Interview with the writer of ‘Our Friend The King’

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of the book ‘Notre ami le roi’ (Our Friend The King). Omar Brouksy interviewed the French investigative journalist and author of that book Gilles Perrault for orientxxi.info, below is a translation of the conversation into English:

Morocco-France. “Our friend the king”, an earthquake
Thirty years after the publication of Our Friend the King, a devastating book about King Hassan II, its memory is still vivid and the emotion remains strong for its author, Gilles Perrault. From his home in a Norman village, the writer evokes the political-diplomatic tsunami that this investigation-event provoked when it was published in September 1990.

Omar Brouksy. – How did the idea of a book on Hassan II come about?

Gilles Perrault. – It started with information that was not very reassuring about Morocco. One day I received a letter from a reader. It was a man who had just read “L’Orchestre rouge” (Fayard, 1987) and he was asking me questions about this book, which tells the story of a spy group during the Second World War. I answered him. A fortnight later, he wrote me a long letter asking me specific questions. I answered him. I always answer. And then a month later, I received another letter from him. There, I began to be… not really tired – he was obviously interested and interesting – but I thought he must be a bored soldier in his barracks. At the time, of course, there were no e-mails. He obviously dated his letters, like everyone else, and he said: “Kenitra’s PC”. One day I wrote to him and asked him what he was doing at the command post of Kenitra [“Poste de Commandement” T.N.]. He replied: “But not at all, Kenitra headquarters means Kenitra Central Prison. I’ve been there for twenty years because of the distribution of leaflets”. This young man’s name is Jaouad Mdidech.

So when you are here, in Normandy, in the peace and quiet of the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, and you learn that a young man has been sentenced to ten years in prison for distributing leaflets, you ask yourself questions. My sons were left-wingers at the same time. They distributed a lot of leaflets, they took blows with truncheons, but they didn’t get any jail penalty. That really disturbed me. I said to myself: “We have to do something”. I felt I was being requisitioned. This man, with whom I kept friendly relations, was one of Abraham Serfaty’s (1928-2010) comrades.

And then there was the meeting with Edwy Plenel who was in charge of a new collection at Gallimard, and who was a friend of Christine Serfaty. The three of us had seen each other in Caen, in Normandy, and I was returning home with Edwy Plenel. I admit that I was a little reluctant. I thought to myself: “it’s going to be another book with problems, a lot of trouble”. I was dragging my feet. And then Edwy suggested: “You see, this book should be called ‘Our friend the King’. And that was the trigger. I immediately said: “That’s it, I’m writing it”. You never know…

It reminded me of the director of the film “Garde à vue”. Claude Miller didn’t know how to convince Michel Serrault to play the role of a pedophile. At the end he said to him: “You know, you’ll be in police custody in a dinner jacket”. Serrault replied, “If it’s in a dinner jacket, I’ll play the part”.

O. B. – What was Christine Serfaty’s role?

G. P. – Fundamental. At such a level, that I shared the copyright of this book with Christine.

O. B. – Why did you do that?

G. P. – Because I cross-checked the information thanks to her. I had gone to Morocco when I was very young. I knew the country well, I had relationships there. But I would never have made this book without Christine. I avoided writing a lot of things because there was only one witness. There is an old french adage which says: “One witness, no witness”. The first time she told me about Tazmamart, I didn’t believe her. Not that I thought she was lying, but I couldn’t accept this reality. I moved on. And then finally she convinced me.

O. B. – What about the work itself? How did you proceed?

G. P. – I worked the way I always work: by exploiting the testimonies after cross-checking them. It took me less than a year.

O. B. – Was the publisher enthusiastic about the project?

G. P. – Not at all. Nobody believed in it. Antoine Gallimard said to me: “Yes, this book has to be done, but, dear Gilles, human rights in Morocco, it doesn’t attract crowds”.

O. B. – Many books had previously been written about repression in Morocco. Why did this one have such an impact?

G. P. – Look, I was very lucky. I had a window of launch as they say for the Ariane rockets. In 1990, the Soviet Union no longer exists. But Morocco was considered to be the rampart against socialist Algeria. There was no communist danger any longer and there was not yet Islamist danger.

O. B. – Did you expect all these reactions after the publication of the book?

G. P. – Not at all! Not at all! It was an earthquake. I was taken by surprise: diplomatic crisis; the year of Morocco in France cancelled; Hassan II protesting; thousands of Moroccans sending so-called “protests” to the Elysée Palace [French President’s Palace T.N.], etc.
Just imagine: you’re on a boat on a peaceful cruise and suddenly you find yourself in a completely unpredictable storm. And it rocks and it moves. Amazing! Amazing!

