Let them eat Danone!

It’s good to be back in Rabat after three years away. My old shoe-cleaner has just descended on me where I’m sitting outside the Cafe Fine Brioche, and not just polished my shoes to a luminous perfection, but with much tutt-tutting injected superglue between the toes and the soles where he deemed them to be separating dangerously. An old friend happened by as he did so, and all the necessary hugging and kissing had to be done de bas en haut with me pinned to my chair by a smiling, blue-overalled figure squeezing the toes of my shoes, one in each hand, while the glue set. Then all the other shoe-cleaners came by, acknowledging gracefully that my shoes had already been well buffed, and shook me warmly by the hand. I do love this city.

The talk in Rabat is all of ‘le boycott,’ the invisible, highly effective campaign in the social media and the shops against … well, against what? Supposedly against high prices, but this isn’t quite as obvious as it seems, since to take only one example, al-Afriquia, the petrol company that is being boycotted, seems generally to be offering the lowest prices in the market. None of the three seem to have raised prices recently. There’s something else going on, though prices are certainly a part of it, and probably the part that motivates the foot-soldiers.

The boycott is a month old. It is aimed at three large companies, Danone Centrale, al-Afriquia and Sidi Ali. They are all conglomerate suppliers of daily necessities – milk, petrol and mineral water. They are owned either by politicians or major national figures – the Minister of Agriculture, Aziz Akkanouch, owns al-Afriquiya and Miriam Bensalah, the President of the CGEM, owns Sidi Ali (via la Société des eaux minérales d’Ouelmès); or by foreign investors – Danone Centrale has been 90% French-owned since a 2015 takeover of the Moroccan company Centrale Laitière. They are all being hurt by the boycott: Danone Centrale’s share price is down 5.69% and Afriquia Gas’s, 5.97%. Estimates of al-Afriquia’s losses are around 1.4 million dirhams (£111 thousand) a day.

The boycott itself rolls merrily along, but nobody seems to know quite who’s behind it, and what it’s really all about. There are clearly specific grievances. Al-Afriquia is the biggest of the petrol companies that have all reaped hugely increased profits since the PJD government “freed the market” in December 2015. A new parliamentary report has just been published, but mysteriously censored – stripped of all its embarrassing figures. A careful reconstruction by TelQuel suggests that the extra profits trousered by the sector in two years are around 13,000,000,000 dirhams, or just over a billion pounds sterling. It was not therefore very tactful of Lahcen Daoudi, the Minister of General Affairs (Morocco’s answer to Jim Hacker), to say, wonderfully, “Would you want us to go back to subsidising essential products? Are we a communist government?” To the first question much of Morocco would answer a resounding Yes. The second of course begs the question of when the Moroccan government, historically a subsidiser of essential staples, stopped being communist.

Meanwhile Miriam Bensalah has certainly been better with words, announcing suavely that her company pays 100 million dirhams (£7.9 million) in taxes a year to the commune of Oulmès, home of Tarmilat, the village where the mineral water is actually pumped. But Tarmilat, perhaps unexpectedly, is so poor that it is, according to one commentator, “without even the slightest basic infrastructure,” and campaigning desperately for education, health provision, electricity, sewerage and (you couldn’t make this up) clean drinking water. Where’s the tax-money actually going, some ask.

The targets picked are large companies intertwined with politics, which have made a lot of money out of Moroccan consumers. They symbolize to many the seamy interdependence of commerce and politics, and are thus ‘obvious’ targets, whatever their individual behaviour. Someone with a political brain set the ball rolling; it struck a bell that clearly rings across Morocco. Who the ‘political brain’ belongs to is quite unclear, and perhaps unclarifiable. It reminds me of The Scarlet Pimpernel:

They seek him here, they seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That demned elusive Pimpernel

The boycott seems to have a lot of support. Here at the Fine Brioche the usual bottle of Sidi Ali has been replaced with Maraqua, and this sort of substitution is apparently the case all over Morocco. Pity the small trader who has large stocks of Sidi Ali, and pity too the small dairy farmer – 90% of dairy farmers in Morocco have 3, or fewer, cows – who suddenly can’t sell his milk, and faces long-term and possibly permanent damage. Don’t on the other hand pity Danone Centrale, whose Purchasing Director this week called the boycotters “traitors to the nation,” which probably goes a long way towards illustrating why his firm is being boycotted. Buying milk is suddenly a patriotic duty? I think not. Gunpoint consumers whose job is to buy what they’re told to buy, and shut up, are unlikely to be happy about it: as an exercise in customer relations it is appallingly inept, and the fact that government is implicated both by its silence and by the commercial involvement of ministers is – how can one best put this? – a communications challenge.

The government seems frozen like a rabbit in the headlights: “Zero crisis communication, cock-ups, improvisation, complete black-out …” says L’Economiste, “and the ‘fronde populaire’ grows while the call to boycott continues and neither the government, nor Afriquia, nor the Moroccan Petrol-suppliers’ Association has any official reaction at all.” A case study in disastrous government and commercial communications, whereby the reaction or lack of one serves only to reinforce the boycott, confirming its choice of targets – it’s as though the whole thing was planned in expectation of a clueless response.

What is fascinating about all this is the evolution of protest. The Arab Spring of 2011 was called at the time the first social media revolution, but its fundamental weakness was that, for all the virtual mobilisation, it still had to put actual people on the streets, and those people could eventually be dealt with in traditional ways. This ‘virtual hirak,’ as one newspaper called the boycott, is powerful because its action all takes place either online or at the cash-register. It takes no effort and participation brings no risk: there’s no one on the streets to clobber. The handling of spontaneous and unauthorised protest has become more heavy-handed in recent years, so this low-risk boycott is hugely attractive: “Now we see a moving-on from the conquest of public space to a virtual protesting-space … Ordinary Moroccans understand the risk of repression, intimidation and arrest, and take refuge in social networks to express their discontents individually.” (TelQuel)

The main reason why the government is saying little is that it is presumably trying rather desperately to work out a strategy. It can’t tell Moroccan consumers which milk or water to buy. It can’t identify the prime movers (assuming there are such things). It threatens large fines for spreading “fake news,” and – sensibly – promises financial support to small dairy-farmers whose livelihoods are at risk. But otherwise all it can do is watch helplessly, suspending an imam here and there for preaching against profiteering (“discussing subjects which are the responsibility of other institutions.” Hm. A bit desperate.) It is just possible that this is only round one: there are other possible targets, and a rolling economic disruption is easily imaginable. So too is the focusing of protest in different ways: hitting members of the government is bad enough, but there are higher economic interests that could also be vulnerable. There’s no obvious reason for it to stop.

It is a perfect, asymmetric, brand warfare, aimed squarely at the overlap of power and money. It costs the protester nothing and the protested-against, a great deal. As a weapon for use by the powerless against the powerful it has a lot to be said for it. As Marie Antoinette didn’t quite say, when the peasants had no milk, “Let them eat Danone!”


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