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7 June 2023

Letter from Marseille: the lawless metropolis

Riven by violence and drugs, France’s second city is descending into anarchy.

By Andrew Hussey

The best place to take in Marseille is from the esplanade of the Notre-Damae de la Garde basilica. The church, crowned by a golden statue of the Virgin Mary, stands nearly 500ft high on a limestone hill overlooking the city from its southern side. Built in the mid 19th ­century, the basilica is a mishmash of neo-Byzantine and Romanesque architecture styles. When you first arrive in Marseille, whether by sea, road or train, you can’t miss Notre-Dame de la Garde, which dominates the skyline. ­Accordingly, the church has become an ­emblem of the city; it is to Marseille what the ­Eiffel Tower is to Paris.

Marseille is France’s second city, with a population of 900,000, and it is a huge, sprawling conurbation that can be ­famously confusing to navigate. From the Notre-Dame de la Garde esplanade, however, it is spectacular. On a clear day you can make out the mountains that ring the north, east and south of the city. You can see, too, how its layout has been shaped around the Mediterranean, from the elegant Corniche to Le Vieux Port, the bustling and picturesque heart of Marseille. Seen from this height, Marseille looks like a place you can make sense of.

At ground level this is not the case. The city is criss-crossed by a network of tunnels and motorways that do not always follow a logical route. Graffiti is everywhere: in the tougher neighbourhoods but also in the well-heeled parts of town. Marseille has the densest ethnic mix of all French cities, which means it’s a riot of cultures and languages. It is an exhilarating place; it can also be extremely disorientating. The inhabitants of Planète Mars – the local nickname for the city, coined by its trendy youth, who call themselves Marsiens – claim to thrive on the chaos of an environment where nothing seems to have been properly planned.

This applies to its architectural layout, particularly the areas known as the quartiers nord (northern quarters). These are the cités (council estates) of the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th arrondissements, as well as parts of the 3rd arrondissement. They are an agglomeration of cheap concrete skyscrapers built to house immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, and stand starkly out of place, wedged between the Mediterranean and the hills of Provence. The quartiers nord make up almost a third of the metropolitan space of Marseille but seldom appear in the tourist guides. This is because their cités are the epicentre of the city’s thriving drugs trade, making it one of the most dangerous and lawless parts of France.

In recent years, drug and gang crime in Marseille has grown shockingly violent. In 2022 alone, 33 people were shot dead in drug-related “executions”, often carried out with cut-price Kalashnikov rifles imported from the Balkans. Other methods of execution in the drug wars include dismembering then setting fire to victims; the charred ­remains, unidentifiable to the police, are sometimes sent to the victim’s family. This is known locally, with vicious black humour, as a “barbecue”.

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[See also: France pension reform: Emmanuel Macron has no regrets]

Marseille has always mythologised its criminal cultures. The Corsican and Italian mafias in the 20th century, with their legendary vendettas and shoot-outs in the bars of Le Vieux Port and on La Canebière, Marseille’s main street, are part of its folklore. This image of the city as the Naples of France was ­depicted on screen in French Connection II, John Frankenheimer’s film from 1975.

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In recent times, the notoriety of the quartiers nord has made for similarly potent and lucrative entertainment. There has been a series of films, most of them box-office hits, set in the banlieues of Marseille. This has become a mini-genre called “le banlieue-film” including pictures such as Bronx, Banlieusards (“The Kids from the Projects”), Chouf (a street-Arabic word for “lookout”) and BAC Nord. The central premise of these films is always the same: a violent collision between the police and drug gangs, made up of ever-shifting clans and rivalries. They are deeply formulaic but also gripping, offering the viewer the vicarious thrill of a ride through the badlands of Marseille.

Crime in the quartiers nord not only provides fertile ground for film-makers, but has also long been a simmering political problem for the French government. Over the past decade or so the drugs trade has grown out of control in the quartiers nord, with roughly 130 different gangs fighting over territory. The police, who are exhausted and under-resourced, have increasingly relied on counter-insurgency tactics, using assault rifles and stun grenades to deal with the gangs – but to little effect. The deputy mayor of Marseille, Samia Ghali, has repeatedly called for the army to be brought into the quartiers nord.

In 2021 President Emmanuel Macron announced that he was sending in 300 police officers from the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité – an elite force usually ­deployed for security and riot control – as reinforcements. Five hundred cameras were installed in the cités as part of a €150m ­package to assist the local police. Macron has claimed that helping Marseille was “a duty of the nation”.

Yet, in spite of these measures, this year could be the deadliest yet. By May, 18 people had been killed in what are called “règlements de compte” (the “settling of scores”). The ­victims, and the perpetrators, are getting younger. In April an 18-year-old was charged with the murder of a 15-year-old and the ­attempted murder of two other teenagers, aged 13 and 15. The violence has spilled over into the city centre. In early April a ­teenager was shot dead in a fast-food restaurant on the Rue Vincent-Leblanc in the La Joliette district of Marseille. City authorities are no longer able to say that the problem is being contained in the quartiers nord.

La Joliette is the former docklands of Marseille, recently redesigned as a new arts and business area at an estimated cost of €7bn. Since 2013, when it was crowned as a European Capital of Culture, Marseille has been on a mission to rebrand itself as the “Barcelona of France”: a second city with its own unique and vibrant culture centred on art, football, tourism and good weather. The rejuvenation of La Joliette, with its shiny new trams and shopping malls, has been a key part of the project. But for all the enthusiasm and money spent on rebranding it, La Joliette is a singularly unattractive part of Marseille.

