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Hollande's Morocco visit clouded by French political scandal

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

President Francois Hollande heads to Morocco on Wednesday seeking to strengthening ties with the former French colony as an explosive tax fraud scandal threatens to overshadow his visit.

On the eve of the two-day trip, ex-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, formerly a pillar of the French government, was charged in a tax fraud probe after finally admitting having had a foreign bank account for around 20 years.

Hollande swiftly condemned the ex-minister and said he had committed an "unforgivable moral error." The president battled to contain the crisis on Wednesday morning before flying to Casablanca, with critics demanding to know if he was aware of the account.

As he begins meetings with King Mohammed VI, the French opposition is due to grill the government in the National Assembly, and demand accountability from the president, who is languishing in opinion polls less than a year into his five-year term.

For the moment there have been no changes announced to the visit, which aims to consolidate "a high-level relationship" with France's top trade partner in the Maghreb, said the office of Hollande, who will be followed by a large French press corp.

Morocco was upset that the president chose to visit its arch north African rival Algeria on his first visit to the French-speaking region three months ago.

But the page has since been turned in Franco-Moroccan relations, which Paris has described as "intense and fluid," stressing Hollande's good rapport with the king, who was the first head of state he received on becoming president last May.

Human Rights Watch has urged the French leader to raise concerns about "persistent" rights abuses in the kingdom, including torture in detention, unfair military trials, curbs on press freedom and the exploitation of child domestic workers."

The first day of the visit, in which at least eight ministers and 60 French business leaders are taking part, will see some 30 agreements and contracts signed, notably in the transport, agriculture, water treatment and renewable energy sectors.

On Thursday, after a visit to the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, Hollande will head to Rabat for a meeting with Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and a keenly awaited speech to the Moroccan parliament.

"He will use this forum to speak on the main issues" in the region, including Syria, Mali, the Arab Spring and Middle East peace process, according to a member of his entourage.

The French president is likely to emphasise that "Morocco has found the right path, is going in the right direction, in the context of the Arab Spring, which offers much potential but also brings risks," according to a French diplomat.

He will also hail "the very clear position" of the king in favour of the French intervention in Mali, expressed at an Islamic summit in Cairo in early February..

On the Western Sahara, the ex-Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975 in a move not recognised by the international community, France continues to support Rabat's proposal of autonomy under its sovereignty as a "serious and credible basis" for talks, and seeks a negotiated solution brokered by the UN.

Algeria-backed Polisario Front separatists, who are demanding that Sahrawis be allowed to vote in a referendum on self-determination, called on Tuesday for France to revise its position.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130403/hollandes-morocco-visit-clouded-french-political-scandal