Hubert Lyautey and the decolonization of Morocco

The French colonial who fell in love with Morocco

© Coll. Terrier


He is buried next to his compatriot Napoleon, but his name still only rings a bell with few Europeans: Hubert Lyautey, France’s first resident-general in Morocco. The French colonial left a special mark on Morocco a hundred years ago, which still lingers today. ‘The Morocco of the 21st century is still to a large extent Lyautey’s construct.’

This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepLOriginal Source, published in November 2022.

We drive through the hilly landscapes of Lorraine in early August on our way to a castle in the village of Thorey-Lyautey. Youssef Amakran, the Moroccan-Dutch photographer accompanying me on this trip, has never heard of the late owner of the castle, Resident-General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey.

The night before, I had asked a hotel receptionist in Nancy if she knew the man. ‘Are you looking for Rue du Maréchal Lyautey?’ was the reply. Soon she admitted that history was not her thing. ‘I have no interest in French military.’ Surprised, I asked if, then, she did not know the famous Marshal Pétain. ‘Ah, oui, le facho!’ (‘Ah, yes, the fascist!’).

Lyautey was given the post of resident-general when France gained a foothold in Morocco in the early 20th century. This made him the main representative of the French government in Morocco for more than a decade, from 1912 to 1925. For years, European superpowers had been covetously watching Morocco. The country had remained independent, while neighbouring Algeria had already been invaded by the French in 1830.

But the Moroccan sultan’s power was limited and did not extend across the whole country. In the end, it was Sultan Abdelhafid who signed the Fez Treaty on 30 March 1912, with which Morocco lost its sovereignty to France. Spain gained control of the north, as the country already had several enclaves there.

In the nine-point treaty, the Moroccan sultan agreed to the establishment of a French ‘protectorate.’ Keeping the throne, France would protect the sultan from any dangers that could threaten him. The same applied to the heir to the throne and his successors.

The Lyautey method

When Hubert Lyautey was appointed as the first resident general in 1912, he was 58 and a major-general in the French army. At that time, he already had a military career of 35 years behind him, with appointments in other French colonies: Algeria, Indochina, Madagascar.

As resident-general, he was commissioned by the French government to oversee ‘all the powers of the Republic in Morocco.’ A French decree of 11 June 1912 clarified how broad those powers were: France wanted ‘to establish in Morocco a new regime, which includes the administrative, judicial, educational, economic, financial and military reforms that the French government will deem useful.’

Lyautey chose to work with the locals rather than against them, with the ‘pacification’ of the country in mind.

‘Lyautey is a central figure in the birth of contemporary, united Morocco’, Guillame Jobin, author of the book Lyautey, le résident, tells us. ‘For him, Morocco was the country where he could realise his dream and design his own kingdom.’

The French resident-general turned out to be a big fan of indirect governance. He chose to work with the locals rather than against them, with the ‘pacification’ of the country in mind. Lyautey was convinced that this was an appropriate way of governing for most colonial situations. Morocco thus retained its own governing bodies, but under French control.

Lyautey felt it was important to preserve the authenticity of Moroccan culture. He had new colonial cities built, such as Casablanca, but did not want to destroy traditional Moroccan cities (Fez, Meknes, Marrakech) to do so. And one of the rules he introduced was the ban on non-Muslims entering mosques. An idea that persisted long after independence.

In the summer of 1930, Lyautey told journalist Pierre von Paassen that he always kept himself well-informed: ‘Any man who can gather a crowd in the East must be watched. During my time as resident-general in Morocco, I was always kept abreast of what these itinerant mullahs and ulema (Islamic leaders and scholars, ed.) were telling people.’ Lyautey’s library, which is preserved in his castle to this day and consists of more than 10,000 books, shows the extent of his hunger for information. The resident-general understood well that knowledge meant power.

Lyautey, the Moroccan

Claude Jamati, Lyautey’s second cousin, today helps manage the French château where the resident-general lived after his stay in Morocco. His grandmother Aimé was the sister of Lyautey’s father. Jamati manages this piece of heritage, where his great-uncle’s furniture, writings and archives are kept. He is also the president of the Fondation Lyautey, which aims to honour the memory of the resident-general.

Claude Jamati (à gauche) et Yassin Akouh (à droite).

When I contact him, he is immediately excited to receive me. ‘I was in all the places where my great uncle also went. The difference is that he visited the countries as a soldier, and I as a civilian.’ He himself never knew the man, as Lyautey died before Jamati was born.

The walls of the castle, which today is also a museum, are full of photographs and paintings: of Lyautey himself, of relatives, of Moroccan sultans. The castle is anything but classically decorated; there is even a Moroccan-style salon.

A sign says: ‘Lyautey, who was nostalgic of Morocco, liked to entertain in his Moroccan drawing room, or to retire there to read or meditate. It was, after his huge library, his favourite room.’ After retiring as resident-general, Lyautey still regularly received members of the Moroccan royal family at his castle: Sultan Youssef, Sultan Mohammed ben Youssef, and former King Hassan II when he was a child. Jamati shows us the gate through which the Moroccan sultan entered. ‘We even have a Quran lying here that Sultan Youssef gave to uncle Lyautey’, he says.

