Marseille's crime problem takes centre stage as Macron visits the port city

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Marseille's drug problems and rundown schools were in the spotlight on Wednesday as French President Emmanuel Macron and eight ministers visited the Mediterranean port to announce fresh public investment.

Upon his arrival in the city, Macron braved crowds chanting "Macron demission" ("Macron resign"), and went on to visit poor districts of France's second city, long known for its run-down streets and crime-ridden housing estates, as well as its gritty charm and fierce local pride.

But with April 2021 presidential elections approaching, a spate of gruesome murders and a surge in gang violence has put its long-standing social problems on the political agenda.

"It's a city that has been emitting a number of warning lights," a presidential aide admitted, with Macron well aware that his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen is expected to campaign next year on a law-and-order platform.

Statement

The three-day presidential visit accompanied by so many members of his cabinet is intended to make a statement, with the 43-year-old head of state going immediately for the city's poor northern districts after his arrival on Wednesday.

"We're scared on this estate," said one 63-year-old social worker living in the Bassens estate. "When I get back from work at 10 pm, it's deserted and sometimes you hear shooting like it's a Western film."

Poorly linked with public transport to the city centre or wealthy areas to the south, the northern neighbourhoods are the focus of the city's vicious drugs trade, which thrives off Marseille's role as a major port.

Two people died there last weekend in another drive-by shooting, while the week before a 14-year-old was killed in automatic gunfire near one of many points where marujuana, cocaine and other drugs are openly sold.

"Nobody cares about what happens here," one local resident told French news agency AFP in the derelict Les Rosiers housing estate this week. "I get the sense that they (politicians) think 'let's leave these paupers and foreigners to kill each other out there.'"

Marseille's chief prosecutor, Dominique Laurens, told a press conference last week that there had been an "explosion" in gang-related murders since the middle of June due to tit-for-tat attacks.

Twelve people have been killed in the last two months, according to police figures, but the levels remain below 2016 and inferior to particularly violent periods in the 1980s.

Extra police, extra magistrates

Over the course of his visit, Macron is expected to build on recent announcements for Marseille: an extra 300 police have been promised, while Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti has pledged extra magistrates.

He is also expected to announce support for the Socialist mayor's plan to renovate the city's public schools, some of which are in a "woeful" state, according to head of the local education board.

Newly-elected mayor Benoit Payan has promised to invest €1.2 billion euros to renovate and rebuild 200 of the city's 472 public schools and is looking for backing from the central government.

"The schools are unworthy of the republic," he told AFP this week, adding that housing in Marseille was also "not in keeping with the world's sixth-largest power."

Bayan has given multiple interviews in recent weeks to warn about the sense of insecurity for many residents and the problem of drug-related crime.

"If people are killing each other with Kalashnikovs, it's because Kalashnikovs are circulating almost freely in this city," he told FranceInfo in August after the murder of the 14-year-old school boy.

The city's housing problems were in focus in 2018 when two buildings in a working-class district near the city's bustling port collapsed, leaving eight people dead.

Furious residents on the street accused city authorities of neglecting their safety after years of complaints.

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