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French Colony to Sovereign State: Moroccan Independence

Moroccans celebrate November 18 as Independence Day in commemoration of their Sultan’s return from exile in 1955 and Morocco’s transition from French protectorate to autonomous nation the following year. France claimed Morocco as a protectorate in 1912. Moroccan nationalists would eventually base arguments for independence on declarations such as the Atlantic Charter, a U.S.-British statement that set forth the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which to live. Moroccan nationalists believed an Allied victory in World War II would lead to independence, but when it did not, in 1944 the Istiqlal (Independence) Party demanded self-rule.

A 1952 riot in Casablanca prompted French authorities to outlaw the Moroccan Communist and Istiqlal parties and to send Sultan Mohammed V into exile in Madagascar. This kindled opposition both from political nationalists and from those who revered the Sultan as a religious leader. Faced with such opposition, the French brought Mohammed V back to Morocco, where he negotiated independence through reforms that would transform the country into a constitutional monarchy. In 1956, France officially relinquished its protectorate.

Donald R. Norland served as a Political Officer in Morocco from 1952-1956. In his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1992, Norland recounted some of the events he witnessed on the road to Moroccan independence.

Follow the links to read more about Morocco, Africa, and independence movements.


“They had spies; they had their ways of exercising authority”

Ambassador Donald R. Norland, Political Officer Rabat, Morocco, 1952-1956

Let me give you a quick overview of the ’52 to ’60 period. In the course of those years, I spent five years abroad under colonial regimes. The only way to understand what was going on in Morocco at that time, and what was going on in Ivory Coast later, was to see that the colonial power was determined to retain its status and maintain its citizens in positions of power and responsibility.

It was another mentality. And we’re only talking forty years ago. But in Morocco the atmosphere was dominated by the French, in the person of the French resident general sitting in the highest position of authority, with the Moroccan monarchy reduced considerably in stature by the way the French treated him, King Mohammed V (He was then known as Sultan Mohammed V.).

At that same time, there was percolating in the body politic of Morocco the effects of what an American president had done in 1942. You remember President Roosevelt had met with the Sultan after the Casablanca Conference. He told the Sultan that he would do nothing to facilitate continued French colonialism in the world. And that applied specifically to Morocco.

Roosevelt’s word had given rise to feelings of independence, which were focused in the Independence Movement (in Arabic the word is Istiqlal). Istiqlal was banned by the French, it was anathema to the authorities and, of course, it was gaining ground rapidly among Moroccans.

So you had this implacable confrontation between the French on the one hand, with their extraordinary armed forces…I became quite well acquainted with Général Duval, who was the head of those armed forces for much of the time that I was there…and the Moroccan people.

The French armed forces controlled the city, patrolling where necessary. They had spies; they had their ways of exercising authority. And on the other hand, you had the Moroccans, who were quietly going about in their djellabas (long gowns). The djellaba, in a sense, was a metaphor for their politics–a deceptively common outer garment able to conceal arms while they looked you in the eye and said, “I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just trying to stay out of trouble,” then going behind the scenes and conducting what we today call terrorist attacks.

One of my jobs, when I moved to the political section of the embassy, was to send in weekly reports of the number of arson cases, terrorist attacks, armed incidents, such as assaults on French authority by Moroccans. My boss there, by the way, was a figure of great capacity and dimensions. I’m sure you’ve heard his name–Bill Porter. Bill Porter was a man who understood the Moroccan mentality. He became the consul general in the fall of ’53.

“Roadblocks meant French military poking their guns inside the windows of the car until you showed them your papers”

[Morocco] was governed under the terms of the Treaty of Fez, which was agreed between Marshal Lyautey [depicted right] and the Moroccans in 1912. In a word, it provided that Morocco would be autonomous, except for defense and foreign affairs, which would be in the hands of the French. And, of course, the French expanded the authority granted them in that loophole (defense and foreign affairs), and literally ran the country.

