A city of a thousand villages. The combination of formerly rural areas that have now become metropolitan, of former craftsmen’s quarters that are now industrialised, of streets once trawled by loose women and transient crews of colonial-era merchant ships that are now peopled by equally transient tourists off cruise ships, of commercial trading houses that now serve only as holiday homes for the rich, of shanty towns once home to workers but now ghettos for the unemployed, of former fishing harbours that only shelter hobby sailors’ yachts now. The poor of southern France came here and other low income earners followed – Italians, Spanish, Armenians, people from the Maghreb and from the Comoros islands. Now they are all denizens of Marseille.
Marseille cannot be considered some sort of metropolitan franchise. It does not imitate any other big city and is indifferent to the standards of other big cities around the world. It is a city without real suburbs or a skyline, has a centre that is not gentrified and which is horribly poor; it is characterized by a misery that refers only to itself and that does not hide, a misery that goes on and on, as only misery can.
A city, in which you speak to one another all day long, from daybreak to nightfall, whether you know each other or not, in peaceful and anonymous coexistence. Marseille is a city with no foreigners, even though she has a high percentage of foreigners living here, a mutt of mixed heritage, which can (as always) make things complicated at times.
The lack of public spirit here can be interpreted as a strategy that allows you to more easily circumvent ridiculous rules by the city council that nobody has taken seriously for a long time anyway.
Marseille is repulsive and magnetic at the same time. Things that usually go wrong function here, while things that should function, don’t work at all. In an era when the algorithms made by transnational digital giants rule, there’s a very human irrationality to be found here. Marseille is the mirror in which France is reflected, in its most natural state. Ugly or beautiful but always without artifice: Either you accept that, or you run away from your own reflection.
The deep lines caused by political intrigues of the past run across the façade of the old city hall, a living fossil and the guarantor of a clientelism that serves to secure power over the city, but not to serve the citizens. One example of this clientelism: How local politics reacts to the poorest neighbourhoods, areas located in central Marseille, not in far-flung suburbs.
The Northern Quarter – for many, the name is synonymous with decay and deterioration – has not simply been abandoned. It is being exploited. No public bus serves the quarter, no plans exist to get local youth into jobs and nobody is speaking up for the 300 victims of criminal clashes there, over the past 20 years. The survival of citizens in these poor neighbourhoods is only possible because politicians have set upon a pragmatic but cynical course.
If you don’t have much, you’re easier to buy. And their methods are simple: Increase the shortages and the frustration, complicate everything, sew tension - and then present a solution, even if it is only half a solution. Pretty quickly you are the beneficiaries’ hero and a sign of hope for everyone else. That’s the cheapest way to ensure votes without having to work on any concrete package of aid.
One example: Organizations that manage to make the misery a little less visible are often over-funded, even though their actions are basically useless. In return, they campaign for reactions from those whom they can thank for these advantages.
Clientelism for the poor, something that all the parties in Marseille practice. There are urban renewal projects that certain elected officials have, through one obscure manoeuvre or another, caused to collapse. Then, with media attention upon them, they suddenly present a new solution that they’ve come across, and which can be brought about by “the strong men” of this or that quarter – and of course, those strong men expect to be rewarded in return.
Today these “strong men” are often the drug dealers. They are financially comfortable, have a few gun-toting soldiers at their disposal, often working in faux-security companies with their lieutenants in key jobs.
Public contracts are given out within the framework of this clientelism. For example, an accomplice who happens to be an architect has an illegal look inside the specification sheet for a public project. A big developer employs him. The architect then works on a tender that will almost certainly be chosen by the commissioning committee and everything looks completely legal. The developer than contracts the work to companies with links to organised crime (not really because they’re his partners in crime but because he doesn’t want any hassles). And these companies then employ other contractors, from whom they demand bribes. The result? A lot of people who have an interest in keeping clientelism going.
Every election they make sure, once again, that everything stays the same. In particular it is the wealthiest who want this, those who are supporting these charitable campaigns. Just how efficient this system is, has been demonstrated by the last four administrations of Marseille’s mayor, who goes by the nickname, “the concrete layer”. He sells the city, piece by piece, offering developers real estate that specifically honours these kinds of promises.
There is no master plan for Marseille, no vision for the future, just a mechanism that allows the powerful to retain power. Here is another example that sounds like it should be a metaphor but is, unfortunately, all too real: In one of the most downtrodden parts of the city, children gather cockroaches in order to sell them to small-time criminals. The latter release the pests in an apartment building where the low-income residents had been protesting about forced eviction, due to renovations. As a result of the cockroach infestation, the city council declares the building uninhabitable. With the residents out, the apartment building can now be renovated at a high price. The costs of the renovation end up with an American pension fund, a financial product for billionaires.
At the same time there is no real mafia activity in Marseille – the bandits don’t take the place of politicians as they do in some parts of Italy. In Marseille everybody stays in the place they started off in. The underworld takes their share, politicians arrange themselves, lobby groups enrich themselves and the locals get whatever is left. Everything is organized to fit patterns of nepotism, corruption and violence.
Marseille is ahead of the times when it comes to gangs. Thanks to opposition to any progress, every other part of the city looks like it is 40 years behind – and that is actually one of the great strengths of the city. Marseille has not had time to make the same mistakes as some other European cities and offers a range of opportunities to experiment. Marseille is a giant laboratory. Several elite companies have opened up here – start-ups in the area of environmental or information technology. The film industry has also figured out that the city’s dangerous reputation can make it an advantageous location, especially with the comfortable climate and the excellent geostrategic position.
Marseille locals don’t care too much about these new assets though. They are trapped in their ancient clientelism. Many don’t even go to vote. The traditional Communist protest vote only gained a little more popularity due to La France Insoumise, the left-wing party founded in 2016, but frustration hasn’t given the right wing Front National many more voters; French president Emmanuel Macron couldn’t mobilise many locals here. There were only enough votes cast to topple a couple of those living fossils, long-time politicos, who could then finally be removed from office.