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Deploying army to violent Marseille ‘inconceivable’

A Marseille senator has called for military intervention in France’s second city as inter-gang violence, fueled by the drug trade and typified by the use of AK-47 assault rifles, spirals out of control. Not everyone agrees.


The French government has rejected a Marseille senator’s call for military intervention in the wake of a record number of gang-related killings France's second city, characterised by widespread use of AK-47 assault rifles, the local gangsters’ weapon of choice.

The latest victim was 25-year-old Walid Marzouki, a known drug dealer. His killers fired some 30 rounds from a fully-automatic Kalashnikov at him late on Wednesday as he sat in the passenger seat of a car stopped for a red light.

He is the 19th victim of inter-gang murders in the Marseille region this year, up on a total of 16 in 2011. They are mostly a consequence of territorial disputes between local drug gangs who rule the city’s northern suburbs in a climate of lawlessness and violence.

Exasperated local Senator Samia Ghali on Thursday called for soldiers to be deployed to the troubled suburbs.

“Only the army is capable of dealing with this situation,” she said. “They need first of all to disarm the gangs, and then to prevent [drug addicts] from accessing dealers’ neighbourhoods with roadblocks, as in a war zone. Even if it takes two years to resolve the problem, it must be done.”

‘France is not at war’

Marzouki’s killing is another brutal reminder of France’s security challenge in the country’s second-biggest city.

But the French government, the army and local police are adamant that deploying troops on the streets of Marseille would be a step too far.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls, known to be cultivating a “tough on crime” image, said it was “out of the question” to deploy soldiers to Marseille.

“The army has no business policing the suburbs,” added President François Hollande.

One senior army officer told right-leaning daily Le Figaro on Friday that “it would be inconceivable to send in the army”.

“It would give the impression that we were in a battle against our own citizens,” he said. “Yes, the city has gangs, drug dealers and a powerful mafia culture, but these are not enemies of the state."

“It’s a question of internal security, certainly not of national defence. The army would only add to the tension and make the local population feel stigmatised.”

The unnamed officer added that sending in troops would be an admission of failure: “It would translate as a sign of the inability of local law enforcement to deal with the problem.”

Worse, said right-wing Marseille Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, residents of the city’s crime-infested poorer neighbourhoods would see a military presence as “a call to civil war”.

David-Olivier Reverdy, head of the Marseille branch of the Alliance police union, insisted that no one in the city wanted to see armed soldiers patrolling the streets.

"What we need is police reinforcements,” he told FRANCE 24. “In particular, we need more criminal intelligence officers and investigating detectives to deal with this problem. We don’t need soldiers here. France is not at war.”

‘Drug dealing has become the driving force’

Gang violence is not a new phenomenon in Marseille, a city with a large immigrant population and a long history of criminality. The port is an entry point for a vast amount of drugs which fuel the local underground economy, as well as the weapons with which local gangsters arm themselves.

Marseille’s criminal underground, however, is hardly cohesive. Each housing estate is home to autonomous gangs in perpetual competition with each other, according to Laurent Muccielli, a regional crime expert for the publicly-funded CNRS research institute.

“The frequency of these inter-gang killings would indicate that there is no overall organised structure to Marseille’s crime network,” he said, adding that the city had a strong culture of idolising criminality.

“Drug dealing is the driving force,” he added. “It has become the norm, a wide-ranging economic model upon which these ghettoised economies have come to depend for day-to-day survival.”

Muccielli also believes putting troops on the streets would be the worst solution possible.

“Doing snatch raids to arrest a dozen small-time dealers and their local supplier would achieve nothing,” he told FRANCE 24. “The only solution would be to reinforce the local police presence and at the same time give the young people in these poor housing estates real opportunities to get themselves out of the poverty trap.”

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is due to host an inter-ministerial working group to look at the Marseille problem on September 6.

Improving local law enforcement and economic development will be on the table. Sending in the army will not.

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