O. B. – What were the reactions of French political figures?

G. P. – The reaction I remember most is that of Hubert Védrine, at the time spokesman for the presidency, a close associate of François Mitterrand. I had met him a few days after the book’s release, and he attacked me violently : ” Perrault, he told me, you are irresponsible, you forget the 25,000 French people who live and work in Morocco, and the hundreds of thousands of Moroccans who live and work in France. Your book is irresponsible. “I don’t need to specify to what extent Védrine and others were and are subservient to the throne. But afterwards, when Hassan II released the detainees from Tazmamart, Kenitra and other places of detention, I met Védrine again. He told me: “Finally your book, Gilles (there he called me Gilles!), was beneficial for Hassan II. It enabled him to save the end of his reign. “I replied: “You’re right, Hubert (so I called him Hubert too!), but it was above all beneficial for the victims, their families and loved ones. Some had been in prison for twenty years. “But he didn’t care a fig about the victims. For him, there was only Hassan II who could save the end of his reign.

O. B. – What was Hassan II’s reaction to the book?

G. P. – Hassan II never personally attacked me in court. But he brought dozens of lawsuits against television channels, against newspapers that had questioned me, saying that giving the floor, in order to sully Morocco, to a man as despicable as Gilles Perrault was a professional fault. So it rained a shower of gold on the former Parisian bâtonniers [French presidents of Bar Associations T.N.] whom he took on as lawyers. Obviously it was a godsend for them, but he lost all his lawsuits. What did he think? That the French justice system was corrupted as at his home?

O. B. – Hassan II had also reacted financially…

G. P. – Yes! He first sent his damned soul, Driss Basri, his Minister of the Interior and the strong man of the regime, who met his French counterpart Pierre Joxe. He told him: “We are informed that a book is going to be published. It would be very unfortunate for Franco-Moroccan relations. We are ready to compensate the publisher. We will compensate the author, of course. “They have offered considerable sums. Joxe replied: “Listen, the publisher is Gallimard, the big publishing house, French, European, etc., and it’s not just the publisher. As for Gilles Perrault, I know him well (which was not true, we never met), he has a very bad temper. I don’t advise you to go and see him because it will go badly “.

But where I didn’t laugh is when I was warned at the Ministry of the Interior that there would be a contract with the French milieu, a bonus for the one who would shoot me. Steps were taken here in Sainte-Marie. A gendarme van was there, not far from the house. But it bumped into our poor neighbours and friends, some of whom got tickets because they hadn’t put on their seatbelts (laughs). Enough joking, it was really difficult. When you attack the king of Morocco, and that king is called Hassan II, you know that you are not attacking the Queen of England, the King of the Belgians or Albert of Monaco. That’s another customer.

I also noticed how great the complicity between Hassan II and the French political elite was. This is thanks to the Mamounia. Newspaper and magazine editors such as Jean Daniel from Nouvel Observateur [French magazine] or Jacques Amalric from Le Monde [Newspaper] came to Morocco on board the king’s planes to conduct interviews with him. To sum up, around the Mamounia swimming pool there was all the cream of the left and all the cream of the right.

But in spite of everything, I still remember it with great emotion because this book contributed, I say contributed, to the opening of prisons in Morocco. Because, let’s not forget, the real freedom fighters in Morocco are those dozens of Moroccan activists who fought like heroes so that the regime of Hassan II would be forced to make concessions.

O. B. – But even after the death of Hassan II, you remain undesirable in Morocco.

G. P. – Yes, André Azoulay informed me that, out of loyalty to the memory of his father, Mohammed VI would send me back on the first plane to France if I set foot in Morocco.

O. B. – How do you see Hassan II’s successor?

G. P. – When you were in politics under Hassan II, you could disappear. Definitely. Under M6 it’s not the same thing. And that makes a big difference. But finally, the essential problem of Morocco is also a social problem and it didn’t disappear with the current king. Clearly the monarchy, as it is today, is not the regime that will favour a solution to this problem. I believe that the future of Morocco is bleak as long as this gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Already it is no longer a gap, it is a precipice.

Hassan II was a complex personality. De Gaulle said of him: “He is unnecessarily cruel. “It’s a statesman’s formula because it means you can be unnecessarily cruel. And it is true that he was. But he was a true head of state. He loved power. He also loved money; but he loved power above all. M6, on the other hand, loves money first. He likes power because it makes his business easier, but it was secondary for him. He is not a statesman. He hasn’t succeed in filling the part of king of Morocco. Under Hassan II, journalists disappeared. Under M6, it was the newspapers. As you know, a good newspaper cannot do without advertising. People who advertise in independent newspapers or newspapers critical of Mohamed VI get phone calls: “His Majesty is very sad to see that you advertise in this newspaper…”. The message is obviously received five out of five. The advertising stops and the newspaper as well… You know something about it!

O. B. – What has changed and what, in your opinion, has not changed with the coming to power of Mohamed VI?

G. P. – Everything changed so that nothing changed. Twenty-one years after M6 came to power it hasn’t changed that much. It’s still the clan. Everything comes from the palace and everything returns to the palace. The circle is even narrower and narrower. There was a Shakespearean side to Hassan II. There were tragedies: putsches, repression, the ordeal of the Oufkir family… With M6, we are more in operetta. There was a big misunderstanding right from the start. He was even called “the king of the poor”. In the end, he was the king of the rich. And the richer and richer. It is true that one is often disappointed by those in power, but there, nevertheless, the disappointment is deep.

Translated by the French Riffian Jibril for Arif News, link to the interview in French.