waste.”
There are also bilateral tensions over the conflict in Western Sahara has pitted Morocco against the Sahrawi independence fighters of the Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, for more than 40 years.
Moroccan academic Ali Bouabid told AFP that he fears the controversy will leave a lasting mark fuelling a “feeling of hostility towards France”.