French election focus on crime puts Marseille's ganglands in the frame

'French Connection' reputation means social problems of Mediterranean port city are central to Macron's campaign hopes

Police take part in an anti-drug operation in the Cite des Oliviers, a northern neighbourhood of Marseille. Photo: AFP
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Emmanuel Macron pledged a major initiative against crime in France on Monday, wading into a debate that could be a defining feature in April's presidential elections especially in divided urban centres.

Although he has not yet announced his candidacy the French President is widely expected to run, but his biggest threat is likely to come from right-wing opponents who have made security an important part of their campaigns.

Speaking in Nice, a stronghold of major challenger Valerie Pecresse of the conservative The Republicans, Mr Macron put flesh on pledges to bolster security. He said he would double police numbers by 2030 and set up a specialised security force to tackle areas particularly afflicted by drug gangs or violence.

Mr Macron said many police handle "tasks that don't make a difference in your daily lives" and prevent them from patrolling neighbourhoods, giving them examples of guards at court hearings and public buildings.

Instead, he vowed to "free them up from these tasks" so they can get back on the streets.

For her part, Ms Pecresse is equally firm on the voters priorities around crime and marginalisation of the gangs. “We need to restore order, both on our streets and in our national accounts,” she said in an interview published on Monday.

Mr Macron's speech put flesh on the bones of a trip last year to neighbouring Marseille where he vowed to turn around the tide of criminality. Perhaps there is no place in France where Mr Macron's message on crime could have resonated more than in Marseille, the Mediterranean city that has struggled with violence for years.

In 2021, savage inter-gang conflicts resulted in 30 murders or attempted murders recorded between June 15 and September 15 alone. Killings in the southern port city are often linked to the drug trade. Charred bodies have been discovered in car boots and children as young as 14 have been among the victims.

Powerful automatic weapons are also prevalent. In August, the city’s prosecutor said the killings were of “extreme cruelty and a complete lack of humanity” and warned that the victims were only getting younger.

In September, Mr Macron visited Marseille for three days — his longest domestic trip outside Paris during his tenure so far — to unveil a multi-billion-euro plan to help slash crime, drug trafficking and poverty. The plan would include hundreds of new police officers.

“I've suffered so much, I can't put it into words. I want to leave,” one woman told Mr Macron as he met residents of the Bassens estate.

A picture taken on February 25, 2021 during a visit by France's Interior Minister to Marseille shows illegal weapons seized by police. Photo: AFP

Some from Marseille argue that the city has been unfairly treated by the media. They say that although there is an acceptance that in some areas gang-related violence is common, the public perception of the city is misleading and people fail to understand why some, typically neglected communities are prone to drug-related crime.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives to meet residents of Marseille's Bassens district on the first day of a three-day visit on September 1, 2021. Photo: AFP

In December 2020, Benoit Payan, a member of the Socialist Party, became mayor of Marseille. He took over from Jean-Claude Gaudin, who had held the role for 25 years. Mr Payan has highlighted the need to invest in the city’s schools, saying they are in an “unworthy state”.

In particular, it is the northern districts that have been affected. Traditionally, these areas are where many refugees and migrants arrive. These districts suffer from higher levels of deprivation and unemployment.

“We’re a harbour; we’re a port. And of course we are not that far from the crossroads with Spain, Italy, North Africa. So we are at the heart of communications and that includes, of course, the movement of drugs,” says Jeremy Bacchi, 35, a local senator and a member of France's Communist Party.

“Also, you’ve got to understand … until the middle of the 1980s, Marseille was really a city where there were a lot of industries. This went, and of course a lot of people have been left on the side of the road because of deindustrialisation,” says Mr Bacchi, who grew up in Marseille’s northern suburbs.

A woman walks through Marseille's Les Marronniers neighbourhood past graffiti that reads: 'The state lets us down'. Photo: AFP

He believes that major investment is required and that the local population needs more support in obtaining jobs that do not require a multitude of qualifications.

Joseph Downing, a senior lecturer in international relations and politics in the UK, said the poor quality, overcrowded housing in parts of Marseille, and unemployment was a toxic mix.

“By every indicator, there's social problems. Even if you fix the education system the kids are still going home to a family that’s barely getting by, with no room to study. Deeper societal problems are all there,” says Mr Downing, who lives in Marseille about four months of the year and has written extensively on the city and French Muslims.

“Those people who can't access employment — they need to survive, they need to make a living,” Mr Bacchi says. “And this (the drug trade) is a way for them to survive to make a living because they don't have long-lasting employment that is offered to them.”

La Castellane housing project in northern Marseille is among the city's more notorious estates. Photo: AFP

These long-standing factors have been around for some time, but more immediate issues have also been at play.

Mr Downing says the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated some of the issues at play in Marseille, in part because of the prevalence of cash-in-hand jobs.

“There's a lot more people that survive on the breadline in the sort of black/grey economy. They’ll work in a kitchen or a shop for cash and stuff like that if they don't have the right papers.

“And during the lockdowns, obviously those people fell completely through the safety net that was provided by the French state.

Police remove a body after a man was shot and killed in Marseille, in 2016. Photo: AFP

“They say that in southern Italy, Covid and the lockdowns actually strengthened the Mafia, because they became the only show in town. And they're making more money because the one thing that never stopped operating and the one thing that made more money during lockdowns is drug dealers.”

Mr Bacchi says that recently, “some very, very big gangsters have finished their sentence and they are out of jail. Big, major criminals. So now they are back … and of course they want to get back the space they used to occupy. Of course there is a struggle for territories, for influence.”

He says the justice system and police are rightfully trying to tackle the issues. But he argues that it is no good sweeping up small-time street dealers.

“You need to investigate, to find out where the drugs are coming from, who’s giving the orders, how are the drugs being transported? You need to give more power and staff [to] custom and excise.”

But there is a wider point on Marseille, something Mr Bacchi in particularly is keen to stress — that the city has an undeserved reputation and unfairly attracts the negative headlines.

Certainly, there are parts of Marseille where violence is prevalent — Mr Downing says there are a handful of estates that are almost impregnable — but that is the case with most major cities in France.

“Of course, The French Connection was in Marseille,” Mr Bacchi said, referring to the major role the city played in shipping heroin to the US in the middle of the last century.

The French Connection is famous all around the world, including in the United States and, you know, we inherited this history. I mean, this is part of our history too. And it seems quite difficult to get away from it.”

The reality is quite different from some of the negative connotations that still exist, Mr Bacchi says, adding that the people of Marseille are proud of their city and the sense of belonging is strong.

“Yes, traffickers are definitely still settling scores between themselves. But, you know, the population of people living in Marseille, they don't feel any pressure.”

He recalls a time during his studies when he spent a lot of time in a district synonymous with drug trafficking.

“Yes, the traffickers came to see us and they said to us, ‘well, if you want to buy the stuff, you know, make sure you come to me and I’m there.’”

“But otherwise, they were actually quite polite. They just wanted us to know that if we wanted to buy the stuff it was available and where to find it.

“But if we were not interested in them, they were not interested in us. They would leave us in peace. As long as you're not part of a gang of traffickers, as long as you don't have anything to do with this, they leave you in peace. They leave you alone.”

Updated: January 10, 2022, 3:58 PM