Inside France's most lethal city

By John Lichfield

Away from its glamorous tourist centre, Marseille's drug war spirals out of control.

People bathe at Pointe Rouge in Marseille, a world away from the voilent northern suburbs. Photo / AP
People bathe at Pointe Rouge in Marseille, a world away from the voilent northern suburbs. Photo / AP

To understand Marseille catch a bus - number 30 from the Bougainville metro station. The route starts at the northern terminus of the metro system, 5km from the city centre. It winds past motorways, factories, unofficial rubbish tips and a 10th-century monastery.

France's second city sprawls for another 10km over ridge after ridge of limestone hills. Each is crowned by a white citadel gleaming in the Mediterranean sunshine which, as the bus approaches, turns into a group of shabby tower blocks.

Up to the 1960s, these were the scrubland and the hard-scrabble villages of the Marcel Pagnol novels set in the early part of the century. Fragments of the Provencal villages can still be seen. The "garrigue", or scrub, survives on the jagged mountains which crowd in from the east. But Marius, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources and their descendants have long gone. My fellow passengers on the 45-minute ride to La Savine, one of the northernmost estates, are a blend of North Africans, Africans, Asians and Roma.

The bus passes through the poorest districts of the poorest city in France. Almost 40 per cent of people who live here are below the poverty line, compared to 26 per cent in Marseille as a whole and 15 per cent nationally. In the richer, mostly white areas south of the city centre, the risk of dying before the age of 65 is 23 per cent below the national average. In north Marseille, it is 30 per cent higher than the French average.

If you are a teenage boy or young man from northern Marseille, you risk dying long before the age of 65.

Fifteen young men, mostly from the city's northern districts, have been shot dead this year as part of a war for the lucrative franchise to sell drugs - mostly cannabis and cocaine - to the people from the wealthier parts of the city and the suburbs.

In fact, there have been almost as many killings of young men in the first nine months of 2012 as in the whole of last year. Proportionally, Marseille (population 800,000), now has almost as many drug-related murders as New York (population 8,000,000). Eyeing the issues, the French Government has announced emergency action this month to stop the city, which will be the "European capital of culture" from January, from claiming the title of the European capital of youth murder.

Earlier this month, Samia Ghali, the Mayor of the 15th and 16th arrondissements of Marseille, which embrace most of the poor northern districts, detonated a verbal bombshell. She said that the drug-related violence in northern Marseille had become so extreme that only the army could defeat it.

She called on the Government to deploy troops to confiscate the cheap automatic weapons flowing in from the Balkans and North Africa and to interrupt a drug trade which is, she says, conducted with impunity.

Ghali, a child of northern Marseilles like soccer stars Zinedine Zidane and Eric Cantona, admits that her proposal was mostly a "cry of alarm".

Back in the busy, friendly centre of Marseille I met Laurent Gaudon, a lawyer who has represented families of the victims.

Marseille has always had gangland killings, Gaudon said. "This is the city of the French Connection."

Ghali's call for military intervention was dismissed as absurd by local and national politicians of left and right. It was, all the same, hugely successful. Within days, the Government had drawn up an action plan to "rescue Marseille". The Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, and Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, were in the city last week to set up a new "priority security zone" in the northern districts. There are to be 230 extra police officers and - for the first time in any French city other than Paris - a proper city police chief or "Prefect de Police".

The Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has also promised the city the political and economic weight it needs to become a thriving "Mediterranean metropolis". He might begin by trying to dissolve the boundary between first and third worlds which begins at Bougainville metro station.

The dark side of Marseille

800,000 population
2nd largest city in France. Located on the southeast coast. The country's largest commercial port
26 per cent of people in Marseille live below the poverty line, against 15 per cent nationally
15 men, mostly from northern districts, shot dead in the city's drug wars
300 Kalashnikovs reportedly intercepted in the city this year.

- Independent

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