A smile appears on Jamati’s face when I ask him if the current king has ever visited the castle: ‘I hope he does one day. The Moroccan royal palace is aware of our activities. And Moroccan officials, such as the ambassador in Paris and the consul in Strasbourg, have already visited us.’

Lyautey’s second cousin takes us to a room where visitors are not normally welcome. ‘I am doing this especially for you because you are Moroccans’, he says. Dozens of boxes of documents and photo albums are scattered around the room, and there is a cupboard full of valuable books, and even some rare old editions. ‘Uncle Lyautey liked to go to antique shops, looking for hidden treasures’, he says.

The forbidden weapon

Lyautey had been holding the reins in the French protectorate for nine years when Riffian tribes banded together to resist Spanish colonial rule in the north. That resistance culminated in the Rif War (1921-1926), which later also turned against the administration in the French zone. Mohammed ben Abdelkrim El Khattabi managed to unite almost all the tribes in the northern zone, and also the tribes on the southern border of Wargha river in the French zone. These last ones to fight the French.

‘In a letter I analysed recently, the Spanish consul of Fez reported that 17 French soldiers were killed by clouds of gas from their own bombs.’ 
Rudibert Kunz, journalist

The Spanish then used poison gas between 1921 and 1927 to suppress the anti-colonialist resistance led by Abdelkrim. Civilians were also targeted in these bombings. It was not until 70 years after the fact, in 1991, that this was first written about, in the book Giftgas gegen Abd el Krim, by German journalist Rudibert Kunz and military historian Rolf-Dieter Müller.

Since the publication of that book, Kunz has never been able to let go of the matter. ‘Lyautey was apparently a great advocate of the gas weapon from the beginning’, he says. Using gas as a weapon of war was a novelty at the time. It was first used by France in World War I, then also by Germany, and finally by almost all participants in that war.

Kunz discovered a document by Lyautey, from as early as October 1917, in which he proposed to the government in Paris to test gas weapons by plane in Morocco against rebellious tribes. Names of tribes were not mentioned in the document. ‘Painlevé, the then minister of war, did not approve the proposal’, says Kunz, ‘but the reasons were not given. Probably the minister and his staff feared that secrecy would not be possible in Morocco.’

A year after Lyautey’s letter, in 1918, the French government considered reducing the number of troops in Morocco to cut costs. ‘Lyautey was in favour of replacing ground troops with air units with bombers and gas ammunition’, says Kunz.

‘The end of World War I, in November 1918, interrupted those plans’. From 1919, Spain began arming itself with poison gas, supplied by France, which thus enabled and authorised the use of that weapon. Even though it was forbidden by the then newly concluded Treaty of Versailles. Spain used the gas against Abdelkrim, his fighters and the people of the Rif. ‘The Moroccan sultan wanted to protest, but Lyautey prevented it’, says Kunz.

According to researcher Kunz, essential questions about the use of poison gas in the Rif remain unanswered. ‘There is no reliable overview of the number of deaths and injuries among combatants and civilians. How many men, women and children were blinded by mustard gas? How much poison gas was used? Which regions and tribes were attacked, how often, and in what quantities? And let’s not forget: did France only supply gas in this war, or did it use it as a weapon itself?’

© Cliché Illustration


When the Rif war spilled over into the French zone in the spring of 1925, Lyautey himself insisted that his own troops be allowed to use gas weapons. In deep secrecy, he requested the delivery of 50-kilo bombs and artillery shells containing mustard gas in the summer of 1925.

Kunz is convinced that the French air force also effectively carried out massive gas attacks in July 1925.

‘After much hesitation, the use of the shells was finally approved’, explains Kunz. ‘On condition that they would only be used in retaliatory actions, and only with the authorisation of both the French prime minister and the Minister of War. But it is not certain whether that ammunition eventually arrived in Morocco.’

In October 1925, Lyautey was relieved of his post and recalled to France. The Franco-Spanish coalition put a brutal end to anti-colonialist resistance in the Rif with a large force. But Kunz is convinced that the French air force also effectively carried out massive gas attacks on the Rif troops and allied tribes north of Fez in July 1925. ‘In a letter I analysed recently, the Spanish consul of Fez reported that 17 French soldiers were killed by clouds of gas from their own bombs’, says the researcher.

‘The Rif war was unfortunate’, says Lyautey’s second cousin Claude Jamati. But about the use of poison gas by the French in Morocco, he knows nothing. ‘I have my professional life (as a civil engineer, ed.) behind me. Every day I discover new information.’

Colonial flag

It was also Lyautey who created Morocco’s current flag in 1915, writes Jonathan Wyrtzen, professor of sociology at Yale University, in his book Making Morocco: colonial intervention and the politics of identity. In it, he explains, among other things, why that flag had to be renewed so urgently: ‘The decree introducing the flag clarified that the old emblem could be confused with other flags (especially naval ones).’


And, Wyrtzen continued, ‘that a new symbol was necessary because of “progress made by our Cherifian empire”’. The new flag, with a five-pointed green star on a red background, was to distinguish Morocco from other nations.

