Corrupt, dangerous and brutal to its poor – but is Marseille the future of France?

Long unloved and unwanted, the ultimate ‘outsider’ city poses France the most important question it faces in the 21st century

Par: Phil Hoad 

Mehdi Remadnia was number one. Cut down by 15 bullets on 7 February, out on the western edge of Marseille, the 34-year-old became the first casualty of the city’s drug wars in 2017. Known as the “Bear of Font Vert” (Font Vert being the cité, or housing estate, where he lived and ran a major drug network), Remadnia had only been released from prison last May. It had made him fatalistic. A social worker, Mohammed, recalled meeting him after he got out. “I hadn’t seen him for a long time. So I said to him: ‘You’re not still up to no good’? And he just said: ‘I’m a gangster now.’” Remadnia was also a father of three. His mother had died when he was nine. He’d started designing clothes in prison. Was he a decent guy, deep down? “I’m not sure you can be nice if you’re involved in things like that. He had blood on his hands.”

We’re in the social centre at La Busserine, an estate across the road from Font Vert. This is the heart of the quartiers nords, the deprived, crime-ridden northern districts that have given Marseille its reputation as France’s outsider city. Black, white and Arab teenagers are shimmying to bubblegum pop in the playground outside this forlorn converted boys’ school, as the mistral wind whips up dust-devils from the nearby roadworks. A life of so-called néobanditisme [gangsterism] like Remadnia’s is an enticing prospect here, where 28% live on less than €630 a month. It’s difficult, says Mohammed, to find a job if you have the wrong address or the wrong kind of name. Such as anything Arabic. He cites a fully qualified engineer friend unable to get an interview: “If he put Jean-Michel on his CV, it’d be a different story.”

And yet Marseille, and all its struggles, is a litmus test for the future of France. Emmanuel Macron, the new president, sensed this, making the first trip of his campaign here last October and finishing in the same place in April, where he paid tribute to the great port city’s multiculturalism. “I see Armenians, Comorians, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, Senegalese,” he said. “But what do I see? I see citizens of Marseille, I see citizens of France.”

The reality, however, is that many of the people here consider themselves to be Marseillais first – and only. Indeed, the city poses France, a country still struggling to integrate immigrants from its former colonies and striving under its new president for a new direction, perhaps the most important question it faces in the 21st century: is it prepared to let its “outsiders” in?

Down at Félix Pyat, in the third arrondissement – the poorest in the country, where over 50% live beneath the poverty line (€989 a month) – the answer would appear to be a firm “no”. Front National posters are plastered outside the police station on the edge of this estate, and riot police cordon it off many mornings.

The first major cité you encounter moving north out of the city centre, Félix Pyat is a welcome mat to the quartiers nords, and a frontline at the same time. Behind its decrepit blocks, the serene white lattice of new development is visible: a private add-on to the giant, state-led Euroméditerranée regeneration project. Plenty of love – to the tune of €7bn of investment – is being lavished on Euroméditerranée’s primped office spaces and concept stores. Not so much at Félix Pyat, where the blocks are stained with soot and guano, rats gnaw holes in the pavements, and slum landlords are rife. The Marseille Snare, a pioneering 90s method of ATM card theft, was invented here. “Politicians don’t come here very often,” says Nordine Moussa, a 54-year-old youth educator. “And they’re shocked when they do. But nothing changes.”

Suffering from underinvestment and mostly cut off from the tram and metro networks, the cités are hived off in the north – a stark division that rules the city. “It’s the world capital of apartheid,” says Nicolas Mémain, a self-proclaimed “gonzo urbanist” who gives walking tours of the brutalist postwar architecture.

But the cités are far from out of sight. The difference with the rest of France is that Marseille’s poorest housing blocks are still inside the city boundaries, which are strictly constrained by the sea and the mountains. “In Paris, the poorer you are, the further you live outside the periphérique [ring road] – it’s a centrifugal-centripetal opposition,” says broadcaster Jonathan Meades. “Marseille is more like Britain in that the social housing is spread around, and there’s no boundary outside of which to put poor people.” From the roof of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, where Meades lives on the city’s south side, the monolithic blocks gleam white in the winter sun, casting immense shadows.

