As Morocco and France Prepare for World Cup, Historical Tensions Swirl

PARIS — Saturday night was both exhilarating and confusing for Anas Daif. Morocco and France had just advanced to the World Cup semifinals, setting the stage for a showdown on Wednesday, and Daif couldn’t decide which team to support — his country of descent or his country of birth.

Then, Daif, a French Moroccan who was born near Paris, said he thought about the pride that Morocco’s historic run has brought to Africa and the Arab world. He envisioned how emblematic a victory of the former colony over its former colonizer would be.

“I realized my heart went out to Morocco,” Daif, a 27-year-old journalist and podcast producer, said. “It’s a support rooted in greater symbolism.”

Wednesday’s face-off between France and Morocco will be about more than just soccer. From their past colonial ties to contemporary waves of immigration, the two nations are intertwined by a century-old shared history and culture. There is great hope that these bonds, embodied by a vast community of dual nationals, will give the game a fraternal tone.

France’s colonial domination of Morocco lasted nearly half a century, from 1912 to 1956. But it was nowhere near as brutal as in neighboring Algeria, where decades of humiliating government rule and a bloody war of independence have fueled long-lasting animosity toward France. As a protectorate, Morocco enjoyed greater autonomy and its independence was negotiated rather peacefully.

Since then, relations between the two countries have been mostly cordial. Many Moroccans emigrated to work in French factories in the 1960s and 1970s, forming a large diaspora that today numbers 1.5 million people, half of whom have dual citizenship, according to a 2015 parliamentary report. The intertwining is such that three members of Morocco’s current World Cup team — coach Walid Regragui and two players — are dual nationals.

These bonds have been especially conspicuous since Morocco’s historic qualification for the semifinals. A video went viral on social media, showing a Frenchman waving and kissing Morocco’s red flag in honor of Moroccan miners who worked in northern France. A remix of the French national anthem with North African drum beats spread across TikTok and WhatsApp.

Many French Moroccans said that their dual identity has made it challenging to choose which team to root for.

Oussama Adref, a youth soccer coach in the Paris area, said everyone was “torn.” Daif added that some of his acquaintances had compared the decision to “choosing between your father and your mother.”

But Wednesday’s game may conjure up more than family-style dilemmas.

Colonial overtones, in particular, will be hard to escape. Should Morocco beat France, it would be the third European power that invaded Morocco to stumble against it on the pitch, after Spain and Portugal.

“Symbolically, it would restore the prestige of a country and of peoples who have been oppressed by colonial powers,” said Daif, noting how the African continent and the Arab world have identified with the successes of the Atlas Lions, as Morocco’s soccer team is known.

France has kept vivid memories of a soccer game against Algeria in 2001, during which Algerian supporters booed the French national anthem and invaded the pitch, highlighting how post-colonial wounds remained unhealed.

The country’s difficult relationship with North African immigrants from former colonies — often marginalized in France, where they are subject to racism and police violence — may have nurtured a bitterness that engenders more support for Morocco, said Gastaut, who teaches at the University of Nice.

“It’s a way of responding to their status in French society,” he said of French citizens of North African descent.

The game will come against a tense backdrop in France, where immigration and national identity are highly combustible issues. French right-wing forces have already fanned the flames of the debate by denouncing support for Morocco as a form of disloyalty to France, showing that the country’s immigration policy has failed.

On Monday, Jordan Bardella, the president of the far-right National Rally party, criticized second-generation immigrants “who behave like nationals of a foreign state by constantly expressing a feeling of revenge that may be linked to our colonial history.”

The images of Morocco supporters crowding the Champs-Élysées to celebrate their team’s success have also been exploited by some right-wing politicians as evidence of a “great replacement” — a racist conspiracy theory that white Christian populations are being intentionally replaced by nonwhite immigrants which gained momentum during this year’s presidential election in France.

At a news conference on Tuesday in Doha, Qatar, Didier Deschamps, France’s coach, steered clear of politics but acknowledged the symbolism surrounding the game.

“We know the history,” he told reporters. “There is a lot of passion, but as a sportsman, I like to stay in my lane.”

Last week, scenes of euphoria on the Champs-Élysées — featuring Morocco supporters chanting, waving flags, honking their horns and playing the drums — were also marred by clashes with the police, who fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.

Gérald Darmanin, the country’s interior minister, told reporters on Tuesday that 10,000 police officers would be deployed throughout the country, half of them in the Paris region, on the day of the game. But confrontations with the police — whose management of this year’s Champions League final proved chaotic — may only compound the situation.

Daif said he deplored the identity debates and what he called a form of “political hijacking” of the game. Wednesday’s face-off should instead be an opportunity to celebrate the country’s multiculturalism, he said.

As for French Moroccans, he added, the outcome will be the same. “We will reach the final in any case.”

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