Their investments were the dynamism that enabled the country to be actually quite prosperous and economically interesting. The Moroccans have great tourist potential. One olive oil company, Huile Lesieur, for example, in Casablanca, was a major multinational, we would say today. But the French used Morocco as a kind of training ground for their military. And they were constantly trying to preempt prominent Moroccans and get them to front for their administration.

When Bill Porter and I would drive inland, to Fez, for example, we had to go through roadblocks. And roadblocks meant French military poking their guns inside the windows of the car until you showed them your papers, and then you’d go on. It was a case of strict military domination and not pretty.

Bill handled it very well. He got to know the successive Residents General. There was Guillaume, Duval, Dubois, a former prefect of police in Paris, very prominent French politicians in positions of authority. But the Moroccans made their wishes known….

“…this was the age of independence”

I was the lowest-ranking officer in the consulate general. Bill Porter, having spent a lot of time in the Middle East, understood the mentalities, studied Arabic, and knew that the future of the country was with the Moroccan independence movement. And we kept getting informal emissaries from King Mohammed V.

One man, named Sbihi, was one of these quiet Moroccans who would slip in the back door to talk, in anxious tones, to Bill Porter, leaning forward, telling him all the feelings at the palace, how the king wanted help, etc.

The king wanted to cause the Americans to understand that the independence movement would be friendly to us, that Moroccans were not anti-French, but this was the age of independence. They remembered what Roosevelt had said. Bill Porter would play the game absolutely straight and say, “Thank you very much. We know we are indeed a symbol of independence, of course. But at the moment, the French are the authority here, and we must work and try to negotiate something different.”

At one point, a young Moroccan named Douiri came to my house. He’d been educated in France at the École des Mines. He’d returned and he was the top-ranking working-level Moroccan official. He came to me and he asked to talk.

I reported this to Bill Porter, who somehow got the Department to agree to allow me to have a contact with this young Moroccan. It took about two meetings to determine that, instead of being what the French thought he was, namely a product of the French universities and someone who believed entirely in the French way of looking at things, Douiri was a member of Istiqlal. I then had an authorized contact with a member of Istiqlal.

Well, we were passive; I never put out the word that I wanted to see Douiri. I was authorized to receive him in my house when he came around. So it was usually after dark, in the most imperceptible way, that he would somehow find his way to the house.

I should have mentioned, as part of this overall contact, something which I stress very much when I lecture on the subject. That is the fact that the United States was building five major air bases in Morocco at this time, three of which were already operational. And you know their purpose.

Perhaps I should put it on the record: these were so-called recovery bases for American aircraft striking the USSR from bases in the Middle East…A strike against the Soviet Union. They would make their strike, possibly from the United States, and would stop in Morocco for refueling and recovery, as they say.

And so this was a country that was playing an important role in the thinking of our Strategic Air Command, which was operating the bases. Morocco became important.

The U.S. talked in the same terms about Libya and Wheelus Air Force Base [in Tripoli, Libya], the Azores, about other bases around the world. But because of this strategic measure we were doing everything possible to ménager (spare) the French, i.e. to be very careful about maintaining good relations with the French.

They were an ally in NATO–not totally committed to NATO, but they were our ally, and we had this common adversary. And that superseded all other considerations in our relationship with the Moroccans; we treated the latter accordingly.

“We don’t turn people away if they come to our door.”

He [Douiri] would come around, and he would pass information about what the Istiqlal was doing, how they were organizing, mobilizing. They even began a newspaper at this time.

We were trying to find out whether there was Communist influence in Istiqlal. And there were, of course, some members who were Communists, but we were convinced that they were not dominant in the movement. So we maintained this contact.

I have to say that, later on, I discovered that our CIA representatives, who were based in Tangier, were receiving Istiqlal and other nationalist leaders, without the same inhibitions because it was the so-called international city. The Moroccans who got to Tangier felt much more open about seeing our people, although I’m sure the French knew who they were and who was being received.

And the French occasionally would seek Bill Porter and ask: “Why are you receiving these Moroccans?” And he would reply, “We don’t turn people away if they come to our door. We can’t turn them away, but we do not receive them in their capacity as independence movement leaders. We are an open country, an open mission, and we receive anybody. Send over your people.” He was very good at this.

