Morocco is up in arms following an accusation that an unidentified French cabinet minister engaged in sexual relations with underage boys in the resort town of Marrakesh.

Luc Ferry, a former French education minister, ignited the affair – and probably inadvertently –  on May 30 during a television debate on the reluctance of French media to report on the private lives of politicians. Wanting to give an example, he cited reports about a fellow minister participating in an orgy with Moroccan children but said he wouldn’t reveal the minister's name for fear of being sued for libel.

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Ferry’s charges might have been ignored in the past. But France is in an uproar over the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund chief and perspective socialist candidate for president, who was arrested on sex charges in New York. In Morocco, the story rekindled suspicions of foreign tourists and colonial exploitation by a country that was ruled by France for 44 years until 1956.

Two days after Ferry’s remarks, Morocco's justice minister, Mohamed Naciri, ordered legal authorities in Marrakesh to launch an investigation. The same day an investigation was also initiated in Paris by the Moroccan child protection organization Don't Touch My Child, and Ferry was summoned as a witness. French police opened their own probe.

By that time, however, the affair had turned into a political football in Morocco.

"The government was slow in responding. It should have acted immediately after Mr. Ferry gave his interview and demanded that he reveal the name of the French minister and not wait for civil organizations to take action," Hassan Al-Haithami, a spokesman for the Islamic opposition party Justice and Development, told the Media Line. "If the government wants to encourage tourism through its silence, it should encourage real tourism, cultural and historic, not sex tourism.” 
         
Al-Haithami termed sex tourism a "mark of shame on an Islamic and Arab country."

Ferry, a celebrity philosopher and former education minister, alleged that the unnamed minister had been arrested in Marrakesh on suspicion of pedophilia but was quietly flown back to France in a cover-up. He asserted that his allegations were confirmed by "the highest authorities of the state" including a former prime minister.

Since then, however, Ferry has stated he had no proof that a sex crime took place and was merely recounting what he had heard from other senior officials while he served in the cabinet from 2002 to 2004.

If the abuse did indeed happen, it wasn’t an isolated case. A 2008 report by Don't Touch My Child alleged that Morocco has emerged in recent years as a preferred destination for pedophiles because of lenient sentences handed out to offenders. Foreigners are often released quickly, the report said, accusing authorities of preferring the tourists' hard currency to the protection of child victims, who are often street children or marginalized house servants.

A Moroccan national named Lilia, calling in to a popular French radio program to complain about the harassment of Moroccan children by Europeans, reported seeing 12-year-old boys enter a building where European tourists were living during nighttime.

"It’s well known that Marrakesh is for the French and Agadir is for the Germans," Lilia told radio anchor Jean-Jacques Bourdin, referring to another major tourism destination in southwest Morocco. "I was at the beach in Agadir in midday and saw Germans with little boys, no older than 14. Everybody knows about this, but they shut their eyes."

Don't Touch My Child said it received reports of 306 cases of sexual assaults against children across Morocco in 2008, the last year for which data was available.

During a press conference in Paris last Wednesday, Najah Anwar, director of Don't Touch My Child, warned foreigners of exploiting Moroccan children.

"Beware, Morocco has become very strict," she told the audience, mentioning a recent 30-year prison sentence handed down to a Spanish national who was accused of having sexual relations with Moroccan minors.

Moroccan Social Development Minister Nouzha Skalli denied that tourists were the only ones guilty of child molestation, warning that there would be "zero tolerance" towards perpetrators of sexual crimes against children.

"There is no tolerance of the matter," Skalli told parliament on Friday. "We share the same anger towards sexual exploitation of children and we will not accept it." She added that a report was being prepared by her ministry on child pornography in Morocco, but that little data existed regarding the scope of sexual assaults of children.

But Abd-Al-Karim Al-Huweishari, a member of parliament for Justice and Development, accused local officials of intervening to rescue the accused French minister from punishment. "Child rape is rape of all Moroccans," Al-Huweishari was quoted by the daily Al-Massae as saying.

Jack Kalpakian, a political scientist at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, said the perception held by many Moroccans that foreigners are let off from serious crimes of pedophilia is simply untrue. Accusations such as those set off by Ferry feed traditional suspicions of Western tourists that he said are deeply rooted in Moroccan culture.

"There are plenty of people from the Gulf and Europe serving prison terms," he told The Media Line. "Accusations to the contrary are simply not backed by the facts."

"Many Moroccans believe that Christians are basically immoral. Culturally, they also don't understand the phenomenon of laïcité [secularism], which they regard as atheism," he said. "This is a serious problem; and the government discourages this mode of thinking. But the new accusations would fit the stereotypes.” 

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