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French President Emmanuel Macron travels to the southern port of Marseille Wednesday for a high-stakes visit during which he’ll unveil an ambitious plan to tackle the drug crime and gang violence that have become endemic in a city where a quarter of people live below the poverty line.
The idea is to renovate and modernise Marseille – a task that will likely cost billions – with much-awaited announcements expected on reinventing failing public services, fixing the city’s woeful public housing, improving schools and transport, urban renewal, and fighting rampant insecurity.
“There will be a before and after," presidential aides told Le Parisien, adding that “exceptional problems called for exceptional measures”.
Macron’s three-day trip – his longest in a single city since taking office in 2017 – follows a spike of drug-related violence in Marseille that has killed four people over the past week, including a 14-year-old child.
Chief prosecutor Dominique Laurens on Monday told journalists there had been an “explosion” in gang-related killings since the middle of June, with 12 deaths in total.
The epicenter of Marseille’s drug problems is its low socio-economic northern suburbs – a far cry from the tourist friendly seafront – where some 40,000 homes have been deemed dangerous or unsanitary.
Fighting violent crime here was described by Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, during a recent visit, as “the mother of all battles".
Paris is sending 300 police reinforcements to the area, but Marseille’s Socialist Mayor, Benoît Payan, says an extra 800 police officers are needed, along with other teams of specialists.
Addressing the traditional rivalry between the French capital and its southern neighbour, the Elysée Palace has made clear that Macron – who will be accompanied by eight members of government, including several ministers – was not heading down south to “manage Marseille".
Of the presidential visit, Payan told AFP: "The state has a role to play, not to come and give us a handout, help or save Marseille, but so that we can build something together."
Central to Marseille’s rebirth of sorts is an expected commitment of several hundred million euros to renovate more than 200 schools, some of which are reported to have rats and collapsing roofs.
"When I look at the schools in Marseille I am ashamed," Payan told BFMTV Tuesday.
The president will address the issue directly when he visits a school in one of the poor northern arrondissements.
Macron’s trip to Marseille, which comes eight months out from presidential elections, is a sign that he has “understood the magnitude of the challenge", Payan told Le Parisien.
Macron has often spoken fondly of Marseille, describing it as "an extraordinarily endearing city" in a recent interview with Zadig magazine.
"The coming decade will transform Marseille and make it a capital of the Mediterranean," he said.