Marseille Has Poverty, Gang Wars But Not Jihadi Violence

The gritty French port of Marseille has the traditional urban ills: poverty, gang wars, declining industry, rampant unemployment.

What it doesn’t have is the religiously fueled violence that has cities around Europe on edge -- even with growing numbers of idle youth of Middle Eastern descent.

“Marseille is different,” Hammadi Bilal, a 16-year-old student, said as he awaited a recent appearance at his high school by Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “We have our problems, but we are all in it together.”

That’s not an attitude as much as a description of France’s second-largest city. In contrast to Paris, which is increasingly divided between a gentrified core and impoverished satellites, Marseille’s 850,000 inhabitants are pressed together between the Mediterranean Sea and the Provencal hills. There are rundown areas in the historic center with halal butchers near Italian delis selling pork sausages.

“What’s distinct about Marseille is that the poor live in the center of the city, unlike in Paris or Lyon,” said Mustapha Berra, director of a government-funded research institute in Marseille on urban policies known by its French acronym, CRPV. “Being stuck between sea and the mountains can be seen as an advantage.”

The contrasts were highlighted last month when three Frenchmen of Arab descent killed 17 people in a pair of terror attacks in Paris, the country’s deadliest such incident since the 1990s.

No Jihadis

Marseille had no riots in 2005, even as unrest spread nationwide from ghettoes around Paris. Nor does the city experience the New Year’s Eve spectacles common in Paris suburbs and Strasbourg of youths burning cars. None of the 750 French who have traveled to Syria to join Islamic State is reported to have been from Marseille.

All that in a city where about a third of the population is Muslim and the most common boy’s name is Mohammed.

Marseille, founded by Greeks 2,600 years ago and conquered by Julius Caesar, has always been an immigrant destination, welcoming Italians in the 19th century, Armenians in the 1920s and, later, Muslim and Jewish Arabs.

While northern districts tend to be poorer than southern ones, inhabitants share the 3.5-kilometer (2 mile) long Prado beach as well as Olympique de Marseille, the only French soccer team to win the European Championship.

‘Common Identity’

“A strong sense of common identity is shared by both rich and poor,” said Francoise Lorcerie, research director at an institute on the Arab world at Aix-Marseille University. “There’s something about the sea, the beach, and football that unites them.”

Marseille remains poorer than the much of France, with a 13 percent unemployment rate higher than 10 percent overall. The average household income was 22,056 euros ($25,000) in 2011, one-third below the national average and almost half the level in Paris. The port, once the link to empire, went into decline with decolonization in the 1960s.

Indeed, Marseille’s economic woes and lagging development hardly make it a model for other cities, Berra said.

“Marseille is very behind in urban renewal,” he said. “The poverty in the center is due in many cases to a large supply of run-down buildings with low rents.”

He said proposed real-estate projects risk turning Marseille into a city like most others, with the disadvantaged forced out of the center.

Crime Decline

Meantime, law-breaking is declining. Speaking to the Marseille police force, Valls said violent crime was down 46 percent between 2012 and 2014, with armed robbery falling 32 percent. There were 10 gang-related murders in 2014, down from 18 in 2012. He attributes the gains to greater collaboration among disparate police forces.

“For too long, France’s second-largest city has been marred by delinquency, gangs and drug trafficking, above all in the northern zones,” Valls said during his visit.

The city also is planning to demolish two 15-story towers built in the early 1970s that control access to La Castellane, an infamously dangerous housing complex, replacing them with smaller buildings.

While Marseille usually makes news for its gang violence, its needs are more prosaic, says economics teacher Mohammed Hennouch at the Lycee Victor Hugo, where Valls dropped in.

“Apartheid doesn’t exist here, that word just doesn’t apply to Marseille,” he said. “But we could use new computers and updated science labs, and the whole school could use a new coat of paint.”