The Rust Belt of France: Marseille

John Daniel Davidson visits the city that has been unceremoniously nicknamed “the Detroit of France.”

This winter, my wife and I caught a ride to Marseille with a friend and asked to be dropped off at the Vieux-Port, the teeming center of France’s oldest city.

marseille01I’d always had the vague impression that Marseille was a gritty, crime-ridden mob town, an impression based partly on The French Connection and partly on what French friends had told me. My wife and I had been living about three hours west of Marseille, in the economically depressed Languedoc-Roussillon region — the Rust Belt of France — and we wanted to visit what we’d heard was essentially the Detroit of France.

But we’d also heard the recent buzz about Marseille, that it’s supposedly shaking off its reputation as a drug-infested underworld and becoming cosmopolitan and multicultural and cool. The European Union named Marseille the European Capital of Culture for 2013, and the city is spending hundred of millions of euros to build two new museums, renovate industrial buildings and neighborhoods, and put on a huge program of festivals and exhibitions next year.

So we didn’t really know what to expect. As we drove into the city we saw the crown jewel of Marseille’s 2013 overhaul, the massive Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, under construction at Fort Saint-Jean, the entrance to the Vieux-Port. Along the waterfront, fish mongers were selling the day’s catch and people were crowding into cafés to drink pastis and watch the sailboats come and go in the bright sun. The basilica of Notre-Dame de la Guarde loomed over the city from a limestone outcropping to the south, its massive copper and gold statue of the Madonna and Child gleaming from atop the bell tower. It was warm and pleasant to stroll along the ancient harbor and watch the boats pass by, and Marseille didn’t seem that bad after all.

But then we strolled into the city to find the apartment we’d rented for our visit, and things quickly changed.

We walked a few blocks east from the Vieux-Port and soon found ourselves in the garbage-strewn, crime-infested neighborhood of Noailles, the focal point of a recent and ongoing crime wave. A little further in, up some graffiti-covered steps that lead to the bohemian enclave of Cours Julien, police were arresting a group of young people. Looking around, it didn’t seem like millions of euros were being spent to restore crumbling neighborhoods, at least not this one.

Beyond Cours Julien was our apartment, nestled on a quiet street, but just in case we asked the proprietor if there were any places we should avoid.

“No. It is very safe, all of central Marseille is safe,” she said. Then she pointed to a map and drew a line with her finger, just east of where we were. “But do not go beyond here. It’s not so good, and there is nothing for you to see.”

As France’s largest port, Marseille has always been a melting pot of cultures and people. Its position on the continent makes it a gateway to the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, and throughout its long history the city has absorbed successive waves of immigrants — Italians, Corsicans, Armenians, Turks, and Maghrebis.

This last group is by far the largest and most recent. When the Algerian war ended in 1962, about 150,000 Pied-Noirs fled Algeria and settled in Marseille. Through the 1960s and ’70s, an estimated two million Muslim North Africans migrated to the city, although no one knows for sure how many now live there because French law forbids collecting information on a person’s race, ethnicity, or religion. In France, “ethnic minority” isn’t a recognized concept; the only thing that officially counts is being French.

Which is strange and deleterious, because for the last fifty years France has done little to control the mass immigration of Muslims from its former African colonies, and even less to integrate them. Official insouciance about ethnicity and religion is an unfortunate symptom of France’s universalist approach to immigration, which eschews multiculturalism and, in cities like Paris and Montpellier, has created de facto segregation, with unassimilated immigrant populations concentrated in decrepit suburban banileues.


But they haven’t been able to do that in Marseille. The city is squeezed between the mountains and the sea, and there simply isn’t room to build far-off banileues. Segregation, thankfully, isn’t an option. Instead, immigrant neighborhoods are right in the city center, and everyone is sort of thrown in together.

You would think this would be a good thing, that everyone being forced to live on top of each other would encourage integration and tolerance, that white Marseillais would accept their Muslim neighbors as fellow countrymen and that immigrant Muslims would strive to become fully-participating members of society. But it hasn’t really worked out that way. Walking through the neighborhoods around the Viuex-Port — Noailles, Thiers, Chapitre — you get the sense that Marseille isn’t so much a model for multicultural integration as it is a Balkanized city rife with social and cultural tensions.

