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Marseille, Europe’s new cultural capital, seeks to shed its shady image

As Marseille takes the baton as European Capital of Culture 2013, it is hoping its full programme of arts and entertainment events will reshape traditional – and less savoury – perceptions of the city.

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On Saturday, France’s second city Marseille started its year-long role as Europe’s culture capital. The city and outlying region will host more than 100 exhibitions and performances linked to a ‘Mediterranean’ theme. These will include everything from public contemporary art exhibitions, circus events, pyrotechnic performances, a Rodin exhibition and a major retrospective on modernity in painting.

Councils from Marseille to Arles, and several towns in between, have invested more than 90 million euros in the event, known as Marseille-Provence 2013 (MP 2013).

The port city’s credentials as a capital of culture have received a further boost from the injection of 660 million euros into the building and upgrading of more than 20 different cultural sites.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, marked the start of festivities by placing the final stone in the Museum of Civilisations from Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM). Built close to the city’s iconic old port and overlooking the sea, the museum will open in June.

A challenge for Marseille

Yet behind the bright veneer of culture, stands a city with a distinctly shady reputation.

Unlike other French cities such as Lille, which was the Capital of Culture in 2004, Marseille is more commonly regarded as a city that is rebellious, noisy, and violent – and with Mafia connections to boot.

In recent months, Marseille has been gripped by a spate of organised crime that resulted in more than 20 deaths in 2012, and has experienced numerous police corruption scandals.

Well aware of the city’s sulphurous reputation, MP-2013 president Jacques Pfister has turned it to his advantage. When it comes to culture, Marseille, he said, “will not be like a well-behaved child, but a turbulent creator of multiple cultures”.

Yannis Augustides, who heads a local association that welcomes new residents called AVF, told French daily La Croix that it was a unique occasion to change perceptions of the city. “People who come here have an image of the city as being complicated and fascinating. Either you love Marseille or you hate it.”

The Marseille native has been fighting a daily battle against the clichés that erode the city’s reputation, though which often have a kernel of truth at their heart. “Either Marseille evokes the sun, its football club Olympic Marseille, crickets, beach and pastis, or else it’s the Mafia town with its settling of accounts and Kalashnikovs,” he said with regret.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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