Marseille: A Mediterranean mission met by marginalisation

The gap is growing, just feel the fracture, is opening…

These are the lyrics of Marseille rap artist Keny Arkana, in her song titled Capitale de la Rupture, Capital of the Break, in reference to Marseille-Provence 2013, the year it was designated as the European Capital of Culture.

I can’t recognise my city anymore, I can’t recognise my streets.

Arkana is representative of the disenfranchised groups in Marseille who live in the neighbourhoods neglected by an urban renewal project called Euromediterranee, feeling swept under the rug of what is now the new image of the city – white, coastal, and business-oriented. The reputation of crime and drugs in the outer neighbourhoods is only exacerbated by the contrast created by Euromediterranee and Marseille-Provence 2013. Unable to have equal access to the tertiary jobs created by the project, Marseille is an example of gentrification. “The problem is not that they or their families are migrants, it’s not that they’re from Algeria or Ivory Coast,” says Ugo Llaneras a tour guide and Marseille resident, as he walks us through the quirky back streets of La Panier, Marseille’s old town. “The problem is that they aren’t well educated, they don’t talk the ‘proper’ way, and so it’s difficult to find a job. And you have your face, and you can’t hide your face, so this is the problem.”

The waterfront of Marseille is blue and white. It is not French, or at least does not feel like it. It is Mediterranean and modern. The old port looks out at the mouth of the ocean, its lips cracked by the endless fishing boats, where no clues to the depths of the old trade city are given – its vibrancy, eclectic nature and multiculturalism.

Euromediterranee, an urban renewal project aimed at redeveloping the economy of Marseille, has lined the waterside of the city with white, high rise office buildings, creating a stark contrast to the old neighbourhoods just a minute’s walk from the port. The Museum of Civilisation in Europe, MuCEM, was one of the major cultural facilities housed by Euromediterranee as part of Marseille-Provence 2013, but is significant mainly in its architecture, like a large fishing net stretched over a building. The CMA CGM tower, a 147m skyscraper is the symbol of Euromediterranee, according to whom is the largest French ship owner and the 3rd largest ship owner in the world. This infrastructure has created the surface image that Euromediterranee is trying to sell of Marseille, as modern, thriving and renewed. The real image however, is behind this white façade, in the narrow streets which wind through the neighbourhoods of the city, where its historical architecture, street art and poorer residents reside.

The quartiers nords, the deprived, crime-ridden northern districts of Marseille, are what has given the city its reputation as the dangerous city of France, writes a journalist for the Guardian. As Llaneras walks us past the graffiti covered walls of the streets further out from the port area, he tells us that in the 50s and 60s, Marseille exported a large amount of heroin to America, driven by the Mafia who had migrated from Italy. “The last godfather was shot dead in 2000, but now there’s still drug trafficking, it’s just smaller businesses and the people have changed.”

“Now it’s more the second generation of Northern Africans and also some people coming from Eastern Europe. Very often when you hear about violence here in Marseille, it’s in the suburbs. Because all the traffic is made in the northern suburbs,” he says.

FranceInfo, a French news organisation, explains that these neighbourhoods were built in a hurry, to quickly relocate the population after the city centre was bombed in WWII. Then when Algeria gained their independence a few years later, the returnees were sent to the same neighbourhoods, as well as other immigrant populations. The improvisation was then made quickly and cheaply, constructing large housing complexes without much thought. Euromediterranee may have created housing in Marseille, but these neighbourhoods are largely ignored. 40% of the outer neighbourhoods of Marseille are below the poverty line.

“Crime and poverty, it’s the same” says Llaneras. “If you’re wealthy, why on earth would you rob people. Of course poor districts is where you find lots of crime and criminals. The problem is not that they or their families are migrants, it’s not that they’re from Algeria or Ivory Coast, the problem is that they’re poor and they’re living in a poor community.”

It is this issue which Keny Arkana and other artists from these neighbourhoods, express their discontent towards. “All their plans are at the very opposite of the tradition, of the spirit, of the ancient city that always gathered different communities, land of refuge, open to the other, rebellious to the kings, land of asylum for the apostles,” are Arkana’s lyrics. Discontent is also shown on the walls of La Panier, the old town of Marseille where poorer residents are being pushed out, graffiti like “MP2013: Capitale de la rupture” (pictured below).

Source: CNTraveler

Marseille is a city at the southern point of France and the northern point of the Mediterranean. This geographical location, close to Northern Africa as well as the Italian and Spanish coasts, has given the city its historical character as a major trade port of the French Empire. Llaneras explains that Marseille’s economy was originally based on soap made from olive oil and alkaline ash from marine plants of the Mediterranean, as well as wine and cereals. Though the export of soap boomed in 1913, the competition with rising industrial detergents caused the production to rapidly decline; with now only five factories in Marseille.

With colonisation however, came the sugar and coffee trade and then with industrialisation came the production of rubber, wood and manufactured goods. Marseille’s decline occurred in the late 20th century, when de-industrialisation caused the region to be shorn of its once vibrant factories and port facilities. With the introduction of containerisation and large cargo ships, Marseille could not compete with nearby ports such as Fos-sur-Mer which were better equipped and more accommodating to the new technology. Many jobs were lost.

Marseille has a population today of 855 000, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), constituting a variety of nationalities and religions given its geographical position. After decolonisation especially, tens of thousands of Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians came to Marseille, now 40% of the population Muslim, with 10% Jewish and the remaining Christian.

The high-rise, white buildings of the waterfront, much of which has been put in place since Euromediterranee, represents one half of Marseille. The other half is represented by the street art which winds its way around the back quarters of the city, and is often an expression of the discontent of the citizens. When sitting on the port by the water’s edge, the reputation of poverty and crime feels distant, but a short walk back from the old port and it becomes more and more visible with every corner.

“Marseille has been redrawn by Euromed, it came to mess up the whole culture of the city…” raps Arkana, in passionate French, rich with tones of discontent. One does not need to understand the language to understand the feeling of those left behind by the white project of Euromediterranee.

For more information and a photo story of Marseille by Madeleine Rojahn:
https://maddyrojahn.wixsite.com/savondemarseille

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