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Harmony Strikes a Chord With Muslims, Jews in Marseille

Public and Religious Figures Work to Avert Strife That Afflicts Other Multiethnic Cities

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page A15

MARSEILLE, France -- After vandals desecrated Muslim gravestones in a public cemetery last summer, the presiding imam chose only one non-Muslim to speak at the rededication ceremony -- a Tunisian-born leader of the Jewish community.

Last month, a Jewish representative attended the festival of Eid al-Adha, one of Islam's most important holidays, at a local civic center. A few days later, a leading Muslim cleric took part in a commemoration ceremony for the hundreds of local Jews deported to Nazi death camps during World War II.


Rabbis inspected the ruins of a Jewish school in Marseille after it was burned by vandals in 2001. Such acts of violence are rare in the southern French city. (Claude Paris -- AP)

Marseille, population 800,000, a proud and bristly Mediterranean port, has since ancient times mixed diverse cultures and faiths. Today it is home to nearly 200,000 Muslims and 80,000 Jews, the continent's third-largest Jewish population center.

All the ingredients for protracted sectarian violence would seem to exist in large supply -- a young and impassioned imam, pugnaciously pro-Israel Jews, the anti-immigrant National Front, poverty, unemployment. But while Paris and other European cities have experienced waves of anti-Semitic violence and political agitation against immigrants, Marseille has only occasional outbreaks and remains generally at peace with itself.

City and community leaders cite multiple explanations: the leading role played by Marseille Hope, a committee of clerics who meet whenever trouble arises; an inclusive City Hall; the popularity of the city's multiethnic soccer team; even the benign lassitude caused by the hot Mediterranean sun. The city's police chief says his officers take full advantage of tough new national laws against hate crimes to crack down before incidents get out of hand.

With its unusual harmony, Marseille offers an example to Europe as societies that were solidly white, Christian and monolingual for centuries evolve toward multiculturalism. Migration from the Arab world has given many cities large Muslim minorities. Eastern Europeans have moved west seeking jobs and opportunity.

"It's obvious there are problems here," said Nassim Khelladi, the Algerian-born director of the social and cultural center at La Castellane, a public housing project in the north end of the city that is predominately Muslim. "But there's a huge amount of respect in this city and a great willingness to work together."

All sides in Marseille, politicians and clerics alike, have learned to engage one another to find ways to deal with potential breeding grounds for crime and despair. And they share a willingness to bend or ignore some of the rules of French society in order to keep the peace.

Marseille has long been an entry point for immigrants to France. Waves of Italians, Corsicans, Armenians, Algerians, Comorans, North African Jews and, most recently, Eastern Europeans have made their way here over the past century. In theory, keeping with this country's ethos of secular republicanism, all of them have integrated into French culture, maintaining their religious and ethnic identity as a separate, private matter. In reality, however, ethnic identity is pivotal.

"There are no pure French people in Marseille," said Salah Bakri, an Algerian-born special adviser to the mayor whose job is to keep track of tensions within and between ethnic factions.

It is official French policy to condemn what officials call "communitarianism," the sectioning off of communities by ethnic or religious group. Yet Marseille, a seaport where smuggling, black-market dealings and public corruption were long an accepted way of life, has always acknowledged ethnic politics.

Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, 65, is a wily veteran who has been in politics for 43 years. He funds Marseille Hope, though it is not an official body.

"By nature and training I'm a Christian Democrat, but I've learned the politics of brotherhood and of generosity," he said in a recent interview. "I've studied this voluntarily. I take part in every religious festival -- Christian, Muslim and Jew."

Gaudin has paid at least four visits to Israel over the past decade. On a table inside his ornate office atop City Hall, which dates back to the days of Louis XIV, he keeps a photo of his meeting with Israeli President Moshe Katzav alongside photos of himself with Pope John Paul II and King Hassan VI of Morocco.


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