It is only a short walk from La Joliette to the Rue Félix Pyat, one of the main arteries to the quartiers nord. This is at the heart of the 3rd arrondissement – the poorest arrondissement in the whole of France. The area is dominated by Parc Bellevue, a grey forest of crumbling tower blocks. The surrounding streets are quiet, but you know you are being watched by the choufs, who lounge on ­balconies or perch in the hallways of apartment buildings, alerting the local gangs to the presence of outsiders, usually the police, in or out of uniform.

There have been pitched street battles between local gangs and a so-called Nigerian mafia. Public services are abysmal. Schools are infested with rats and cockroaches. The broken streets stink of rubbish in the high heat of a May afternoon. At the end of April, just before I arrived in Marseille, one tower block had no running water for five days.

The other major challenge facing ­Marseille is its bad housing. This is not just a question of poor planning and design in the quartiers nord – though both have ­contributed to the area’s dilapidation and helped to foster a culture of crime. The ­tower blocks, with their guarded entrances, ­stairwells and labyrinthine corridors are like fortresses, and are all too often impenetrable for police. But problems with housing extend across Marseille, where buildings have been falling down.

On 8 April two apartment buildings exploded and a third crumbled in flames on the Rue de Tivoli in the 5th arrondissement, a pleasant part of the city with a large student population. Eight people were killed. The leading theory is that it was a gas explosion but the actual cause is unexplained.

For most Marseillais, this incident only confirmed the rumours that, whatever the reason for the explosions, the city authorities have been neglecting their housing stock for many years.

This has been apparent to many since 5 November 2018 when, without warning, two buildings on the Rue d’Aubagne in Noailles, a neighbourhood in the city centre, collapsed. Eight people were killed here too, and over the months that followed nearly 5,000 were evacuated in the surrounding area from buildings thought to be at risk of falling down.

Noailles is one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in Marseille, bustling with fruit-sellers, kebab shops and tea-houses, and largely populated with immigrants – mainly ­Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan, although latterly there has also been a strong West African presence. It’s the kind of place where it’s hard to avoid falling into conversation when you sit on a café terrasse.

At the Café la Muse, I spoke to Farid, a 50-something local who had been here on the day the buildings collapsed. “It was terrifying,” he said. “I thought it was an earthquake. We didn’t know what was happening.” Farid has lived and worked in this district for most of his life and loves it, but he knows it is falling apart. He puts it down to corruption and, perhaps, racism on the part of the town hall. “The people who live here are poor. Some of them are immigrants who have no papers. They don’t officially exist. Why should the government care?”

[See also: How Michel Houellebecq diminished himself]

Macron has a deep affection for Marseille. He is a passionate supporter of its football team, Olympique de Marseille, and is often seen wearing their colours. He claims to love the literature of Marseille, especially the work of Jean Giono and Marcel Pagnol. Before taking power, when he was the economy minister, Macron said to a journalist from Le Figaro that his dream job was to be mayor of Marseille. “I’m in love with Marseille,” he said, “because I love tragic, Mediterranean cities. Everything is at the same time complex but possible.” When he became president in 2017, he spent his first holiday in Marseille, rather than at the official state residence at Brégançon.

Yet his love of the city is now being tested. As gang and drug crime continues to escalate, there is a fear that Marseille could become France’s first “narco city”, controlled by drug cartels instead of the force of law. Meanwhile, Macron’s political opponents say that his government is weak on law and order, which before the 2022 election he stressed would be at the forefront of his policymaking.

In his 2013 book, Marseille, une biographie, the journalist François Thomazeau speaks to a law-enforcement veteran who remarks that the 21st-century police in Marseille have a nostalgic vision of the “golden age” of the city’s old-style mafias. These gangsters were indiscreet and flash, spent their money locally and were most often known to the police (who were also notoriously corrupt and often in league with them).

This so-called golden age, however, has long since receded. Today Marseille – and in particular the quartiers nord – is the fiefdom of drug lords, many from North Africa, who spend their money outside France on luxury villas in Morocco, Spain and Switzerland, leaving the city to their feuding foot-soldiers. The police, blighted by ­corruption, are unable to reach the ringleaders, nor can they stop the internecine mini-wars breaking out between the gangs. Neither Macron’s extra funding nor the elite forces sent from Paris have been able to break the dismal cycle. 

Marseille has long been resistant to change imposed from Paris – indeed, the Marseillais pride themselves on their anti-Parisianism. This is deeply ingrained in the political culture of the city as well as the psyche of the ordinary citizen. Macron’s ­detractors in Marseille say that he is arrogant and out of touch, and that his ambitions for the city far exceed his knowledge of the place.

The most recent drug killings occurred as Macron’s authority is being severely tested. Strikes, demonstrations and riots over his policy of raising the age of retirement have taken place across France. Given its high levels of poverty, Marseille has been the setting for some of the most violent protests. The unrest peaked on the night of 16 March as masked youths rampaged along the smart Rue Saint-Ferréol, looting and chanting: “F**k la bourgeoisie.

In the wake of this riot, a scrawling graffitied phrase, written in the half-French, half-Arabic slang of the quartiers nord, appeared on the walls of Marseille. It read: “Qui sème la hess, récolte le zbeul” – “Whoever sows misery, reaps a f**k-up”.

[See also: What is the Macron Doctrine?]

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine