French President Francois Hollande has telephoned Morocco's King Mohammed VI to soothe diplomatic tensions raised by civil lawsuits filed in Paris accusing Morocco's intelligence chief of "complicity in torture."
Morocco, a close ally with strong commercial and cultural ties to its former colonial ruler, had reacted furiously to the announcement last Thursday of two lawsuits filed by an NGO against Abdellatif Hammouchi, the head of its domestic intelligence agency (DGST).
Hollande called the king, who is currently touring West Africa, to reassure him of France's "constant friendship," "dispel the misunderstandings" and underline his desire to strengthen ties, the president's office said Tuesday.
His intervention came after Morocco "postponed" a visit by environmentalist Nicolas Hulot, Hollande's special envoy for the protection of the planet, who was due to arrive on Monday.
After the lawsuits were filed, seven French policemen arrived at the Moroccan ambassador's residence to inform Hammouchi, at the time accompanying the interior minister on a visit to Paris, of a summons issued by the investigating judge.
Adding insult to injury, the Spanish actor and bete noir of Rabat, Javier Bardem, was quoted by mainstream French media on the same day citing diplomatically embarrassing comments about Morocco allegedly made by the French ambassador to the United Nations three years ago.
"Morocco is a mistress who you sleep with every night, who you don't particularly love but you have to defend," Bardem quoted him as saying, at the launch in Paris of his new documentary on the disputed Western Sahara called "Sons Of The Clouds, The Last Colony."
Morocco's Interior Minister Mustapha Khalfi described the alleged comments by France's UN envoy as "scandalous and unacceptable," saying that they "hurt all Moroccans."
Hundreds of people demonstrated outside the French embassy in Rabat on Tuesday, waving Moroccan flags and chanting patriotic slogans.
"We are here to protest against the comments of the French ambassador who insulted Morocco, to denounce this declaration," said Driss El Brahmi, 50, from Casablanca.
"We want to show that we are a sovereign independent people, and that we are ready to sacrifice ourselves for our king."
Rabat had summoned the French ambassador on Friday to reject the torture allegations and vigorously protest the lawsuits against Hammouchi.
It also reproached French authorities for sending police to the Moroccan envoy's house in Paris rather than pursuing the usual diplomatic channels.
France's foreign ministry moved swiftly to contain the fallout, saying on Saturday that it was a "regrettable incident" and promising to "shed light" on the matter. It also categorically rejected Bardem's comments.
On Monday the ministry received Morocco's ambassador, Chakib Benmoussa.
The two cases that sparked the diplomatic spat were filed by Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), an NGO based in Paris.
They relate to a pro-independence Sahrawi activist, Ennaama Asfari, who was handed a 30-year jail term in 2013 by a Moroccan military tribunal on the basis of confessions allegedly signed under torture.
A separate lawsuit accusing Hammouchi of torture was filed on Sunday in France by the lawyer of Moroccan former kickboxing champion Zakaria Moumni, jailed for 17 months on charges of racketeering before being pardoned by the king in 2012.
Moumni said he confessed to the charges against him only because he was tortured.
On Monday ACAT sharply criticised the French foreign ministry, insisting that "in a democracy" diplomacy has "absolutely no right to interfere in the work of the judiciary."
Morocco has come under fire in recent years for allegedly failing to end the practice of torturing detainees and convicting them on the basis of confessions obtained through torture.
A UN special investigator said in 2012 that the torture or cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners was "very frequent" in the kingdom, particularly for political prisoners.