x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Morocco still tied to former colonial master

Morocco gained independence more than 50 years ago, but its former coloniser remains a potent force.

A man reads 'Le Soir', a French-language newspaper, at a cafe in Rabat, Morrocco.
A man reads 'Le Soir', a French-language newspaper, at a cafe in Rabat, Morrocco.

CASABLANCA // Since the age of eight, Gali Débar, 16, a Moroccan student, has known that his life's passion is singing ballads in the manner of "Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf - anything that's really French". Gali's family takes holidays in Paris, speaks French at home and belongs to a Moroccan upper crust with strong ties to France. Gali recently signed with the Casablanca record label but hopes to shift his career across the Mediterranean. Morocco gained independence more than 50 years ago, but its former coloniser remains a potent force. France is Morocco's main trading partner, the French language is widespread and the country's leaders enjoy intimate ties. For many Moroccans, France represents an ideal of style and modernity that inspires admiration - but also soul-seeking over who they are. Morocco's national drink of green tea infused with mint is rivalled by café au lait, both served in innumerable cafes where Moroccans sit reading the news in Le Matin, Le Soir or Aujourd'hui le Maroc. Media follow French politics as well as Moroccan, French films play alongside Arab ones in the cinemas and students must conquer a French-style final exam to enter Morocco's universities and professional job market. "France is always seen as the model that Moroccans should imitate," said Farida Khattari, a teacher at Gali Débar's school, the Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca, an elite French-run institution that is a symbol of the pull French culture exerts on the country. The Lycée Lyautey opened in 1921 and is named for its founder, Gen Hubert Lyautey, a giant in the annals of French colonialism. He was appointed Morocco's first resident general by France, which formally took over most of the country in 1912 after decades of gradual economic and military penetration. Gen Lyautey sought to extend French power while preserving Moroccan culture. "Do not offend a single tradition, do not change a single habit," he ordered his administration. The sultan remained on his throne, giving French rule a Moroccan face. Ancient walled cities were left intact, with modern French towns built alongside them. French officers led Moroccan troops across the land, subduing revolts and binding the kingdom together. Gen Lyautey's tact paid off, said Sarah Kramer, a US researcher documenting Moroccans' memories of colonialism. "Most Moroccans considered the French nichane - or 'straight' - and felt that things were efficient and transparent under French rule," Ms Kramer said. Gen Lyautey wooed the Moroccan elite and provided French education to leading families. When Morocco gained independence in 1956, King Mohammed V took over a modern state built along French lines. Despite Gen Lyautey's intentions, French language and culture have percolated through Moroccan society. In an interview last month with Jeune Afrique magazine, Abbas El Fassi, the Moroccan prime minister, said although the current government is committed to promoting Arabic for official use, even cabinet meetings occasionally drift into French to accommodate ministers trained at French universities. "Knowledge of French is essential for a good job in Morocco," said René Troccaz, counsellor for co-operation and cultural action at the French Embassy in Rabat, which oversees schools across Morocco giving French and classical Arabic lessons to more than 50,000 Moroccans. "France enjoys an exceptional partnership with Morocco and we try to enable Moroccans to get the training to help that partnership." France leads Morocco's investment, import and export markets, and most major French firms are established here. Renault is Morocco's single biggest investor, pumping US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) into a car factory that will be the company's largest in Africa. France spends some $270 million yearly on education and development in Morocco and, after decades of immigration, is home to more than 800,000 Moroccans. Morocco is the favourite destination for French tourists, with 1.5 million visiting each year. French-Moroccan economic ties mirror an intimate political relationship that has endured since King Hassan II took Morocco towards the West in the 1960s, said Michael Willis, a fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University's Centre for Middle East Studies. "France has links that other powers can only dream of," Mr Willis said. "The elites all know each other and they speak the same language. The relationship is quite private." Many of Morocco's political and business leaders, including King Mohamed VI, have studied in France. Morocco serves France as a trusted Arab ally, while France uses its international clout to promote Moroccan interests, Mr Willis said. Some Moroccans, however, said the cost of French involvement in their country is too high. "It's neo-colonialism, which is doubly pernicious," said Nadia Yassine, a spokeswoman for al Adl wal Ihssane, or Justice and Charity, Morocco's largest Islamist movement. "We're no longer proud of being Moroccan." Morocco's culture ministry seeks to support Moroccan culture without defining it, said Radia Laraki, the ministry cabinet chief. "For example, we help Moroccan writers - whether they write in French, Arabic or Berber." For most Moroccans, the quest for identity is about reconciling influences from the Arab and western worlds. "Because of Islam and our traditions I feel close to the Middle East, but we also have a relationship with France and Europe," said Yusra, 18, a student from Morocco's capital, Rabat, who began learning French at school when she was nine. "I know that it's necessary for Moroccans to learn foreign languages," she said. "But sometimes I ask myself why? Why shouldn't others learn Arabic?" jthorne@thenational.ae