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Morocco: French Made TGV Rail Project Causes Controversy

On Thursday 29 September, 2011, President Sarkozy of France visited Morocco to oversee the launch of construction work on a new TGV rail link between the cities of Tangier and Casablanca. The French made high-velocity train is due to start operating by December 2015 and is worth an estimated 20 billion dirhams (US$2.4 billion).

Moroccan state-run news agency M.A.P. boasts that “Morocco is the first country of Africa and the Arab world to have such a technologically advanced rail transport grid.”

At a ceremony chaired by King Mohammed VI of Morocco and President Sarkozy, the Moroccan Minister of Transport Karim Ghellab explained that the TGV is expected to generate new jobs and offer training opportunities in rail professions for Moroccan jobseekers.

The project is, however, causing a stir in the Moroccan blogosphere. Bloggers are raising questions about the motives behind the scheme and asking whether their country needs a project that costly.

TGV train in the French countryside. Image by Flickr user Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden (CC BY 2.0).

TGV train in the French countryside. Image by Flickr user Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden (CC BY 2.0).

“Real” motives

Veteran Moroccan blogger Larbi protests against a project he deems an “economic crime”. He explains the contract was offered to Sarkozy back in 2007 as a reward to the French after they lost a lucrative arms deal against the Americans. Back then, the Moroccan government preferred the United States’ Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets to the French Dassault Rafales.

Morocco offered to purchase the French TGV system to console Sarkozy, the blogger explains. Larbi writes [fr], addressing President Sarkozy:

C’est ainsi que cette aberration économique est née. D’un mélange d’ascendant psychologique que vous exercez sur les dirigeants marocains, de la volonté de ces derniers de vous plaire et du fait du prince, voire du caprice, du roi Mohammed VI. Un jour, sans étude préalable, sans aucune consultation ni étude de rentabilité, on a décidé de vous accorder un marché de TGV pour ne pas vous fâcher. En contrepartie vous avez bien voulu faire un beau discours au parlement marocain pour dire tout le bien que vous pensez du roi Mohammed VI et de la démocratie à la marocaine. C’était en 2007, c’était il y a mille ans. Mais force est de constater que ce sujet au moins vous n’avez pas changé d’avis, printemps arabe ou pas.

Thus was born this economic insanity: from a mixture of psychological ascendance you [Sarkozy] have over Moroccan leaders, the latter's will to please you, and the will, or shall we say the whim, of King Mohammed VI. One morning, without preliminary study, without any consultation or business case, we decided to award you a TGV so that you didn't get angry. In return you kindly made a beautiful speech in the Moroccan parliament to say all the good you think of King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan democracy. It was in 2007. It was a thousand years ago. One thing is for sure though [Sarkozy], you have not changed… Arab spring or not.

“Sarkozy, get out!”

Sarkozy's visit to Morocco comes at a time when the country is having an important debate on democratic reforms inspired by the Arab spring, punctuated by peaceful street demonstrations led by the pro-democracy youth movement “February 20.”

For many, the visit marks the open support of France to the controversial reforms lead by King Mohammed VI. For activist Rachid Droit this constitutes an interference in the internal affairs of Morocco. His message to Sarkozy is unambiguous:

"Sarkozy, get out! Morocco is not for sale". Poster by Rachid Droit, posted on Facebook.

"Sarkozy, get out! Morocco is not for sale". Poster by Rachid Droit, posted on Facebook.

Alstom connection

The French company Alstom, which won the contract to build the Moroccan TGV, is blacklisted by the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) since it emerged, back in January 2010, that the company was involved in the construction of a light rail project in Jerusalem designed to connect West Jerusalem to illegal settlements in and surrounding occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Mamfakinch!, a website run by a group of Moroccan activists, raises the issue and wonders [fr]:

Lors de l’attribution à Alstom de ce projet a-t-on pris en compte sa participation à la construction d’un tramway reliant Jérusalem-Ouest, via Jérusalem-Est, à deux colonies de Cisjordanie? (Pour rappel : la ligune arabe, dont le Maroc est membre, a voté une résolution condamnant le projet de tramway de Jérusalem)

When the project was assigned to Alstom, had the company's participation in the construction of a tramway connecting West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem and to two West Bank settlements been considered at all? As a reminder, the Arab league, of which Morocco is a full member, passed a resolution condemning the light rail project of Jerusalem [in early 2010].

High velocity costs high

Much of the controversy surrounding the TGV project stems from its estimated cost. Blogger Omar El Hyani writes [fr]:

Le coût du projet avancé jusque là était de 20 milliards de DH (dirhams), soit un peu moins de 2 milliards d’euros. Et au début de ce mois-ci, une autre surprise attendait le contribuable marocain : le coût prévisionnel du projet n’est plus de 20 milliards, mais bien de 33 milliards de DH (~3 milliards d’euros) ! Oui , vous avez bien lu, une augmentation de 13 milliards de DH (plus d’un milliard d’euros), soit 65% d’augmentation, sans qu’aucune explication ne soit fournie!

The project's initial cost was estimated at 20 billion Moroccan dirhams, just under 2 billion euros. But earlier this month, a surprise awaited Moroccan taxpayers: the estimated cost of the project is no longer 20 billion but 33 billion dirhams (about 3 billion euros)! Yes, you read that right. An increase of 13 billion dirhams (over one billion euros), i.e. a 65% increase. And not a single explanation provided so far!

Omar goes on explaining why he thinks the cost of the project has not been subject to democratic scrutiny:

Ne soyons pas naïfs. Il existe une catégorie de projets sur lesquels les parlementaires et les ministres n’ont aucun droit de regard. Des projets tombés d’en haut. Exécutez, trouvez du financement, et venez présenter sur un tapis rouge. De préférence devant beaucoup de caméras. Quid des règles de base de gouvernance économique, des études d’utilité, de rentabilité et d’impact socio-économique, de l’état des finances publiques? Quelle hérésie!

Let's not be naive. There is a category of projects that parliamentarians and ministers have no control over: projects that fall from above, conducted, funded, and presented on a red carpet, preferably in front of many cameras. What about the basic rules of economic governance? Business cases? Economic and socio-economic impact studies? What about the state of public finances? What an insanity!

A TGV – what for?

Blogger Kingstoune doubts the TGV is the right answer to the problems of public transport in Morocco since, he argues, it has proved to be an inadequate and costly solution in France itself. For him, the TGV is more an expression of a royal whim than it is of a true demand. He writes [fr]:

Je me demande si les responsables politiques et technocrates avaient vraiment étudié ou abordé de manière critique ce projet.
La LGV [Ligne Grande Vitesse], succès technologique, risque d’être un flop financier à l’instar de la France.
Elle semble donc être une sorte de caprice, un éléphant blanc dont certains responsables seront fiers, mais qui a de fortes chances de ne pas être utilisée par des millions de marocains comme ils l’espèrent.

I wonder if politicians and technocrats have studied or discussed this project critically.
The TGV, a technological success, may well lead to a financial downturn, as it did in France.
It seems to be a kind of a whim, a white elephant which some officials are proud of, but one that is not likely to be used by millions of Moroccans as they hope.

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