A picturesque little village in France, where the residents vote for the far-right National Front while happily serving the king of Morocco. A reporter for Moroccan magazine Tel Quel asks the villagers-why all this love for the Commander of the Faithful?
“So, what do you think about the king of Morocco?” “Well, I certainly would not criticize him, he’s my boss,” says the village mechanic. “And in the end, I don’t really have any business commenting on his political policies.” Two thousand kilometers away from the Moroccan capitol of Rabat, the mechanic does not seem to have any political opinion at all on the king of Morocco. “Anyway, who cares where the money comes from?” he concludes.
Welcome to Betz, population 1,000. Sixty kilometers northeast of Paris, it is a small village surrounded by forests, checkered with farm fields of beets and cereal crops. The rain that falls here would turn any Moroccan peasant green with envy. Here in this bedroom town the streets are nearly deserted, and a few old houses with character offset the tedious monotony of suburban development.
A tranquil village, a place of crushing banality that would probably be entirely uninteresting, were it not for the occasional visits of a single much less ordinary guest. This exceptional visitor is none other than Mohamed VI, king of Morocco and owner of a castle here inherited from his father, Hassan II. On his stays in France, this is his main residence. The mayor of Betz, Colette Thellier, says that the king stays here “about two or three times a year,” for various periods. “Sometimes he is just passing through, but sometimes he stays for weeks at a time,” says a local gendarme.
It was from his castle here in Betz that the king oversaw the elections last fall that brought the Islamist PJD party to power back home. And the day after France’s presidential elections last May, the king was here in Betz as well. That allowed him to be the very first foreign head of state to be received by the newly elected Francois Hollande, at the Elysee palace.
The property was bought by king Hassan II in 1972 from a wealthy Norwegian woman. The current castle had been constructed in 1914, and she had since converted it into a private luxury hotel. Long before that, at the end of the 18th century, the site had belonged to a princess of Monaco, who was forced to flee during the French revolution. She ended up taking refuge in England, and, like all of the assets of the Church and the nobility, her castle was seized by the revolutionary government and auctioned away.
And so now Mohamed VI is lord of this vast domain, 175 forested acres crossed by a river. There are now two castles here (the smaller second one, the ‘Prince’s Wing,’ was built by Hassan II). There are also stables for His Majesty’s horses, and centuries-old historic buildings; the place is registered as a national heritage site.
But the villagers here have never set foot upon it, save for a single day in 1999, when Hassan II invited them all over for a Moroccan barbecue, and once in 2005, when a humanitarian organization held a charity fundraiser here. The wall surrounding the royal residence runs right down the entire main street of Betz, backed by a curtain of trees that prevent the curious from casting indiscreet glances inside. Some of the villagers have never even seen the castle that makes their town famous.
But all of this is in no way a point of contention for local residents. On the contrary: they compete to offer the highest praise for the king: “simple,” “pleasant,” “likeable,” “humble,” “discreet,” “honest,” “very nice,”… the list goes on. His presence “honors our community,” summarizes Madam the Mayor.
It must be said that the Alawite Dynasty, father and son, has been extremely generous with the municipality. “Each and every time that he visited Betz, Hassan II would send a check to the municipality,” says a previous mayor, Philippe Boulland.
The village hall? Hassan II donated at least 300,000 francs to build it. The bell for the church? Hassan sent a check. The recent community center? Mohamed VI made his little offering. And don’t forget, says Boulland, “that every year he sends a check directly to the community center.”
The list of royal good deeds does not end there. Like his father before him, every year Mohamed VI offers a dozen local teenagers an all-expenses paid trip to Morocco.
“When they come back, they are totally enchanted,” says the middle school principal. And it is not hard to believe him. Here is how the trip to Morocco looked last year: it started with a ‘special flight’ from Paris to Malaga. In the pictures, the kids appear to be the only ones on the plane. Arriving in [the Spanish port of]Algeciras, they were welcomed personally by the Moroccan consul. Afterwards, they embarked on a ferry to Morocco.
On arrival in the land of the King, they were hosted throughout their three week stay in five stars hotels. In Tangier, they stayed at the Minzah. In Rabat and Agadir, at the Sofitel. In Casablanca, at the Hyatt Regency.
Another beneficiary of the royal largesse: the staff of the castle, recruited from Betz and the surrounding villages.
They mayor says that the Alawite monarch is “the largest employer” in the village, with “some twenty full-time employees”: gardeners, housemaids, stablehands, all of the people who daily take care of the castles, the park, and the royal horses.
And when the king is present here, the number of employees increases; extra hands are needed for the cooking and dishwashing.
And for local businesses, the royal visits are a veritable godsend. The bakery is commissioned to send “300 baguettes a day” up to the castle: the king does not travel alone; he brings along a multitude of servants. “200 people,” says the local press. “Even more sometimes,” says the former mayor Boulland.
Even so, this is far fewer than the retinue who came along with his father Hassan II, who we are told used to bring along five times as many people.