A history of violence

“Look what he did to me!” Her puffa jacket hurled to the floor, Samira stands in the interview room in her vest and knickers. Her eyes are liquid but blazing; there are bruises down her arms. “With everything he’s done, how am I the one who’s ended up here?” The 38-year-old has been charged with stabbing her boyfriend – in response, she says, to repeated beatings. We’re in the jail beneath Marseille’s high court, watching interviews being conducted by APCARS, a socio-judicial organisation that provides support to people entering and leaving the prison system. Samira has a seven-year-daughter, and lives with her on benefits in accommodation reserved for those in precarious circumstances. Her (now presumably ex-) boyfriend drives a Mercedes, carries a Glock. “I know who he sells drugs to,” she spits, “I’m going to follow him, grass him up.”

Such is the human cost of Marseille’s outsiderdom. There has been a spike in domestic violence cases over the last year, an APCARS social worker tells me. Poverty and marginalisation cause these kinds of pressures to build up. To enter the cells, you remove a metal stopper from the door handle and tap it on the narrow window; the plastic is pitted with hundreds of tiny holes. Marseille has high recidivism rates, despite sentences that are heavier for equivalent crimes in the rest of France, and a Stakhanovite conviction rate of 95% for minor offenses. “It’s a major preoccupation of ours to highlight this incarceration rate,” says APCARS Marseille director Sandrine Euzenat.

Yet, despite plenty of evidence that the stick is not the answer to social exclusion, it has featured prominently down the centuries in how the French authorities have handled their second city. Louis XIV built forts on the port in the 1660s after the city rebelled, and reputedly kept the guns pointing inland to keep the locals quiet. A century later, the revolutionary enforcer Louis-Mairie Stanislas Fréron guillotined 123 of its citizens after another rebellion, and wrote of the hotblooded city: “I believe it is beyond cure, save for a massive deportation of all its inhabitants and a transfusion of men from the north.” Marseille began lacing its seditious tendencies with criminal ones in the 19th century, when the nervi   a prowling, knife-wielding ruffian on the shady Vieux Port – became an almost folkloric figure of fear.

By the postwar years, with the industrial port in decline, a complex intertwining of political, administrative and criminal links had come to dominate public affairs under longtime mayor Gaston Defferre. This culminated in the famous French Connection, the Corsican-run heroin manufacturing and smuggling operation that in the late 1960s provided the US with close to 90% of its supply. The fact that the ring was, to some degree, sheltered by the authorities only burnished Marseille’s renegade sheen. The working-class immigrants moving into the newly built cités were not involved, but it is their children who created the present-day drug networks enmiring the estates – dealing mostly cannabis and coke – that succeeded “le French”.

What’s puzzling about Marseille’s quartiers nords is why the traditional means aren’t being applied, or not enough, to bring its outsiders in: education, housing, leisure facilities, transport. Without a car, the 25 bus is the only direct way of getting to La Castellane, the most famous cité in Marseille, where Zinedine Zidane grew up. Like many of the city’s notorious estates, it’s a blind spot on Google Street View. Get past the tracksuited lookouts servicing the drug networks (one of which was reportedly bringing in €65,000 a day), and at the estate’s western end is the building site where Block G, in which France’s totemic midfielder lived, stood until May last year. The renovations have stopped and started since – and no one seems sure when they will be completed. “I don’t know if there’s no money, or if they don’t care,” says Maama, a landscape gardener sitting out in the March sun. “Maybe they prefer it this way.”

Samia Ghali is one of the exceptions to this apathy. The mayor of the 15th and 16tharrondissements, and a national senator with the Parti Socialiste, knows whereof she speaks. Ghali was raised by her Algerian grandparents in Bassens, one of the cités de transit designed to temporarily (it still exists) house immigrants while the proper estates were being constructed. Her parents were unable or unwilling to look after her. She watched her friends slip into drug addiction. “I’ve seen too much,” she says. “You’re told that, in a place in the throes of economic crisis, people take drugs in order to feel their problems less. But I suffered from it all. I had the impression of being alone in a world people didn’t want to see. That politicians didn’t want to see.”

Entering politics at the age of 16, the now 48-year-old mother of four has become a loudhailer for social justice, using Twitter and Facebook to hector Marseille’s main mayor, the seemingly indefatigable Jean-Claude Gaudin. She says that not only does he never visit the quartiers nords, he is rarely in contact with the eight mayors in charge of individual arrondissements: “He’s not involved. He’s in the business of denial.”

Gaudin is often described as the arch-“clientelist”, dispensing favours to a select circle in return for votes. Less damning than straight corruption, it is corrosive to the civic machinery all the same. But Marseille’s paralysis can be partly explained by the fact that Ghali, and others standing for the city’s outsiders, have been accused of similar things. A football club ran by her cousin at Campagne Lévêque, the estate she moved to as a teenager, received nearly a million euros in subsidies between 2004 (when she started as vice-president of the regional assembly) and 2010; it had received no more than €4,000 annually prior.