Q:  When talking to this young Moroccan man, were you trying to extract information without giving encouragement?

NORLAND: That’s right, that certainly describes it. It was to show that we were open, and not renouncing our past. We recognized that our country had produced the Declaration of Independence (which they kept reminding us), and that it was contrary to our historical tradition to oppose independence.

But I can remember saying, time and again, “Look, we’re in an international confrontation here, and once this is over, who can say.”

Meanwhile, our instructions were to do everything possible to cultivate the French. And, incidentally, in running the American Library in Rabat, which I did for a year, we were discouraged from having Moroccans come into the center. We oriented our programs almost exclusively to the French.

If we brought in Moroccans, we could be accused of tainting them with the ideals of independence. I know the French used to plant people inside the door and take note of which Moroccans would visit the Library.

We were running a book-lending operation, for example, movies, art exhibits; the invitations went almost exclusively to the French and to those very few Moroccans who were considered to be approved, like the one that I was seeing, Mohammed Douiri.

Can you imagine having an information operation in a country of about twelve million, with only perhaps a couple of hundred thousand French, and yet the whole operation geared to the French?

I can remember one exhibit, for example. I had some people who were quite good at putting things together. We were trying to convey to the Moroccans, as well as to the French, what our policy was, and so we called one exhibit La Pieuvre Rouge (pieuvre is octopus, in French).

We had all kinds of tentacles going out, including USSR tentacles, toward Morocco (we were trying to justify our important base operation). This was an attempt to educate both the Moroccans and the French.

To the Moroccans, we were saying, “Look, there is a greater danger even than your French colonial master.” And to the French, we were saying, “Look, you can trust us. We understand the global threat, and we’re going to continue the policy as long as this danger persists.” It was something, all the military resources in the country.

“That was very good for photo ops… because it looked as though some Moroccans were supporting the French presence”

The palace was guarded very carefully. Bill Porter, the consul general, would go there on ceremonial occasions, but little business was transacted. I don’t think, except for special occasions, he was allowed to see the king. It was very much a Resident General-oriented operation. Incidentally, the Resident General always had a Moroccan aide-de-camp, a military aide.

That was very good for photo ops, as we would say today, because it looked as though some Moroccans were supporting the French presence. There were Moroccan soldiers totally integrated into the French military–very good soldiers, always well trained and groomed; they also had cavalry (horse) divisions. There was one particular aide-de-camp, assistant to the resident general, who seemed always to be around.

The French would present him proudly. Colonel Oufkir would meet Bill when he got out of his car, walk him up the red carpet, sit in the Resident General’s meetings, and escort him back to his car. To make a long story short, it turned out that Oufkir told Bill Porter of his sympathies for the independence movement. So, during the years where the French thought they were showing off Moroccans loyal to the French, in fact, their “model” turned out to be a strong independence supporter.

Q:  Among the French that you’d meet, was there disquiet about the future of French dominance there?

NORLAND: It’s part of the posturing that goes on in these countries always. If you show the slightest crack in your psychological armor, even admitting the possibility that there might be change in the future…the French might agree but would respond, “Eventually, perhaps, sometime down the road.”

But the thought of a break soon–such as occurred in Morocco in 1955–came as a shock. It came when Pierre Mendès-France became prime minister of France and decided that resistance to change was not useful.

There was the difficult problem of the colons, the farmer-colonizers. There were organizations of colons who would simply not countenance the thought that Morocco would not forever be the way it was, that they would be forced to leave their beautiful homes and their easy situations, with servants and cheap labor responding to their beck and call, as they had always done.

We knew people among the French (unfortunately, those were the people that we socialized with) who had the swimming pools, the parties; and Moroccans were wonderful as domestic servants, very good at many different tasks. So there was no apparent concession of any significance among the French that I knew. I knew a number of people. I was an official of the Franco-American Club, for example, where I helped bring together French and Americans–the Americans to learn French. We produced tourist outings, lectures. We’d give French officials a chance to explain their policies. Moroccans never attended those meetings.