Some of the King’s servants stay in the village, in houses purchased just for these occasions. They drink their coffees in the local cafe, buy their medicine at the pharmacy of the village, pick up food at the mini-mart. It all amounts to “quite a little bonus in revenue,” says the manager of the village’s “Cocci Market.” She still remembers with a girlish thrill when the king came inside, in person, “very discreetly,” to do some shopping at her store.
For local artisans too, a royal visit can mean work. After numerous projects on the surrounding lands, he has recently decided to renovate the castle itself. According to Boulland, the work will take two years, with the building being “updated to reflect the King’s taste in decor and functionality.”
Mohamed VI has never set foot in the village bistro, The 24. But he nevertheless intervened personally on behalf of the owner, to help him obtain a tobacco sales permit.
So it is not hard to see why the inhabitants of Betz appreciate the presence of their extremely generous guest. Visiting the village, we spoke to dozens of residents, and never found a single person anything but kind words for the King. Well, except for one: the postman; an Algerian, who reserves particular dislike for the king’s employees and the way they treat him. “When they’re around, it’s a mess. The guy who answers the door, he opens up, takes your package, and just walks away, doesn’t bother to give you a signature if you need one, just dismisses you.” As for the king himself, the postman has only glimpsed him once. It is the opulence on display that rubs the postman the wrong way. “When you think about the people back there (in Morocco) who cannot even get basic healthcare, while their king is here in his fancy castle! And this isn’t his only castle either!”
In Betz, the [far-right] National Front took 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the national election, a good seven points higher than the national average. At the cafe, you hear rumors that some residents are unhappy with the royal visits, synonymous as they are with the arrival of the ‘bougnouls’ [derogatory French word for Arabs]. Overall though, the presence of Mohamed VI in Betz seems to raise few hackles, except for a few taxpayers irritated at the site of their public money paying the gendarmes who guard the king when he is here.
But it was perhaps with this [local xenophobic impulse]in mind that the king’s father came up with the idea of pairing Betz with a sister city in Morocco, Skhirat. What is sure is that, like his father, Mohamed VI has become “very attached to this place,” Boulland told the local paper, the Courrier Picard. “The king once told me that he never gets such a good rest anywhere as when he is here in Betz.” The king is as discreet as possible during his visits, in any case. Residents of Betz only know he is here when the Moroccan flag goes up at the entrance of the property, and chauffeurs wearing suits wait all day long in their black cars on the street. People say that Mohamed VI has only walked around the village once, when he stopped in at the mini market and the pharmacy. “Well really, there’s not much for him to see around here anyway,” jokes the village pizzamaker, Mr. Hassan.
And as for what goes on behind the walls, or even what it looks like in there, nobody seems to know. Several of the day laborers who have worked inside tell us that “it actually isn’t very luxurious.” One artisan even describes it as “kind of old-fashioned,” and in need of “a thorough renovation.”
And it is impossible to find out much more than that. As soon as the subject of the Moroccan king comes up, an odd atmosphere of defiance and fear settles over people. Most employees of the castle refuse to talk to the press at all.
Into this mute atmosphere, a group of Moroccan opposition activists have tried to set up a demonstration in front of the castle, to “protest the dictatorship of the king, and his stranglehold on the Moroccan economy.” They find no support whatsoever in Betz. “Totally out of place!” one resident at the cafe says angrily. “Coming to demonstrate here in Betz, where the king brings visitors, where he brings business to the shops? Leave him alone! He is a lot less horrible than his father anyway.” One woman, an employee in the castle, shouts that “these people [the protestors]have no business here,” and swears up and down that she is going to go “yell at them” herself. The daughter of one of the former mayors, who held office in the years of the present king’s father, shares her irritation. “All this hullaballoo is totally unamusing,” she says, worrying that Mohamed VI might stop visiting the town altogether.
More prosaically, the residents of Betz seem to agree that Moroccan problems should stay in Morocco, and whatever goes on there is of no interest to people here. The owner of the cafe sums it up thus: “The only politics I care about is my income, my kids, and my family.”
In the end, the unauthorized sit-in ends up not taking place. In Betz, in the heart of the “land of human rights,” the banning of the demonstration raises barely an eyebrow among the natives. Only one person openly shows sympathy for the demonstrators and their “protest against a filthy-rich king who taxes the poor.” An opinion obviously not shared by the mayor of the village, who, when she hears about plans for the sit-in, which was supposed to be a weeklong camp-out in front of the castle gate, hurries to pass a municipal code amendment “strictly forbidding any unauthorized camping anywhere within the bounds of the municipality.” So, was this meant to spare the king the embarrassment? “No, it is meant to enforce the tranquility of his stay here. The King comes here to rest and never causes any nuisances, so it is our role to make sure the village stays calm for him.”And she adds this rather enigmatic sentence: “It is true that France is the land of human rights, but these people are taking entirely too much advantage of it.”
Claire Riviere Translated from French by International Boulevard
31 Mar 2014