The six- or eight-pointed stars traditionally used in Morocco were probably too closely associated with Jewish symbols for a European like Lyautey, Wyrtzen supposed. For the resident-general, the five-pointed star of Ottoman origin was a more clearly Islamic emblem, even though it had never been used in Morocco before.

‘I am not honoured by this flag and it does not represent me. It was made by the coloniser and designed by Lyautey, who killed our fathers and mothers.’

Today, some activists consider the Moroccan flag a relic of colonialism. But for the Moroccan state, the flag remains a symbol that should remain untouched. Undermining symbols of the country or inciting such acts is punishable.

In late October 2018, a riot erupted on social media after Riffian activists set fire to and trampled on the Moroccan flag in Paris. They were arguing for the release of Riffian political prisoners, who were sentenced to 20-year prison terms. The reason: they had demanded socio-economic and cultural measures for the Rif, such as the construction of an oncology centre, hospitals, and universities. The protesters also commemorated the death of Mohsin Fikri, the fish seller who died in October 2016 after being crushed by a rubbish truck. His death prompted months of protests.

In response to the burning of the flag, Moroccan MPs sang the national anthem during a parliamentary session. ‘A criminal act that has nothing to do with freedom of expression’, was how the desecration of the flag was labelled by Abdellah Boussouf, the secretary-general of the Advisory Council for the Moroccan Community Abroad (CCME). BBC Arabic interviewed the woman who lit the flag on fire: ‘I am not honoured by this flag and it does not represent me. It was made by the coloniser and designed by Lyautey, who killed our fathers and mothers.’

The legacy

Lyautey’s love for Morocco was immense. Even after he was removed from his post as resident-general in 1925, he continued to maintain contacts with Morocco until his death in 1934. Then he was left with one last wish: a final resting place in Morocco.

His dream became a reality. For years, Lyautey was buried in a mausoleum in the Moroccan capital Rabat. In 1961, five years after Moroccan independence, he was reburied in France. William A. Hoisington Jr, professor emeritus of European History at the University of Illinois, argues that after Moroccan independence, the tomb was an unwelcome reminder of the colonial past.

Lyautey is now buried in the Dôme des Invalides in Paris, next to Napoleon. On his tomb, in Arabic, is a quote from the resident-general: ‘The more I know the Moroccans and the more I live in this country, the more convinced I become of the greatness of this nation.’ The quote contrasts with what Lyautey told the French prime minister in 1925: ‘The Muslim, the Moroccan, understands and respects only violence.’

© Youssef Amakran


In the summer of 2020, during the heyday of the global Black Lives Matter protests, Lyautey’s statue in Paris was daubed. The message left behind: ‘Colonialist’, ‘Long live the Rif Republic 1921-1926’, ‘You gassed the Rif’. Later, the statue received another coat of red paint over it.

In reference to vandalism, Lyautey’s second cousin says it is a global phenomenon, and people want to erase history with it. ‘For me, the vandalism on the statue is not important. It is a criminal act and it would be a shame to attach much importance to it.’

‘The Moroccan monarchy and the ruling elite have simply replaced the resident-general and the French protectorate.’

Jonathan Wyrtzen, professor Sociology (Yale University)

Lyautey’s equestrian statue in front of the French consulate in Casablanca remained untouched. It is reminiscent of the many pictures of how the Frenchman once rode around Morocco on horseback. In 2020, a petition called for the statue to be removed, but it was signed by less than five hundred people.

Professor Jonathan Wyrtzen does not see much anti-Lyautey sentiment in Morocco itself, if people know him at all. ‘On the contrary’, he tells me, ‘most Moroccans feel that he applied the best, or at least the least bad, form of colonialism, and that he contributed to the development and modernisation of the country without destroying Moroccan heritage, architecture and traditions.’

Wyrtzen finds these opinions about a former colonialist interesting. ‘Lyautey initiated the long-standing dual emphasis on tradition, authenticity on the one hand and modernity on the other, which lives on in Moroccan society and politics to this day.’

Lyautey, compared to anyone else, may have had the greatest influence on Morocco in the last 100 years. ‘In many ways, the monarchy and the ruling Moroccan elite have simply replaced the resident-general and the French protectorate’, says Wyrtzen. ‘In a remarkable way, the Morocco of the 21st-century is still largely Lyautey’s construct.’

About this article

Journalist Yassin Akouh: ‘According to some, Lyautey loved Morocco and its people. But did he really love them that much? It is significant to me that he had it in his mind to use poison gas in Morocco as early as 1917. Of course, proud Moroccans, including the Riffians, did not give up their freedom just like that. In recent years, I saw more criticism of Lyautey appear, sometimes with political aims. That is why I wanted to devote an article to Lyautey’s legacy and take a critical look at his figure. Unfortunately, Belgium has never paid much attention to Moroccan history. When it does, it is mainly about guest workers and miners. Even in current affairs, we see that Morocco remains underexposed. I hope that this article can be an impetus for all Moroccans and others to delve further into Morocco’s history.’


This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepLOriginal Source, published in November 2022.


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