Q: Were you there during the changeover?

NORLAND: Yes. As far as our operation in Rabat was concerned, we were on the defensive, in the sense that we could not produce these earthshaking changes. We were simply reporting. We had little influence on events. It was the Moroccans who were creating the conditions that became insupportable.

They accelerated terrorist activities. They began demonstrations, which we would report. They were usually under some euphemistic heading, not independence, but for higher wages, for example, or against something the French had done. They would make their wishes known in various ways. But it was the French in France, the Pierre Mèndes-France types, who had concluded that this was simply untenable or affordable and France would have to do something. And they then had to decide with whom they were going to negotiate.

In August of 1953, the French found the presence of King Mohammed V in Morocco uncontrollable. So one very dark night (I think it was the 18th of August 1953), they removed him from the palace and took him by plane to Madagascar…

There he was kept until 1955, about the 25th of November. In the interim, the French brought in a minor religious leader named Ben Arafa, from Fez, a man who could scarcely speak. (I guess his Arabic was good, but he didn’t speak French.) They made a puppet king of him.

The king of Morocco is also a spiritual leader. The principal sects regard the king of Morocco as the descendant of Mohammed and, as a result, pay religious as well as political allegiance to the king. Ben Arafa was able to claim some of that authority. But he was still a puppet, and everybody knew it. So there were a succession of anti-Arafa demonstrations.

They were publicly pro Mohammed V [seen left], of course, but everybody knew that in fact they were calling for the Sultan’s return. The Sultan’s return then became the loudest rallying outcry, when Moroccans talked politics. But, it was what was going on in France that created the change. I’m sure that the French in Morocco were reporting that the situation had become increasingly difficult because there were some extraordinary events.

“It had a certain psychological impact on what was going on.”

For example, the large demonstrations. On occasions when the French were trying to put on a good show, the Moroccans would refuse to show; they would boycott an event. And it became apparent that the event couldn’t take place. And various things occurred that could have had significant implications. I don’t know if they did or not.

But I go back to the commanding general, General Duval, a four-star French general, a man who had a gimpy leg. At the time, I was playing quite a lot of tennis, and he saw me at one point and asked me to become his regular tennis partner. This was morning tennis, after which we would have orange juice, coffee, and croissants at a little cabana right next to the court.

The general and I got to be quite well acquainted. But one day he asked me if I would like to go with him on a flight into the interior, to show me, as a political officer at the consulate, how his troops were combating a dissident movement in the interior.

I asked Bill Porter, “What do you think?”

And he said, “Well, you know, it’s up to you.”

I had just become a father for the first time, and I thought, no, I guess I better not. Duval went out that day, his plane crashed, and he was killed.

Nobody knows whether his plane was shot down or whether he actually lost control. Whatever. But the fact that they lost a four-star general was an event. It had a certain psychological impact on what was going on. So there were incidents like that, combined with the sullenness of Moroccans in public demonstrations, that were obviously pointing the way. You may have heard of the leader in Marrakech called El-Glaoui. Glaoui was from another age, really. He was “old fashioned” but it’s worse than that.

He was, at one point, kind of a nationalist. But the French got him and tried to bargain, using El-Glaoui’s authority to try to get acceptance for what was going on in Rabat. And that just didn’t work at all; it was a futile exercise. But what’s so hard for people to understand (it relates to one of your first questions) is the determination of the French people, the fact that they did have an effective army and military control. Yet if it had been just a matter of military resources, a military confrontation, the French could have hung on.

But there was something else, as we later learned in Vietnam, that made it untenable and so disrupted the relationship that they could never have been comfortable staying in the country if they continued to resist in the way that they did. So they made concessions. And in November of 1955, I remember standing on the road leading from the airport at Salé where the Bou Regreg River runs in the valley, with the king coming by on his return and hundreds of thousands of people lining both sides of the road as he drove back up to the palace.

After that it was just a matter of formalities before he was totally reinstated and independence declared in March of 1956. It was an interesting story.