The visit of the French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin to the Arab Maghreb countries (Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria), during the first third of November 2020, gained increasing importance, both for Paris and for the Maghreb capitals, due to urgent security and political considerations. While the visit was scheduled for some time, it came in the wake of the Nice terrorist attacks and the escalation of irregular migration waves to the European continent.
This paper sheds light on the objectives of the French minister's visit, potential obstacles to the conclusion of new understandings between Paris and the Maghreb capitals on issues of irregular migration and combating terrorism, and possible scenarios for French-Maghreb relations.
The visit’s objectives and dimensions
1. Strengthening collective efforts to combat terrorism: the visit was mainly concerned with strengthening France's cooperation with the Arab Maghreb countries to combat terrorism coming from North Africa, especially after the series of terrorist attacks that recently hit France. Darmanin presented a list of nearly twenty Tunisians suspected of being "extremist elements", whose presence is considered "illegal" and whom Paris wants to deport to their home country, which was accepted by Tunisia.
2. Confronting irregular migration: the rates of irregular migration from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco to France, Spain and Italy have increased. This is considered by the European countries a potential threat to their security, and may expose them to the risk of terrorist attacks depending on the pattern of "lone wolves", especially in light of the link between irregular migration networks and terrorist groups, as demonstrated by the recent attacks on France. The Nice attacks were carried out by a young Tunisian who entered the country illegally via Italy. This sparked widespread reactions inside France, and calls increased for the need to confront irregular migration activities given their increasing security risks.The visit of Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin to the Arab Maghreb countries at the beginning of November 2020 was nothing but a reflection of the growing European interest in the issue of migration and its security dimensions. This explains the visit by the same minister to Morocco on 15 and 16 October 2020, the visit by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese to Algeria on 7 October 2020 and 15 September 2020, respectively, and the visit by the Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Affairs of Italy, Luciana Lamorgese and Luigi Di Maio, to Tunisia on 18 August 2020. The migration issue was at the top of the agenda of the French Interior Minister during his talks with Moroccan officials.
3. De-escalation of hostility towards the Arab and Maghreb communities: this visit comes within the framework of the French government’s attempts to contain the anger of opponents inside France against the Maghreb migrants in light of the escalation of Islamophobia in France, especially after the recent Nice attack. This may extend to the rest of the European countries, which explains the emergence of demonstrations condemning the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia in France and the European continent in general.
Obstacles blocking understandings on key security issues
Despite the French endeavours and European attempts to conclude new understandings with the Maghreb countries on issues of irregular migration, combating terrorism, extremism, and organised crime, there are a number of obstacles and challenges that may make it difficult to reach such understandings in a short time, the most important of which are the following:
1. Reservations by some Maghreb countries about receiving the "deportees": this was reflected, for example, by the official Algerian position on the proposal of the French Interior Minister. To accept those people, Algeria stipulated that the documents proving that they are Algerians be submitted, in addition to their judicial files. These are the same conditions under which the Algerian authorities received Jamal Baghal (the godfather of Amedy Coulibaly and the two Kouachi brothers, i.e. the perpetrators of the attack on the offices of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015), from the French authorities in 2018. In the same context, Algeria expressed its opposition to the deal concluded by Paris with the Ansar al-Din (AAD, Advocates of the [Islamic] Religion) organisation in Mali, whereby France paid a ransom of 10 million euros, and nearly 200 terrorists were released in exchange for the release of four hostages, including a French woman.
2. Maghreb countries' fear of the return of the extremist elements to them: for example, the issue of the return of Tunisian jihadists from hotbeds of armed conflict is one that raises the sensitivity of domestic public opinion. In 2016, many demonstrations erupted denouncing the return of those people after having joined extremist organisations in Syria. There are fears that those elements could carry out terrorist acts if they were released, or recruit other elements inside Tunisia, making them "highly explosive bombs" that threaten the country's security and stability.
