French foreign policy concerning the Western Sahara has long been a timid balancing act between the conflicting policies of Algeria and Morocco. This is strange, since France did not have a colonial role in the Western Sahara. Spain did, holding this vast strip of land since 1884, as a sort of reminiscence of the failed Spanish colonization of North Africa between Oran and the Atlantic coast of Mauritania during the Spanish Golden Age.
The Kingdom of Morocco organized a massive march on and beyond the border with the Western Sahara in 1975, the Moroccan Forces Royales entered several weeks later and annexed it outright. Paris did not have a very forceful position. The young Algerian republic, however, took up the cause of the Sahrawi people, the nomads living there who may not have loved Spanish colonization — an imperial invasion rather that a settlement project — but who were not in their majority attracted by incorporation into the Kingdom of Morocco. The Moroccan public, however, remains enthused about the annexation and sing patriotic songs about still today.
Geographically the Western Sahara and Algeria barely touch, so Algiers’ displeasure is simple frustration at its rival’s easy expansion. There are some ideological reasons for this: French colonization in Morocco has been by and large a happy experience, and the Moroccan diaspora in France is less tortured at the idea of living in the land of the oppressor. For Algeria, a frightful end to colonization in an all out insurrection, and a feeling common among Franco-Algerians that they are living in the oppressor’s land.
So French policy is overshadowed by internal policy: there are more Franco-Algerians than Franco-Moroccans, and Algeria is a respectable provider of gas to France. Plus, in many French circles, there is guilt over the bloody war of decolonization in Algeria (1954-1962), something happily missing in the decolonization of Morocco (1956).
So when the Abraham Accords burst forth in 2020, president Donald Trump famously remarked, off the record, that the Western Sahara was something that should be given as a reward to the Kingdom. “Let them have it”.
Up until then, Washington had remained diplomatically pure: no annexation without a referendum of the Sahrawis, in other words the UN plan, but certainly no independant Sahrawi State. Same position as France. The Algerian regime being close to Putin’s Russia and the BRICS, no American had reason to assuage Algeria and would not wish to antagonize the King on the other end. All that flew to the wind, and then Spain:
All this time, the Spanish governments remained loyal to the Sahrawis, the insurgent organization Polisario, and the UN formula. Madrid however, warmed to the Abraham Accords immediately, and Pedro Sanchez PM endorsed them in 2022 wholeheartedly and precipitously. He even travelled to Algiers to explain himself. Strangely the Algerian régime was not too angry.
Paris remained on the UN line, which infuriated the King himself. More interestingly, did this French position help with Algiers? No, Paris was being criticized by Algiers for other things like visa policy or political dissidents protected by the French government. Why not a similar treatment to Madrid? There is no clear answer, but Paris has in the past thought of itself as a colonial power with clout, and today sees itself as the balancing power. This means that France’s power serves to bring some sort of dialogue between sides. “La France puissance médiatrice” as diplomats and politicians often called it, and Emmanuel Macron still does. In olden days Charles de Gaulle would speak to the Soviet leader, and even Giscard d’Estaing would fly to Moscow in the midst of a US-Soviet showdown. A sort of diplomatic back channel would supposedly be opened, to uncertain effects.
By now we all see that this is a largely myth which is being entertained by Emmanuel Macron who is seaking to construct some doctrine out of this, mainly in the Indo-¨Pacific region. But which State cares? Where does it work? Australia ditched the French alliance articulated along the submarine project. In Israel-Palestine the “puissance médiatrice” is insignificant, in Russia-Ukraine it is a clear alignment on Ukraine, in Lebanon it is futile wishful thinking, in Mali it is an inability for France to sell the status quo to two sides (North versus South Mali) who seek dominance by force. France’s diplomacy is punished for having advanced its “mediating” policy. Instead of being respected by all, it very much looks like being despised by all. It might be time to take sides more often, and yell a little louder.
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