Like any other visitor to Marseille in 2015, upon stepping off the train at the city’s main station, Gare Saint-Charles, I was greeted by posters celebrating the 20th year of an initiative known as Euroméditerrannée. This is the 7 billion euro urban renewal project that, since 1995, has sought to transform the city centre and create a new business district. It now welcomed me to explore ‘le nouveau Marseille’. The last two decades have seen Marseille determined to clean up its somewhat grubby image – so it was merely an unfortunate coincidence that when I arrived the station’s cleaning team were exercising their right to strike, leaving heaps of rubbish to overflow onto the platforms.
However, perhaps the greatest hurdle for the city to overcome in its attempt to reinvent itself has been its perceived relationship with crime. While its notorious heroin-smuggling outfit, the French Connection, was dismantled way back in the 1970s, Marseille does still face an ongoing problem with gang-related violence. Such issues are complicated by high youth unemployment and the fact that 26% of habitants live below the poverty line (compared to a national average of 15%). This is where the real benefits of the city’s urban renewal project come into play, having created a net number of almost 30,000 new jobs.
Meanwhile, as I started my job as a teaching assistant at two high-schools near the city centre, one thing that particularly struck me was the strong sense of Marseillais identity that my students share. Few of them were born in Marseille – like a large proportion of the city’s population, many have moved here from North Africa – but all demonstrate the same devotion to Olympique de Marseille (Marseille’s football team) and express the same passion when talking about the numerous famous rappers that hail from the local hip-hop scene. While an interest in football and hip-hop doesn’t immediately distinguish them from any other teenagers you’d find elsewhere, there’s no doubt that these two things play a significant role in making Marseille a unique place when it comes to the issues of integration and community that concern young people across France.
For example, in a 2007 interview with the New York Times for a feature on Marseille hip-hop, rapper Akhenaton – leading member of the pioneering group IAM – compared the local scene to that of Paris, saying that ‘Marseille rap never integrated violence the way Paris did’, and deemed rappers to be more ‘socially conscious…because there is a real sense of community’. While this sense of community brings creative benefits, it is also a fundamental part of what makes Marseille, in the eyes of many, a model of multiculturalism in a country increasingly threatened by the outright racism of the political far-right. Ten years ago Marseille was remarkable as the only major city to remain peaceful during the violence that erupted across France in the 2005 riots. Many have been keen to attribute this phenomenon to comparatively low levels of social and racial tension amongst its inhabitants.
None of this is to say that racism doesn’t exist in Marseille. Like anywhere else, it does, and I recently learnt that the cleaning teams behind the ongoing strikes at Gare Saint-Charles are doing so in protest against the racist abuse they regularly endure at work. However, there are simply a certain number of practical factors that set Marseille apart from other major cities such as Paris. For example, it’s unusual that for me, working at a school near the city centre, I should encounter kids from such a wide range of backgrounds. Unlike other cities, there is little significant wealth divide between the centre of town and the suburbs, or banlieues. It is the kettling of poor families and immigrant communities into remote housing projects in the banlieues that led to the growing feeling of marginalisation that prompted rioting among an alienated generation of young people in 2005. Meanwhile in Marseille, affluent and disadvantaged neighbourhoods alike are dispersed pretty much throughout the city.
But ten years on, and twenty years after the start of Euroméditerrannée, how have things changed? And how is Marseille reconciling its new facelift with the clamorous but welcoming cultural kaleidoscope that makes the city what it is? Initiatives such as its ‘Humans of New York’-inspired Facebook page do an excellent job at this. The page description states its aim to show the ‘real faces’ of Marseille, as a means of fighting back against prejudice.
Yet, at the same time, various neighbourhoods are slowly but surely undergoing gentrification. There’s Le Panier, the city’s old quarter, with an assortment of “concept stores” now tucked away in its narrow alleys, and there’s Cours Julien, whose streets – once a no-go area after dark – today draw crowds with street-art tours and trendy bars. This has an inevitable dark side, as occasional clashes occur between the areas’ original inhabitants and the influx of new residents who drive up their rents. As part of an exhibition held in Le Panier, artist Jean-Baptiste Ganne reproduced on the gallery wall the same words he had found graffitied nearby: “Bobo, la nuit, fais attention” (rough translation: “hipsters, watch out at night”).
What all of this means for the future is hard to say. While the face of Marseille may be changing, it is the wonderfully chaotic fusion of coexisting cultures and identities that will allow the city to continue to thrive, and which is behind the pride with which so many of today’s citizens call themselves Marseillais.