The recent history of renovations at La Castellane, which fall under Ghali’s remit in the 15th, is another example. She says she pushed in 2012 for the estate’s inclusion in city-wide works being managed by the national ANRU agency, but concedes things have stalled: “The problem with ANRU projects is that they take too long, and people lose interest.” But Philippe Pujol, an award-winning journalist often described as the David Simon of Marseille, says that she exploited the delays for political gain. According to him, she bogged the works down at “administrative” level. “[Then] In public meetings, she demanded why it wasn’t happening. So people saw Samia say, ‘Why isn’t it moving forward?’ … And one day, when the elections are approaching, they decide: we’re going ahead. And it’s all thanks to Samia. And that’s the problem. A classic example of clientelism, cut and dried.”

Pujol says Ghali’s essential intentions are just. But such manoeuvring demonstrates how deep clientelism runs in Marseille’s blood. In 2016, the MP for Bouches-du-Rhône, Sylvie Andrieux, was sentenced to four years for diverting regional funds into non-existent associations. But hers was just a flagrantly corrupt instance of what is a widespread practice here: devising spurious organisations and job posts in order to siphon off public subsidy. Hence, says Pujol, the half-finished building works that are a Marseillais speciality: “The idea is that nothing works. Because if nothing works, then you have to redo it.” This culture of “mediocrity” runs right up to, in his opinion, the people dispensing the patronage. “That’s why our city doesn’t progress, because the politicians – especially post-Gaudin – have a need for mediocrity. They know that if the city ever went up a gear, they’d be dumped.”

The clientelist system operates by keeping control of wealth and influence in select hands and preventing wider systemic change. Outsiders crave to be inside, dispensing patronage. “Very few people profit,” says Pujol. “And those who don’t no longer vote – which permitted Gaudin to be re-elected without doing anything.” Only 14% of Marseille’s residents voted for him in 2013 (only 490,000 out of 850,000 are registered to vote). This crisis of legitimacy is opening up worrying political vacuums: the 13th and 14th arrondissements, part of socialist Andrieux’s constituency and where some cités now log 80% absentee voters, elected a Front National mayor, Stéphane Ravier, in 2014. But Marseille is just holding up a mirror to French politics at large, with widespread disgust at a dysfunctional system that is tailored for insiders like Francois Fillon. Nicolas Mémain observes: “The clientelism is just particularly obvious in Marseille because there’s no real economy to hide it.”

Euroméditerranée, A-OK

As you exit the tunnel from the A55 motorway and begin the spectacular descent past the industrial port, one of the great entrances to a city, these days you’re greeted with a Hollywood-style MARSEILLES sign on the hillside: a present last year from Netflix to celebrate the series starring Gérard Depardieu. Of course (in what could have been one of its plotlines) an American company masterminded this PR coup for the city, not local politicians.

The motorway sweeps you past the jinking planes of the Zaha Hadid-designed CGA-CGM tower, the spearhead of Euroméditerranée and the one part of the city being assiduously looked after. At Félix Pyat, this future is creeping up square metre by square metre. The new residential blocks next door are just the start: developers’ maps envisage the estate in 2020 surrounded by Parc Bougainville, part of an “immense green lung” with which Euroméditerranée wants to link the 3rd, 14th and 15th arrondissements.

Rumours are already abroad at Félix Pyat that the wrecking ball is being readied to make sure this new idyll is unblemished. “They haven’t told us a thing,” says Omar, squatting on a youth-club doorstep, just around the corner from a derelict swimming pool that’s been waiting for refurbishment for seven years. “But it’s obvious when you see the plans. It’s going to be civil war when they announce it officially.” Euroméditerranée say that there are no plans to demolish the estate.

The truth is that this vast real-estate incubator – 480 hectares stretching north of the city centre, mostly on unused industrial land, up to the tower – is seen by many as the last hope for saving Marseille’s moribund economy. Ghali thinks it will in addition have a boosting effect for the quartiers nords: “It’s not going to change their lives intrinsically, but it’s going to improve their framework of life. And that’s important.”

But Pujol believes that Euroméditerranée is being mismanaged in typical Marseille style. “It’s about financial speculation more than urban renovation,” he says. “Making dough with institutional money for our friends the developers, the realtors and the construction industry. We’ll see what becomes of Euroméditerranée later.” Nicolas Mémain believes that this high-visibility “lifebelt” for the local economy disguises the lack of sensible planning citywide: “It’s the ideal scapegoat, that stops other things from being attacked.” He cites the Grand Est development in the 10th arrondissement – typical, he says, of local planning in its poor connections and lack of provision for small business.

