Mayoral candidates fish for votes, credibility in Marseille’s abandoned north
Blighted by chronic joblessness and poverty, the northern districts of Marseille have earned an unwanted reputation as France’s crime capital. Ahead of Sunday’s municipal elections, candidates are struggling to persuade the area’s long-neglected residents that this time real change is afoot.
Days ahead of the March 15 vote, a handful of youths and community activists are gathered in an apartment in the Cité de la Viste, a sprawling concrete estate in the 15th arrondissement of Marseille. They’re here to listen to Saïd Ahamada, the local MP, who is hoping to claim the mayoral seat on behalf of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling LREM party.
Hemmed in by motorways, steep hills and one of the Mediterranean’s busiest ports, the area is one of four districts, or arrondissements, that make up the city’s notorious quartiers nord. It is home to one of France’s most diverse populations, a melting pot Macron paid tribute to in a fiery speech delivered three years ago on the campaign trail.
“I see Armenians, Comorians, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, Senegalese, Ivorians,” he bellowed at the time, his voice hoarse. “But what do I see? I see citizens of Marseille, I see citizens of France.”
Ahamada, who was born to a Comorian father in the French overseas territory of La Réunion, is well aware that the latter part of Macron’s speech rings hollow to many inhabitants of Marseille’s most deprived neighbourhoods.
Those who hail from the quartiers nord “are not treated like full-blown French citizens”, he acknowledges, accusing politicians of having turned the northern districts into a ghetto.
Ahamada has showed up with a guest star, retired footballer Mamadou Niang, a former captain of the all-important club Olympique de Marseille, who is on the LREM ticket in Sunday’s mayoral contest.
“When I see the state of our sports facilities, I’m shocked,” says the former Marseille skipper. “This is France’s second-biggest city and yet nothing is done for the kids, their hopes and dreams are snatched from them. […] By the time they’re 13 or 14 they start dealing drugs to make a little cash. It’s a real problem.”
Addressing Niang, a young woman in the audience notes the lack of swimming pools in the quartiers nord. She says, “I love football, but there are kids here who don’t even know how to swim!”
‘We called the police, but they never came. So we went to the dealers’
Long a bastion of the left, northern Marseille is now a prime target for the far-right Rassemblement National (RN), formerly known as the National Front. At the last municipal elections, in 2014, Marine Le Pen’s party secured its first ever win here, snatching the mayoral seat for the city’s 13th and 14th arrondissements, with 35 percent of votes cast (against 32 percent each for the mainstream left and right).
According to Jean-Marc Coppola, the local candidate for the Printemps marseillais (Marseille Spring), a coalition of left-wing parties, the far-right’s success in the northern districts is a direct result of decades of neglect by Marseille’s central town hall, which wields most of the power. This sense of abandonment translates into record-high abstention levels, which typically favour the far right and its anti-establishment pitch.
At a campaign meeting in Coppola’s headquarters, his running mate Farida Hamadi, a teacher, waxes lyrical when describing the decrepit state of her school in the cité de la Castellane, best known as the birthplace of French football legend Zinedine Zidane.
Rats abound, roofs are collapsing, and “a guy wielding a sword walked into the building four times”, Hamadi says. “We called the police, but they never came. So we went to the local dealers and the guy never showed up again,” she sigh, her audience barely blinking.
Hamadi says her pupils are mostly well-behaved and their parents are dedicated, “whether or not they wear a Muslim veil”. But she laments the fact that many of the kids have never even been to the Vieux-Port, the city’s cherished old port, a mere 20-minute drive away – but an hour-long journey by public transport.
Unlike in Paris, where the poorest communities have been pushed out into the suburbs, the most deprived areas of Marseille are still within the city, starting just north of its centre. But the quartiers nord might just as well be in a different world such is the lack of basic infrastructure, including public transport and functioning schools.
“Schools should be the number one priority,” adds Coppola, noting that they fall under the central town hall’s remit. He accuses Marseille’s long-time conservative mayor of abandoning public services and allowing “the privatisation of all sectors, particularly education”.
