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Govt targets Marseille’s AK47-wielding gangsters

Text by Tony TODD

Latest update : 2011-08-30

Marseille, France’s second largest city and one of the Mediterranean Sea’s most important ports, is suffering a wave of criminality. With less than a year before national elections, the government is keen on acting tough.

Alain Gardère is Marseille’s third new prefect, or police chief, in just two years. He took office on Monday in a city blighted by soaring crime rates and the growing use of AK-47 assault rifles by criminal gangs. French Interior Minister Claude Guéant was in Marseille to see Gardère, who was part of his staff until now, start his new job as police supremo.

“Gardère will bring innovation to the strategy and method of policing in Marseille,” he told reporters. “He will create an environment where security, at long last, reigns supreme.”

Marseille, a port city with a large immigrant population, has an established reputation for gang culture and lawlessness.

In the last year, the rates of violent crime have exploded. Some 26 physical assaults take place in the city each day. Robbery is up 23% from last year, burglaries are up 14%, while there has been a 40% increase in armed robberies. The murder rate increased by 9% in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010.

The assassinations of two important gang leaders – Roland Gaben and Souhel Hanna-Elias – on July 20 and 29, were the straw that broke the camel’s back. With less than a year before presidential and legislative elections, the centre-right UMP party, led by President Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to crack down hard.

But the challenges are huge. And police and urban associations find it hard to agree on the best approach to tackle the root causes of Marseille’s endemic criminal culture.

Kalashnikov culture

The Kalashnikov AK47 assault rifle, a potent symbol of violent anarchy, has made its grim stamp on Marseille’s underworld. The weapon has become an essential criminal accessory, the spokesman of the Unité de Police trade union, David-Olivier Reverdy, told FRANCE 24.

“It is the new Opinel [a popular and cheap brand of penknife] on the streets of Marseille,” he said.

Most of these weapons, which sell for 500 euros apiece on the city’s housing estates, come into Marseille through its busy sea port, one of the reasons the AK47 epidemic is unique to Marseille, Reverdy believes. Young criminals, he says, take “incredible risks” using firearms in robberies on small businesses. “They don’t seem to be aware that they risk 20 years in prison,” he said. “And very often they target small shops and bring home as little as 150 euros.”

Reverdy explained that until a few years ago, petty criminals would steal mobile phones for small amounts of money. But now that most mobile phones are protected, they are virtually worthless if stolen. Delinquents are now much more interested in cash, and gold, he said.

Ultra violence

“Delinquents are going straight into armed robbery these days,” he said. “Armed robbery is no longer the preserve of the hard core of criminals and as a result, Marseille is suffering from a culture of ultra violence.”

Reverdy said that it was inevitable that inside a densely populated city with high unemployment and a significant immigrant population, young people would naturally gravitate towards gangs.

“Some people do finish school and find a job,” he said. “But you can make so much more money selling drugs and robbing shops and businesses. It’s just too easy.”

Reverdy believes the solution is to increase the number of policemen patrolling the city.

And this is indeed what he hopes to get from Alain Gardère, who comes straight from an interior ministry which, under the direction of Claude Guéant, is pushing hard for a more visible police presence at a time when budgets are stretched.

“We need more police on the streets and we need better intelligence about the [housing] estates,” Reverdy said. “We also want the media to play up our successes. Marseille is not a black hole of doom.”

Confusing poverty with criminality

On Monday, Guéant toured areas of the city, such as the Porte d’Aix roundabout, which have become associated with Marseille’s apparent descent into endemic delinquency. Last month, youths took over the Porte d’Aix public car park, forcing the owners (the Vinci group) out and demanding five euros from people who parked there. The public outcry forced the previous prefect of police, Gilles Leclair, out of his job.

Bringing the glare of authoritarian politics on this deprived part of the city centre was a mistake, said Nouredine Abouakil, who heads the association Un Centre Ville Pour Tous (a town centre for everyone).

Abouakil is convinced that the root cause of Marseille’s problems lies in the endemic poverty suffered by a rejected and largely immigrant underclass.

He told FRANCE 24: “Guéant’s visit will be to those parts of the city where minor delinquency is visible.

“But it is a big mistake to confuse poverty, homelessness and the presence of immigrants with the criminals who use AK47s to commit violent robberies.

“I’m all for more efficient policing to target the gangs. But Marseille also needs better social housing, more job opportunities and better integration.”

At the end of Guéant’s visit, the Interior Minister promised Marseille a hundred new police officers and two companies of France’s notorious CRS riot police. They will be patrolling the city by the end of the month. Abouakil is not convinced.

“Policing is just one lever,” he said. “If we do not address Marseille’s serious social problems, we will get nowhere.”

Date created : 2011-08-29