A similar criticism was leveled at the re-development of the Vieux Port for Marseille’s 2013 stint as City of Culture – namely, that it was a substitute for coherently addressing local issues. A swish Norman Foster canopy on the waterside didn’t mask all the refuse piling up three streets back. “It’s the shop window. People don’t see into the back of the shop at all,” says Pujol of the port area.

The danger is that Euroméditerranée, governed by the same superficial thinking, becomes an even bigger symbol of social exclusion. Next-door developer Nexity has won a social-cohesion prize for its work with Félix Pyat, and there is social-housing provision in the new blocks (about 250 out of 1,200 homes). But, as many residents point out, Nexity’s overtures make no real difference to long-term living conditions on the estate. Community barbecues and concerts are all very well, but they had to protest before any resident was even hired on the construction site.

Euroméditerranée are taking care of the infrastructure around the estate, but don’t have jurisdiction for works inside Félix Pyat. Technically, Félix Pyat isn’t social housing, but a condominium with some social tenants. In the hands of those with no desire, or without the means, to maintain it, this kind of development is the first to fall between the cracks.

Even Euroméditerranée describes its project in financial terms first. “A neighbourhood in the process of change starts to restore value to property that’s already there,” says Paul Colombani, Euroméditerranée’s deputy managing director. “It’s not just slum landlords at Félix Pyat – you’ve also got families who’ve bought to live there. The moment they realise they’ve got property that’s keeping its value, not losing it, you’ll start to see people reinvest in life there.”

But will things happen in that order? In the Nexity office, one staff member admits they’ve already had to drop the asking price to get people to move in next door to Félix Pyat. Maybe the social improvements need to come first. Outside the youth centre, Omar isn’t optimistic: “They’re going to push us out into the quartiers nords, into the shit.”

‘White, brown, we don’t give a damn’

His paranoia is fueled by quintessential Marseille outsiderdom – what French author Charles Dantzig identifies as a “sad boastfulness”. But this sense of being outside, paradoxically, also has a positive flipside: the city’s high degree of tolerance and openness, an unhesitating and total embrace of its polyethnicity. “Maghrebin, French, white, brown, Chinese – we don’t give a damn,” says Ghali. “We’re Marseillais first and then the rest.”

That irreplaceable mixité sociale – the elixir of the French left – is exactly what Euroméditerranée’s globalized-corporate bulldozer risks flattening. In addition to the lack of serious racial tension, Pujol believes the city’s egalitarianism has other benefits, including a local propensity to talk – “the capacity of blah-blah-blah” – that further calms things. The writer points out a murder rate that is nothing next to comparable American cities: Marseille had a record 34 drug-related killings last year, but the overall murder rate in 2012-2015 was 2.7 per 100,000 (Baltimore’s is close to 50). “It’s too many,” says the writer. “But for a port city with a tradition of gangsters, it’s not that many.”

No one would cite Marseille as a template for how to plan a city, but in its sun-seared, neglected places a unique social fabric has grown. The flipside of clientelism and all those fictional jobs is a culture of instinctive self-reliance that is visible everywhere: in the scores of illicit cigarette vendors in Noailles street market, or the random dudes hanging about the innumerable auto-repair shops. The French have a word for these chancers: le debrouillard (hustler). “It’s a city that has stayed on its feet despite everything,” says Ghali.

The truth is Marseille is the one city that possesses the dynamism the rest of France seems to have misplaced. Mémain rhapsodises: “When my friends from Paris and Bordeaux take the bus here, they start crying. C’est la force!Of hearing people struggling to survive – it’s drama, it’s magnificent theatre. And it’s free. In that sharp light, you understand nothing, but you’re dazzled by everything. It’s very, very beautiful, and the political project is always to shatter this beauty. It’s appalling.”

Beneath Porte d’Aix, the city’s triumphal arch near the main train station, there’s an impromptu flea market in the piercing February sunlight. Old trainers, unwanted Scart leads, tattered decks of cards, scuffed toys – probably not what Macron envisages for the future of French retail, though the eclectic spread of black, white, Arab, Roma and Asian faces might be more up his alley. You certainly hope the raw entrepreneurial drive is something he’d value, one local element he could mine. Staunchly clientelist, brimming with human potential, France’s outsider city looks both backwards and forwards on behalf of its country. The inscription on the arch reads: “To the Republic, Marseille is grateful.” Maybe it should be the other way around.

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