by John Lichfield
Friday, 3
September 2021
Dispatch
10:24

Can Macron save Marseille?

The President has a plan for France's poorest and most violent city
by John Lichfield
President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Palais du Pharo, Marseille. Credit: Getty

To understand Marseille — France’s second city, its poorest and its most violent — would take a lifetime. President Emmanuel Macron is spending three days there, his longest official visit of any kind since he was elected in May 2017.

Macron last night announced a 3bn, 15 year “rescue” plan for a city that has the highest unemployment, poorest housing, most dilapidated schools and — above all — the highest murder rate in France. 

This summer alone there have been 12 drugs-related killings of young people (by young people) in the city’s poor, northern districts. They included a 14 year old boy and a 17 year old girl who had no known connection with Marseille’s perpetual drugs war. 

The most depressing thing about these death figures is that they are neither high nor surprising. There were 28 similar murders last year. There were 35 in 2016. In previous years, Marseille (population 900,000) has proportionally as many drug-related murders as New York (population 8,000,000).

To even begin to understand Marseille, you have to grasp that there is not one city but two. The southern parts, including the old port, city centre and wealthy southern outskirts, are vibrant and relatively prosperous and peaceful. 

The northern part sprawls for 10 kilometres over ridge after ridge of low, limestone hills. Each is crowned by a white citadel gleaming in the Mediterranean sunshine which, as you approach, turns into a group of shabby tower blocks.

Up to the 1960s, these were the scrublands and the hard-scrabble villages of the Marcel Pagnol novels set in the early part of the century. These hilltop “cités” — with lyrical French village names like La Savine, Les Maronniers and La Castellane — are now the home of  North Africans, Africans, Asian and Roma migrants and their first, second and third generation descendants. 

Almost 40% of people who live here are below the poverty line, compared to 26% in Marseille as a whole and 15% nationally.  

For 10 years or more, these housing estates have been wracked by a drugs war between two principal gangs — Les Noirs and Les Gitanes (“the blacks” and the “gypsies”) — complicated by local turf rivalries between the different estates. The poor level of education and high level of unemployment means that recruits for the war are plentiful — and younger every year.

Similar problems exist in poor, inner suburbs on the edges of all French cities. In Marseille, the housing estates are within the city boundaries. The problems are more acute and more visible.

Macron’s visit to Marseille is partly electoral. Security will be a big issue in next year’s elections. He deserves credit, all the same, for promising to treat the city’s problems “at their root” — better transport and schools, better housing as well as more police. Four new tram lines will be built to span the gulf between north and south. 

Every French government in recent decades has made similar promises. Little has been delivered. Macron has at least grasped the heart of the problem. Marseille can only be healed if it becomes one city, not two.

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JP Martin
JP Martin
11 months ago

Marseille is not special. Whether it’s Marseille or Trappes, or Seine-Saint-Denis, it’s all the same. The problem will never be solved unless the French government takes very radical action. So far, no one has the appetite to do this. Maybe they do not even have the confidence in their ability to regain control.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Quite so. He passes without comment over the background of the modern poorer classes of Marseilles, but had they been Vietnamese or Indian, the likelihood is that rescue from poverty would have issued from their own dedication and industry. He speaks of the gangs, which clearly have an ethnic character, before concluding with the pious hope of an unctuous cleric that the city “will become one” – cue contemptuous raspberries from the bored congregation and cries of “Fat chance, ducky!”
Best of all for Marseilles, for France, for Europe, for world culture and civil stability would have been a Powellite approach throughout Europe to the end of empire, then none of these terrible and perhaps fatal problems would ever have arisen.
Who suffers most from the anti-Powellite consensus? The poor, of course. They have fled their old haunts.
And who will suffer? All of us.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
11 months ago

Hahahahaha. Was this title a joke? Macron will save Marseille like the EU saved the poor of Greece. Like the US empire saved the poor and weak in Afghanistan. Assange stated the Afghan project was a giant money laundering scheme for the transnational security elite. It never had anything to do with improving the lives of Afghans. This is really the way you have to think about these schemes. My prediction? Massive Public/Private “partnerships” where public utilities are sold off and all economic activity must be approved and run through the Macron’s financial backers. The French government spends tons of money “helping the poor” by filling the pockets of Macron’s corrupt backers. Seen this story a 1000 times now. Great work if you can get it.

J Bryant
J Bryant
11 months ago

He deserves credit, all the same, for promising to treat the city’s problems “at their root” — better transport and schools, better housing as well as more police. Four new tram lines will be built to span the gulf between north and south.
But what about jobs? Surely that’s the root of the problem in Marseille and elsewhere. Too many young people with no job and no hope of a decent future.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

hahaha. People don’t need jobs anymore. It will all be privatized. The financial elite will own the utilities and any economic activity must have the profits skimmed off by the bankers. People don’t need jobs anymore. They get computers. Stay in their homes online. They will get their food rations delivered if their vaccine passports are up to date. Otherwise they go into the “wellness camps” which are sure to come along with this program to “help the poor”.

micah christian
micah christian
11 months ago

Thinking the State can solve social or cultural problems… How cute.

JP Martin
JP Martin
11 months ago

Well, the State did create this problem so the expectation is not entirely unreasonable.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
11 months ago

Substantial investment to make the streets cleaner, cut crime, improve educational opportunities, build intra-city communications – all these things can make a big difference. In our own case, the building in western France of a major autoroute through from Paris to the west coast at Sables d’Olonne in the Vendee has brought great prosperity to the area. Local towns have doubled or tripled in size since 2006, when the link was finally completed. As local tax revenues go up, local spending on schools and other infrastructure increases. It’s a virtuous circle. So I think you are wrong. State participation can make a huge difference, and it is badly needed in many American cities. It’s high time to put the idea that free markets solve everything back where it belongs – in the garbage can.

Last edited 11 months ago by Giles Chance
Deborah B
Deborah B
11 months ago

An interesting subject, improved by not mentioning culture wars or gender politics, however, too short on detail.
And this issue is not confined to France. It is a story of modern civilization.
I don’t think there is a solution. Somewhat arrogant to believe the governing elite have the faintest idea of what drives the behaviours and aspirations of those who choose this way of living. I certainly don’t. (Choose is a stupid word here as I suspect there is little choice.)
But when drugs (as a business) offers better prospects than anything else on offer, then …well we could argue that ‘the market’ decides.
Not sure if a few new tram lines will make a sod of difference. But that’s the French for you. It will make it easier to get those drugs out to the customers in other parts of the city. So I suppose it will make things more convenient.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
11 months ago
Reply to  Deborah B

There is a solution, which is to treat everyone with respect, and invest in them.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

So do these facts influence Immigration policy at all? Because it seems a quick study would give some real numbers on trends in Outcomes, and surely that is utterly vital when managing immigration policy?

JP Martin
JP Martin
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, I think it does influence the immigration policies. All of the major candidates on the right are talking a tough game on immigration. Of course, this is just talk. At the same time, controlling immigration is not a complete solution because the problems are already here among second and third generation immigrant communities. This problem has been building for a very long time.