3. Rejection of pressure aimed at deporting the Maghreb migrants: in Tunisia, a number of civil society organisations expressed their concerns about the European pressure that is being exerted on Tunisia and the governments of the "South" to deport the citizens of the latter. In a joint statement issued in conjunction with the recent visit by the French Interior Minister, 29 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) expressed their "rejection of the use of jihadist terrorist attacks to pressure the Tunisian government to accept the mass forced repatriation of migrants and to open detention centres in Tunisia". Those organisations considered that Darmanin's visit reflects a clear threat to migrants trying to regularise their status, and that the new measures should not contradict human rights principles and international conventions that protect migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Those organisations called on the Tunisian government to refuse to sign a new agreement with France (and the European Union (EU)) in the current context, as it may lead to a violation of the rights of Tunisian migrants and freedom of movement.
4. The "invisible" power of irregular migration networks: the visit of the French Interior Minister came to strengthen the French partnership with the Arab Maghreb countries in pursuing smuggling networks. However, one of the main obstacles to reaching understandings between Paris and the Maghreb capitals in this field is the strength of the smuggling networks that specialise in organising irregular migration journeys, despite the roles played by security forces and coastguards to detect them. Those networks include travel agents, lawyers, bankers, recruitment offices, interpreters, housing agents, drivers to transport migrants to collection points, and hotel staff to receive them. The detection of the networks was not limited to the sending countries, but extended to the receiving countries, i.e. the countries of the EU. The roles of those networks have grown due to the huge financial profits yielded by their work that sometimes exceed what is generated by the arms and drug trade.
5. Complications of the Covid-19 pandemic: the increasing spread of the second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic in many European countries, including France, as well as the closure of borders, affect the deportations of suspected "extremist" elements from detention centres, with the result that longer time is needed to complete the process.
Future Prospects for Franco-Maghreb Relations: Possible Scenarios
1. The scenario of developing relations: this scenario assumes that relations between France and the Arab Maghreb countries will develop gradually in order to reduce the threats that affect the security and stability of those countries, including terrorism. In reality, however, this scenario may not be generalisable to all countries in the region. Indeed, it is almost limited to the cases of Tunisia and Morocco. Moroccan security services succeeded in thwarting 74,000 irregular migration attempts to European coasts in 2019. Tunisian official statements indicate that Tunisia wants to strengthen its political and security cooperation with France, out of its awareness that there are extremists among its citizens who actually threaten the security of France and other European countries, which coincides with the French rhetoric.
The materialisation of this scenario is contingent on the ability of France and other European countries located in the northern Mediterranean, such as Italy, to help the Maghreb countries in the southern Mediterranean, by increasing support for the capacities of the Maghreb ministries of the interior to secure the maritime borders, promptly respond to the support demands usually launched by the Maghreb countries to curb irregular migrant flows (increasing development aid and worker rehabilitation programmes), and opening up regular and safe ways of migration because restricting them is the most important reason for the spread of irregular migration.
2. The scenario whereby relations would remain as they are: this scenario assumes that the French relations with the Arab Maghreb countries will remain as they are, with the escalation of annoyances that would affect the possibility of developing relations, including the restrictions imposed on the Maghreb communities in France and other European countries in which Islamophobia tendencies are on the rise, where confusion and non-discrimination prevail between Islam and the behaviour of Islamist extremists, in addition to tightening control over resident Maghreb immigrants, and implementing strict measures against some of them by expelling them from the country and confiscating all documents related to their residency in France. This trend may lead to an increase in the problems faced by the Maghreb communities in Europe, especially France. This scenario includes the continuation of irregular migration flows at the current pace, and the possibility of their growth in the future in the event that serious understandings are not reached regarding combating smuggling networks between Europe and the Maghreb countries.
The most likely scenario remains the persistence of the current situation with regard to the future of the French-Maghreb relations in light of the existing facts, most notably the "necessity consensus" through coordination on the settlement of the status of the Maghreb immigrants who are suspected of being extremists and linked to some terrorist organisations, especially in light of President Emmanuel Macron's adoption of a project that he called "Confronting Islamist separatism". Obviously, the measures currently adopted by France or even the Maghreb countries to counter irregular migration are not characterised by the necessary efficacy and reliability. In addition, the bilateral relations are characterised by other complications, such as the failure to open possible immigration means from the Arab Maghreb to Europe in light of the precautionary measures to confront the Covid-19 and the growing security concerns associated with the migration phenomenon.
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