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French President Emmanuel Macron started a three-day trip on Wednesday to Marseille, where he will outline plans to solve the problems wracking France’s second-largest city – notably, violent drug crime and poor infrastructure. Experts say Macron needs to show he still has big, bold ideas ahead of April’s presidential elections.
This is not just any presidential visit: eight members of Macron’s cabinet – including the interior, environment and education ministers – are accompanying him for his longest official visit to a French city since he entered the Élysée Palace in 2017. Macron’s goal is accordingly ambitious: to tackle some of the deep-seated issues that have long troubled Marseille and fashion it into a real “capital of the Mediterranean”.
France’s second city faces an urgent set of problems. Marseille is “not living up to its potential” and its public finances are “worn out”, the city’s Socialist Mayor Benoît Payan told journalists ahead of Macron’s visit. The city council is €1.54 billion in debt – with a budget of €1.56 billion.
Drug crime has long troubled Marseille, as depicted in the 1971 Hollywood classic “The French Connection” and its unforgettable portrayal of fictional mafia boss Alain Charnier, who controls the world’s biggest heroin syndicate from this sun-frazzled concrete jungle on the Mediterranean coast.
But there is little cinematic glamour to be found in Marseille’s current predicament. Drugs have become an even more worrying phenomenon over the past year, Payan told reporters, with “millions of dollars at stake” as mafias and cartels traffic contraband through the port city. Since the start of 2021, 15 people have died there in murders linked to the drug trade, including a 14-year-old boy in August.
“If people are killing each other with Kalashnikovs, it’s because Kalashnikovs are circulating almost completely freely in this city,” the mayor told France Info in the wake of the boy’s death.
‘Enormous infrastructure problems’
A lack of public infrastructure is another serious problem. Marseille’s nearly 900,000 inhabitants are spread across a city twice the size of Paris. But – in contrast to the vast metro network serving the capital – France’s second-most populous city has just two underground rail lines. Whereas in Paris green Vélib bikes are free to borrow throughout the city and cycle lanes have proliferated over recent years, infrastructure to support cycling barely exists in Marseille.
Some 200 of the city’s state schools “desperately need renovation”, FRANCE 24’s James Creedon reported from Marseille. A third of the city’s municipal swimming pools have closed since 2008, and half of the children in Marseille cannot swim – despite the city’s location next to the Mediterranean and its proximity to some of Europe’s most beautiful beaches.
Two buildings collapsed in central Marseille in 2018, six years after an inspection had deemed one of them unsafe. This amplified criticism of the “système Gaudin” – as French politicos called Jean-Claude Gaudin’s tenure as Marseille’s conservative mayor from 1995 to 2020. Critics on the right as well as left accused him of overseeing a city in decay plagued by clientelism, complacency and carelessness.
“Marseille has long had a local government more concerned with holding onto power than with tackling the city’s enormous infrastructure problems,” said Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University.
“Under the système Gaudin there were all kinds of suggestions of corruption, none of which could actually be proven.”
‘The posh people live in Aix’
Gaudin’s fellow grands barons, the centre-right Alain Juppé in Bordeaux and centre-left Gérard Collomb in Lyon, were similarly keen to stay in the mayors’ offices during their long reigns. But they succeeded in making their cities magnets for business and tourism that flourished amid the globalising economic forces of the last three decades.
Socioeconomic factors made it easier for Juppé and Collomb, as Bordeaux and Lyon have much bigger bourgeoisies to contribute to tax receipts than Marseille, a largely working-class city surrounded by richer settlements – including its local rival 16 miles inland, the honey-coloured hill town of Aix-en-Provence.
“The bottom line is a class difference: Unlike Bordeaux and Lyon, Marseille doesn’t have a big middle class,” as Smith put it. “People ask where the posh people live in Marseille – and the answer is that they live in Aix.”
The city’s historical role as the first port of call for immigrants to France is a structural factor behind the low standards of living in Marseille, Smith observed. “Because migrants are used as a cheap form of labour, they tend to get low salaries, and this structure perpetuates itself over successive waves of immigration.”
Throwing in ‘a lot of money’
Macron headed to the focal point of immigration in the city – Marseille’s impoverished north – with a walkabout in the violence-wracked Brassens area on Wednesday afternoon.
Vowing that the French state “will not give up” in the fight against drug crime in Marseille, the president said he will accelerate the deployment of 300 extra police officers promised by Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin. Macron also announced financing 500 surveillance cameras to combat crime.
The centrist president is the latest in a series of French leaders to set out a strategy to revitalise Marseille – the most recent being Jean-Marc Ayrault, then Socialist president François Hollande’s prime minister, who unveiled a 2012 action plan to “get Marseille out of a difficult situation”.
This time, Macron’s forthcoming major announcement will likely consist of throwing “a lot of money” at Marseille’s manifold problems, noted FRANCE 24 international affairs editor Angela Diffley. But such an approach is unlikely to get rid of endemic issues, she said. “Most of the problems could be tackled if drugs could be tackled, but because of its position in France, on the Mediterranean, Marseille has been [of] historic interest for drug dealers.”
‘Not lacking in courage’
Nevertheless, Macron’s Marseille trip also serves a political purpose ahead of next spring’s presidential elections.
As France’s political and media classes return from their long summer holidays, Macron is “very keen to be on the ground doing stuff while the other parties are squabbling over who might represent them in the upcoming French presidential elections”, Diffley noted.
Les Républicains (LR), France’s conservative party, imposed itself as a formidable threat to Macron’s re-election by coming out on top in June’s regional elections. Knowing that Macron has moved to the right as the centre ground of the French electorate has shifted rightwards, one of the leading candidates for the LR presidential nomination, Valérie Pécresse, set out her attack line on Macron last week, arguing that he is a “pale imitation” of a centre-right leader – someone who promised to reform France but instead did “almost nothing” except manage crises.
In light of Pécresse’s opening salvo, Macron’s Marseille trip can be seen as a message to the French electorate that he still puts forward big, transformational projects.
“What does Macron have going for him ahead of the presidential elections?” Smith asked. “No party to speak of behind him and almost no elected local officials. What he does have is an enormously powerful state machine – and he wants to operate that in response to criticism from the likes of Pécresse.”
It is an especially bold move for Macron to go to Marseille, a city famous for its fierce rivalry with Paris and resistance to outsiders’ attempts to control it – an attitude encapsulated in a proud phrase at the heart of its local dialect: “On craint dégun” (“We fear no one”). Indeed, the Élysée Palace was keen to emphasise when publicising this visit that Macron’s plans will not lead to “Paris running Marseille”.
“The man is not lacking in courage, going to a place like Marseille as opposed to a comfortable provincial town, especially amid criticism that he is too much of a centraliser, too much of a Bonapartist,” Smith said. “It looks brave to go and look like he’s doing something tough in a place where he has few friends.”