Marseille | A Familiar Refrain

Travel Dates | June 12th, 2017 to June 19th, 2017

My first time in the city was in 2013. Marseille had just been named the European Union’s City of Culture,1 and it lived up to the title. I have these almost hazy, dreamy memories of eating lavender-honey ice cream, strolling along the harbor, and admiring the open-air exhibit of Salvador Dali sculptures. This is Marseille.

Image by Kait Reynolds (me!)

Double Take

This time was different.

On my first day back I began walking, like I normally do. Yet I felt prickly, unsafe. But I waved away those feelings based on my memories here. And even though I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, things felt edgy, slow, and joyless.

I thought I was projecting my exhaustion onto the city, so I called it an early day, and decided to give it a little more time before I developed an opinion.

In the next few days I collected incredibly striking images of Marseille.

A toothless, 65-year-old woman shooting up at 7AM. A fight breaking out in the early afternoon, just steps from the apartment. The same groups of people in the train station that begged were kicked out, then continued to scam the next day. This is Marseille.

These images motivated me to understand the duality of the city.

The Split

Looking up through the streets | Aix en Provence, France

I hit Marseille at the perfect time in the summer of 2013. The local and national governments were working to re-vamp the harbor – hence the Dali sculptures. Yet, over the past few years, Marseille’s revival has yet to be realized; the city is sliding ever deeper into poverty and drug violence continues unabated.2

And many Marseillais feel politicians are whitewashing an issue. They’re “building museums and fancy houses without considering the reality of the city,” and one with a dodgy history at that.3

La French

Marseille was the world’s heroin capital in the Sixties.4 La French, or The French Connection, was a drug scheme run by the French-Corsican mafia working out of Marseille Vieux Port. They bought opium poppies from Turkey, and then shipped billions of dollars of heroin out of the port to the States; almost 80% the U.S.’s heroin was from Marseille.5 At the time, violent crime was present, and those who lived in Marseille were either connected to the mafia, or they were immigrants who moved in the 1960s after French colonies gained independence.6

Due to a fierce campaign of law enforcement, La French diminished substantially by the early 1970’s, and the last of the heroin drug rings were dismantled in the 1990s.7 However, as a brutal irony, when The French Connection dwindled, the city of Marseille experienced sharp increases in drugs, and drug-related deaths.8 Without active heroin processing, the market and culture gave way other drugs: cocaine and marijuana.9

Currently, the city is a key point to the smuggling and trade of the two drugs. And this has shaped the new drug-related culture.10

Some Things Remain…

Church | Aix en Provence, France

Marseille is a city of tradition; it’s slow to change. 11 Now kids in the poorer estates have gradually taken over the local drug trade. 12 Though it might not be entirely their fault.

In the late 90s, during one of the pushes to clean up the city’s image, people were pushed to live in high-rise ghettos. Poverty, discrimination, and segregation were, and still are, prevalent to the point that many individuals were overcome by unemployment and misery – paralleling the economy that has now taken over. 13

Kids drop out of school to a jobless market. So instead of going back for further education, they fall into drug gangs where they can earn good money: 14 some rings have a daily turnover of up to 50,000 Euros. 15 Later, if they want to escape, the kids are either threatened or killed because they know the network.

“They’re prisoners, and so are their families,” people live in fear. 16

…While Others Change

That type of violence and rule is drastically different from the French Connection days.

The majority of the dealers are young men between the ages of 13 and 26. During the 60’s, many of the men were keen to live duplicitous lives, drawing a clear separation between their crime life and family life.

Now these young men operate with impunity, idolizing those like Scarface; “the kids can buy guns for next to nothing and they use them for next to nothing.” 17 The violence is accelerated and arbitrary.

Marseille, with a population of 855,000, has nearly as many drug-related murders proportionally as New York City, with a population 10 times higher, 18 and it’s not unusual that by the age of 30, these men are either in prison or dead. 19

The Future of Marseille

Marseille feels like France’s problem child, one that would be sent to military school for bad behavior. All measures taken to fix the image, re-vamp the harbor, or fight crime* are surface level at best. Nor am I convinced that Marseille and its patrons care to change.

On one hand there is an image of Marseille, France’s first city, its most diverse. It has medieval ports, an incredible amount of French history, and it’s the city of culture.

On the other, 300 AK-47s were confiscated in 2016, 20 the risk of dying before 65 is 30% higher than the French national average, 21 and in some areas there is an unemployment rate of 55% (which is nearly 30% higher than the average in Marseille). 22

There isn’t just a divide in Marseille, there’s a chasm. One that I don’t think will be closed. In short, Marseille is multi-cultural, it is poor, but people will continue to call it their home just as it is.

Marseille is a nightmare, a familiar refrain. It’s impossible to get anything done in this city. We would leave in a second if the opportunity were right.  
- Stéphanie Nardoca, owner of La Cantinetta in Marseille

*The French government sent army officials to help navigate a new type of war on drugs. Though after recently visiting, I remember seeing a handful of police officers, and a few soldiers walking through the train station. That isn’t to say officials aren’t utilizing covert methods to fight crime, but I didn’t feel safe even after the security push.

Golden Hour | Marseille, France