France's prime minister launched a mission Wednesday to reinvigorate trade and cooperation with Morocco, which has steadily positioned itself as a regional economic powerhouse focused on Africa instead of its former colonial ruler.
French government ministers, state secretaries and a large group of business leaders accompanied Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to the Moroccan capital for a two-day visit.
It was Philippe's first visit to the North African kingdom since his appointment in May. He chaired a Franco-Moroccan economic forum involving nearly 150 French and Moroccan companies.
However, Morocco's ambitions and stalemates crept into a joint news conference by Philippe and his Moroccan counterpart, Saadeddine El Othmani, in the form of a prickly question over Western Sahara.
Morocco considers the disputed territory its "southern provinces," but the Polisario Front independence movement has declared it as a separate state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Asked whether the Polisario's republic would be represented at a summit this month of the African Union and the European Union, Othmani said its attendance would amount to support for separatists.
Morocco rejoined the African Union early this year after a lengthy absence due to differences over the Polisario Front. The AU-EU summit is to be held November 29-30 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. It remains unclear whether the Sahwari Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), supported by Morocco's neighbor, Algeria, will attend.
"It's an important summit. Very important for all of us," the Moroccan prime minister said. "But we have to say that the presence of this entity at the summit would be a support, a European support for separatisms."
"The entire international community must fight to preserve and prevent the dislocation of nation states," Othmani said.
SADR is recognized by dozens of United Nations member states and joined the African Union in 1984. Morocco quit in protest before finally rejoining this year.
Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the region, but the Polisario Front insists that people in Western Sahara are entitled to self-determination through a referendum. The U.N. has worked for years to arrange such a referendum.
In a speech, France's Philippe hailed Morocco's decision to return to the African Union, but avoided mention of the knotty Western Sahara problem. Instead, he stressed "the importance of the continent in Franco-Moroccan relations."
The two countries are signing cooperation agreements in the fields of economy, education and justice.