A disillusioned youth
The fact that Coppola enjoys the support of several left-wing parties, from the Socialists to the Greens, marks a rare success for Marseille’s notoriously fractured left. But not everyone has rallied behind the Printemps marseillais – starting with the incumbent mayor for the 15th and 16th arrondissements, firebrand Senator Samia Ghali.
A fixture of local politics and a longtime maverick in the Socialist Party, Ghali made national headlines in 2012 when she called for the French army to be deployed in Marseille’s quartiers nord amid a spike in gang killings. Eight years on, she maintains it was the right call to make.
“It was my duty to speak out. Basements were stashed with assault weapons and the feedback was that the police were being complacent,” she explains. “Today there are still murders, but what worries me most is how amorphous youths are. They’re disillusioned. It’s a frightening situation when you have a youth that has no faith in the Republic.”
Ghali’s dissident campaign has suffered a number of setbacks, not least with the defection of her former deputy, Roger Ruzé. Two other councillors have also jumped ship, throwing their support behind LREM’s Ahamada. But Ghali has lost none of her fighting spirit, railing against her opponents on the left.
“I got them elected, every one of them,” she lashes out, her broken wrist resting on a shoulder strap. “The pseudo left that has never worked in the field, they have a right to be candidates, this is a democracy, but I’m the only one to have defeated the National Front.”
Far right on the prowl
While the Socialist senator held on to her mayoral seat in 2014, the far-right’s victory in the neighbouring 13th and 14th arrondissements gave Marine Le Pen’s party control over its very first constituency with a population above 100,000.
It’s a success both Coppola and Ahamada are keen to downplay, blaming record-high abstention levels – 55 percent in the quartiers nord in 2014 – for allowing the former National Front to slip through.
Stéphane Ravier, the man who has led the far right in Marseille for the past two decades, has scarcely changed his tactics since his stunning victory six years ago. The 50-year-old has little to boast about in terms of concrete results, his mairie de secteur (the 13th and 14th arrondissements are grouped under one sector) having only limited powers compared to Marseille’s central town hall. So he has stuck to his outsider pitch, railing against a rigged “system”.
On a tour of local shops, Ravier rants against taxes and “those who team up to fill their pockets”. His opponents “will resort to any means to hold on to power”, he warns, raising the spectre of electoral fraud, “a scourge that is typical of elections in Marseille”. And when a bystander mutters, “All you politicians make me sick”, Ravier replies: “With the others nothing will ever change, but with us there’s a real risk of change.”
Even as he plays the man-of-the-people card, the far-right candidate has called for an end to the construction of social housing… in the name of ecology.
“Social housing means pouring concrete all over Marseille, when the city is already out of breath,” he explains. “Our parks and gardens are pillaged under the pretext that we need more public housing.”
Ravier argues that residents of the quartiers nord no longer want to live in their drab concrete cités, even if their upkeep is improved or metro links are finally provided.
He adds: “People don’t want to stay there because there’s too much crime linked to drug dealing and Islamist radicalism. There are plenty of empty dwellings already, so before we build some more let’s restore law and order.”
If there’s one thing all candidates in the quartiers nord agree on, it’s their damning verdict on the “25 years of inaction” by Jean-Claude Gaudin, Marseille’s outgoing mayor, who has governed France’s second largest city since 1995, consistently favouring its wealthier southern constituents.
Even Moussa Maaskri, the local conservative candidate, concedes that the residents of Marseille’s four northern arrondissements have every reason to be angry.
“The people are right to be cross, because they’ve been spurned and neglected,” says the former actor, who is standing for Gaudin’s designated successor, Martine Vassal, in the 15th and 16th arrondissements. Maaskri, who was raised by Algerian parents in a cité of Marseille, promises that this time “we will really take care of the quartiers”.
But residents of Marseille’s deprived north have heard many such promises before, most of them empty, and the steadily declining turnout suggests they’ve run out of patience.
“We need the people of Marseille to be with us, to have faith, because they are the ones who can bring about change,” says LREM’s Ahamada, honing his “Macronian” pitch.
“We’re at a crossroads,” adds his rival in the Printemps marseillais. “Either we bring about real change, or we will sink deeper into ghettos and lose all control.”
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