I told a French friend of mine that we were planning to visit Marseille and she didn’t understand why. “There is nothing to see,” she said. “You can climb the steps to the church, and the view is very nice, très joli. But besides this, there is no reason to go.”

I asked her about the city and she said, “There are many immigrants, many Muslims. But they have many problems because the mayor is racist.” She pronounced it rah-seest, and was adamant. “He is a very big rah-seest, with Sarkozy. They are great friends. They hate the Muslim.”

(Marseille’s mayor is 72-year-old Jean-Claude Gaudin of the center-right UMP party. He was elected in 1995 and has since won reelection twice.)

“But if there are so many Muslim immigrants, how did he become mayor?” I asked. “Why did they vote for him, if he is a racist?”

“Oh,” she said with a wave of her hand. “They do not vote.”

Multicultural integration has failed in Marseille, as it has elsewhere in Europe, and the city is now dealing with the harsh economic and social realities of a large, unassimilated immigrant population that suffers from staggeringly high unemployment rates — reported to be as high as 40 percent in some arrondissements among second-generation Maghrebi youth.

Crime rates have risen along with unemployment, and since the beginning of last year Marseille has been in the throes of an intense crime wave. In December, five different people, including a police officer, were gunned down in separate incidents, all of them with AK-47s. Marseille is a city with less than a million people.

News reports say the violence is partly due to escalating turf wars between drug gangs, which are so well organized they are thought to be the real reason there was no rioting in Marseille in 2005, when the banileues of Paris were burning. The quiet had nothing to do with cultural harmony or tolerance; drug dealers didn’t want anything to disrupt business so they kept the ghettos and housing projects quiet.

The morning we left the city, we accidentally turned down an unfamiliar street on our way to the Gare Saint-Charles and found ourselves in a strangely quiet neighborhood we’d never seen before.

We walked past a middle-aged woman in a long coat sitting on a stoop smoking. She was wearing thigh-high boots and a short skirt. Ahead of us, two more women dressed the same way stood on the opposite street corner. We’d wandered into one of Marseille’s red-light districts on a weekday morning, and for the next five or six blocks there was no one on the streets except us and prostitutes in thigh-high boots and short skirts, standing around looking bored. Most of them were in their forties or fifties. The only man we saw was a rough-looking guy who came out of a building, yelled at one of the women, and then went back inside.

Earlier that morning, we hiked up to Notre-Dame de la Guarde, the iconic church we’d seen towering over the city on our first day. We climbed up hundreds of steps, and once we were on the church’s ramparts we had a 360-degree view of Marseille, the entire city perched between the mountains and sea, magnificent in the Mediterranean sun.

If you turn toward the sea, you can see the walls of the Château d’If rising from the bright blue water in the distance. If you turn toward the basilica, you almost have to sheild your eyes from its brilliant white marble façade. Looking down from that height, a saltwater haze envelops the coastline and the city, and it’s hard to imagine Marseille as a violent or troubled place; it looks rather like a European capital of culture, ancient and serene and confident.

As I took in the view, it struck me that the city has been both blessed and cursed by its geography: it has forced everyone to live together, but the living hasn’t been easy. The accident of Marseille’s natural features holds out promise that both integration and multiculturalism might be possible there, despite all its troubles. If the city can control crime and lower unemployment, if it can break from French tradition and find ways to integrate and engage its minorities, then it might well become a place that France and all of Europe could look to for inspiration.

But wishing the city to be a multicultural haven, or calling it one, doesn’t make it so. As it is, Marseille is a model for urban failure and social disintegration. Its crime and unemployment are the consequences of official neglect and a failed immigration policy — the same policy that has ringed France’s other cities with segregated, seething banileues.

Marseille might not be segregated, but it is a ghetto. From a distance, though, the view is very nice. Très joli.


John Daniel Davidson is an American writer and journalist living abroad. His writing has appeared in n+1, The Morning News, The Millions, and elsewhere. In the coming months, he will return to his home in Austin, Texas, via Morocco and Alaska.