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Marseille: icon of Europe’s culture or a mafia town?

September 15, 2013
Crime-plagued Marseille city.
Crime-plagued Marseille city.
A still from the movie The French Connection.
A still from the movie The French Connection.

“YOU call that gang warfare?” exclaimed the young fellow from Chicago vacationing this summer in Marseille. He was reading in a newspaper the details of 15 murders in France’s second largest city since the beginning of this year that were described by the reporter as revenge killings between local drug traffickers. “Our city can handle that figure on a single weekend,” he concluded with mock pride.

The cynical boast can probably be repeated by inhabitants of many other cities around the world, but for Marseille the revival of its old reputation as a mafia town comes at the wrong moment.

The European Union had named this Mediterranean port city whose origins date back to the Greek era as “Europe’s cultural capital for 2013.” Local authorities, all excited, were spending huge amounts to improve tourist attractions.

Marseille, spectacularly perched along successive, mounting layers of verdant hills and sun-washed throughout the year, finds itself today at the centre of media attention no doubt, but for a reason no other than five murders committed in the past two weeks alone by gangsters. Statistics experts say for a city of one million inhabitants that figure exceeds more than five times the criminal killings all over France.

Last year was no better. When the toll had already reached the figure of 20 by September last year, the newly elected Socialist government decided to send 230 additional policemen and create a number of “priority security zones” in the city. The killings, however, continued unabated and this year another 130 security agents and 24 investigators joined the force.

Opposition leaders have variously described these measures as ‘hogwash’ and ‘smokescreen’ to hide the unwillingness of the government to handle the crisis. “They’ll do nothing substantial like arresting the powerful drug lords or their hired killers”, says one of them. “These people have political influence too, and in order not to disturb that balance before the municipal elections due in March next year, the Socialists will just make superficial gestures and nothing more.”

José Anigo, a national figure as the coach of Olympique de Marseille, France’s most reputed football club, lost his son Adrian who was shot dead while getting into his car on a busy street in Marseille on September 5. Asked by a reporter if it was true Adrian had connections with organised crime, José replied: “He was my son. The rest is not my business.”

As in most cases there are different, often opposing explanations to the crisis. Historians say Marseille, as a strategic port between southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East, has always attracted arms and drugs dealers as well as other traffickers.

Louis Montbraun, a Provence-based expert on the history of southern France, said in a recent interview when all the European countries were going through a grave economic crisis in the 1930s Marseille was an affluent place on account of its thriving hashish, cocaine and arms markets; mafia-style killings, naturally, were at the height at the time for that very reason.

The 1971 Hollywood film, The French Connection directed by William Friedkin, very clearly brings up this point, although the period when the action takes place is slightly different in the movie.

The other face

The other explanation, more ideological than analytical this time, blames class conflict as the main reason behind the bloodshed. As you move northwards up the hills and away from the luxurious houses and shopping areas along the coastline, you find a Marseille very different from the quiet, leafy world painted of this region in Marcel Pagnol’s books Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.

Today that paradisiacal landscape is lined with high rise buildings where live the immigrants, and their descendents, from Algeria, Morocco and many African countries.

“About 40 per cent of these people survive below the poverty line,” explains Sophie Leroy, a local journalist. “Nearly all the young men are involved in drugs business; most of the gang warfare victims are men around 25 years of age or less. The authorities seized as many as 300 Kalashnikov rifles this year alone in the area; that may not sound much if you compare it with Afghanistan, but we’re not in war here, not that kind of war in any case.”

The war reference was also indirectly made by Samia Ghali, herself descendant of an Arab immigrant family and today elected mayor of this part of the city. She insists the only solution to definitively put an end to the illegal trade and resulting gang warfare is military intervention. “The government must make a quick decision and hand over this area to the army. I know what I am talking about. I was born here.”

The writer is a journalist based in Paris.