The full occupation of Morocco was to be an arduous affair, with the tribes putting up heroic resistance and an area of the Rif (northern Morocco), establishing itself as an independent republic for a short period in the 1920s, thereby threatening the whole protectorate system’s stability.
The protectorate bore the firm imprint of the first French resident-general, Maréchal Lyautey – and the work accomplished during his 12-year rule was to leave a long-lasting mark on the country. Lyautey, a Roman Catholic aristocrat who had seen service in Algeria, Indochina and Madagascar – and witnessed at first hand what he considered to be the errors of the colonial system – was fascinated by Morocco; as something of a monarchist, he had great respect for the sultanate, and was thus not really disposed to intervene in the new protectorate’s traditional life.
Thus, the first period of French rule saw local institutions consolidated, alongside the gradual occupation of the main cities and the coastal plains. The sultan remained ruler, although executive and legislative powers were shared with the French resident-general. To govern the vast southern regions, the French relied on local Berber chiefs – Marrakech and its region was ruled by co-opting a local potentate, T’hami el Glaoui, for example. This meant that large scale forces did not have to be committed at a time when they were needed elsewhere. Exploitation of Morocco’s natural wealth turned out to be a capitalist venture, rather than a settler one. French private banks financed public and private building works and exploited mineral concessions through the Compagnie Générale Marocaine and the Omnium Nord Africain. Infrastructure development was impressive: 1600 km of railway lines were created, a major new port was constructed at Casablanca. Rabat was chosen as the capital, and other new towns were planned using the most up-to-date techniques. Working closely with the planner Léon-Henri Prost, Lyautey ensured that Morocco’s traditional cities were preserved – and carefully separated from the elegant new European quarters.
It was quickly realized too that the lands controlled by the sultan’s government, the bilad el makhzen (basically the coastal plains, along with the Fès, Meknès and Oujda regions), were the most fertile – hence the term le Maroc utile, ‘useful Morocco’. An increasingly dynamic European community undertook to develop the country’s resources to its own advantage, helped by tax concessions. By 1951, the European population had reached 325,000.
But for Lyautey, Morocco was not to be a settler colony, like neighbouring Algeria, where the French had shattered local society with such ferocity. Great efforts were made to understand Moroccan society – the rural areas were administered by the specially trained officiers des affaires indigènes, and special government departments were created to catalogue and restore Morocco’s heritage of historic buildings and crafts. Unfortunately, the knowledge of French experts often only served would-be colonists’ interests – take, for example, the exploitation by settler-interests of their data regarding the land necessary for a nomad family’s existence.
Ultimately, however, Lyautey may have been too ‘pro-Moroccan’ to satisfy a growing settler lobby. The fatal moment came in 1925. The Rif uprising, led by the enterprising Abdelkrim el Khattabi, imperilled the two protectorates. (In July 1921, the Rif armies had captured or killed around 15,000 Spanish soldiers at the Battle of Anoual.) Maybe Lyautey was felt to have been too hestitant – how could things have reached a point that the tribal army of the Rif Republic, led by a Muslim scholar, actually threatened Taza and Fès? Lyautey was recalled to France, replaced by Maréchal Pétain at the head of a large army which only finally defeated the Rifans in 1926 in co-operation with Spain. Fighting to defeat tribes resisting colonial incursions elsewhere in Morocco continued into the early 1930s.
Hardly had Morocco been ‘pacified’ than a nationalist movement arose. A focal point for nationalist resentment was the so-called Berber dahir (decree) of 1933, basically an attempt to replace Muslim law with Berber customary law in the main Berber-speaking regions. French colonial ethnography, which had provided the reasoning behind this project, had made a fundamental miscalculation: Morocco could not be divided into Berbers versus Arabs. The educated urban bourgeoisie demanded a reform programme in 1934 and, with the Second World War, the international situation clearly shifted to favour independence. The urban elite formed the Istiqlal (Independence) Party in 1944 – with the goodwill of Sultan Mohammed V. Although closely watched by the French, the Alaouite sultan had remained a symbol and had come to be seen as an instrument of French policy, and certainly not a collaborator. The situation under which the sultan was to all intents and purposes the resident-general’s unwilling puppet was viewed by the influential religious leaders as an outrage.
Tension grew in the early 1950s – under the Pacha of Marrakech, contingents of tribal horsemen converged on Rabat to demand the deposition of the sultan. In 1953 the resident-general, in violation of the protectorate treaty, deposed Mohammed V and replaced him with a harmless relative. The royal family found themselves in exile in Madagascar, which gave the nationalist movement yet another point of leverage. The sultan’s return from exile was a key nationalist demand.
The situation elsewhere in the French Empire was to ensure a fast settlement of the Moroccan question. France had been defeated in Indochina in 1954, and there was a major uprising in Algeria, considered an integral part of France by Paris. Extra problems in protectorates like Morocco and Tunisia had to be avoided. The La Celle-St Cloud agreements of November 1955 ensured a triumphal return from exile for the royal family, and independence was achieved in March 1956, with Spain renouncing its protectorate over northern Morocco at the same time. (The issue of the southern desert provinces under Spanish rule, like Río de Oro, was left to one side.)
Thus, Morocco’s independence was achieved under the leadership of the country’s traditional ruler. The Istiqlal Party had fostered political consciousness in the Moroccan middle classes, and a confrontation between a colonial regime and the people had developed into a conflict between colonial rulers and the Muslim ruler. The sultanate under foreign protection became an independent kingdom, with a unique position in the Arab and Mediterranean worlds.