How Marseille's public face masks an ugly reality

The French city is a beautiful, historic place but is plagued by drugs and a stream of gangland killings

Protesters carry cardboard replicas of coffins during a march to pay tribute to victims of killings that remain unsolved or unpunished, in Marseille on June 15, 2022. AFP
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France’s second and oldest city Marseille, with its rich but tumultuous history dating from its creation by ancient Phocaean settlers, has many faces.

There is the Marseille the tourists see: the magnificent Vieux Port; the exotic sights and scents of the North African market tucked behind the city’s main avenue, the Canebiere, and the rugged cliffs and hills of the nearby Calanques National Park.

Among its other faces is an uglier one that reveals itself in a relentless stream of gangland killings – the reglement de comptes or tit-for-tat assassinations committed in defence of drug territory or to avenge previous murders, and sometimes lesser provocations, by rival criminals.

Even the sad but unrelated events of the weekend, when a residential building collapsed after a suspected gas explosion, leaving eight people dead, cannot deflect from the unceasing tragedy of Marseille and its lethal drug wars.

The three most recent deaths, in different locations on the night of April 2, bring to 13 the total number of similar killings since the turn of the year, already half as many as occurred in the whole of 2022. Even more disturbingly, some of the perpetrators and their victims are barely more than children.

In one of the recent shootings, three boys were the targets. One, aged 16, was killed. A 15-year-old was left fighting for his life, and a third, just 14, was less seriously wounded. The one suspect charged so far is 18.

“Fourteen years old,” one horrified resident told the French newspaper 20Minutes. “Me, at that age, I played marbles. They get killed.”

Why Marseille? Many ask the question. Why should some of those living in a beautiful city, situated on the sunny Mediterranean coast, resort to such extreme ways of settling differences?

First, it must be understood that drug dealing can be a highly profitable way of life, an attractive alternative to poverty in districts where unemployment is high and hope low.

It would be grossly unfair to stigmatise whole communities. One of France’s greatest footballers, Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, grew up there and has said he would have been happy as a delivery driver had he not been a gifted, driven sportsman.

Accusing fingers are pointed at the buyers, often middle-class professionals who get their fixes from immigrant dealers

But the gangs and trafficking are based overwhelmingly in the Quartiers nords of Zidane’s childhood, grim high-rise blocks in the city’s northern district with large numbers of residents with roots in France’s former colonies in Africa, notably, but not only the Maghreb.

Much of the violence occurs there, too, but there has been an increasing willingness on the part of armed young gangsters to pursue their targets much closer to the city centre. Where the 16-year-old boy died was outside a snack bar little more than 15 minutes on foot from the Vieux Port.

In a meticulously detailed analysis of the running sore of score-settling and vendettas, the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche reported that younger, cheaper recruits were being used as contract killers, paid about five times less that the €100,000 ($109,000) a professional hitman would previously demand. Petty dealers and lookouts, typically feckless, jobless teenagers from Algerian or Nigerian immigrant families, serve the powerful drug barons, earning between €80 and €200 for a day’s work.

Sometimes, after particularly shocking killings, groups of mothers from the estates stage despairing demonstrations bearing placards with such simple slogans as “stop killing our children”.

But recent history is repeating itself. Ten years ago, I reported for this newspaper on a similar women’s initiative. "We can no longer keep quiet,” said one, Yamina Benchenni, a veteran of the famous anti-discrimination March for Equality and Against Racism in 1983. “It's our children we are burying.”

That things have not changed, indeed may have become even worse, leaves Marseille with the sinking feeling that it is a city abandoned by the state to a self-inflicted fate.

The government talks of extra policing, a reinforced special unit to fight the gangs, as well as record seizures of drugs and weapons. More than 1,200 guns of all types were confiscated last year in the wider Bouches-du-Rhone department of which Marseille is the capital.

Accusing fingers are pointed at the buyers, often middle-class professionals who get their fixes from immigrant dealers. “I make a direct link between traffickers and consumers,” says Eric Dupond-Moretti, France’s Justice Minister. “Someone’s party treat connects to the score-settling. Anyone smoking a joint on a Saturday evening should remember that.”

Enter into the debate, unhelpfully but inevitably, Eric Zemmour, the only French politician of significance with far-right views that make those of Marine Le Pen seem measured and moderate.

Regrettably, a loud minority attaches itself to his inflammatory drivel about the “great replacement”, that is Muslims hostile to French values taking over the country. “Marseille is a city totally plagued by massive Arab-Muslim immigration,’ he told the daily newspaper Nice-Matin. “It’s no longer really a French town, except in a few pockets.”

Referring to images of young men openly brandishing Kalashnikovs in a suburb of Nice in broad daylight, he added: “Nice is going the same way … It’s another order that rules, that of Islamic militias. These are territories conquered by Islam and we must re-establish the republican order.”

Many see Mr Zemmour’s only virtue as his tendency to split the far-right vote. Not to be entirely outdone, Ms Le Pen – currently, despite that split extremist vote, a potential successor to Emmanuel Macron as president in 2027 – tweeted about the “catastrophic” plight of Marseille “impoverishing the entire population and driving away entrepreneurs and professionals” before blaming the traffic on “massive and anarchic immigration”.

But the calculated bile of this rhetoric undeniably strikes a chord with plenty of people around France who worry about crime and security.

Another of the faces of Marseille is a happy one, the way it can often seem a melting pot of ethnicity. There is a far-right presence but people, by and large, rub along quite well. The city was much less affected than other big French towns by the nationwide riots of 2005 and it unites as one behind the iconic Olympique de Marseille football club.

Back in the 1980s, a Cameroonian goalkeeper called Joseph-Antoine Bell, who played more than 100 games for Marseille, said: “When we score, blacks, Jews, Arabs and everyone else rises to their feet at the same time.”

That spirit of common purpose is needed now more than ever if Marseille is somehow to triumph over adversity and bloodletting. But without massive government investment in meaningful projects to give hope to those living in the Quartiers nords – and a little grudging recognition that for some proud but also defiant inhabitants, Marseille may not even be France’s to abandon – it may not be enough

Published: April 12, 2023, 2:00 PM