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Long Integrated, Marseille Is Spared
When Ghazi referred to France as something distinct from Marseille, he was not speaking loosely. In some ways, it is a pride typical in European cities that existed as independent entities for many centuries -- Barcelona and Naples, for example -- and today feel at least the equal if not superior to the nation-states that absorbed them.
Marseille, a city more than 2,600 years old, long predates France, not to mention the Roman Empire. (It was so anti-Roman that emperors used to send troublesome consuls to Marseille as a kind of uncomfortable exile.) "Marseille feels it submitted to a power -- Paris -- that didn't bring it benefits. Marseille had long stood on its own and it was always open to the world," Echinard said.
Unlike municipal leaders elsewhere, recent mayors of Marseille have given official recognition to communal diversity, rather than trying to fit everyone into one box of Frenchness. A program called Marseille Hope, begun in the late 1980s, periodically organizes consultations among religious leaders -- Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist -- on community problems.
The meetings helped avert violence during the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and also during the current rioting, city officials and residents say. "We're not saying there could be no explosion here. That is not the case," said Marie-Noelle Mivielle, an aide to Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin. "We are neighbors and recognize that neighbors have differences."
One final element contributes to the peculiar cohesiveness of the city: No part of town is off-limits or off-putting to the poor. The Old Port is effectively the central plaza of Marseille, but unlike other urban tourist magnets in France, it has not been cleaned up to the point of being without grit.
The stadium that is home to the wildly popular Olympique Marseille soccer team stands in one of the city's wealthy neighborhoods. Hordes of fans from all social classes flock there without a second thought. "Even the beaches here are a factor for peace," said Salah Bariki, coordinator of the Marseille Hope project. "We all mix there."
Some Marseille residents express concern that an urban renewal project that has forced hundreds of families from decayed downtown apartments could make the suburban poor feel uneasy coming downtown. A row of apartment houses on Republic Street downtown stand empty, awaiting renovation.
"I liked the street the way it was," said Mafiane Moncef, a pharmacist, who was born in Tunisia. He is holding out against eviction while bargaining for compensation. "The rents will go up and the poorer generations of immigrants will move away."
Moncef received a bank loan and bought his Globe pharmacy in 2000. "With my name, I could not have gotten the loan anywhere but here," he asserted. "I could have bought a cheaper location in Paris, but I would never leave Marseille."
City Hall insists that affordable housing will be made available to maintain a mix of wealthy and not so wealthy. As proof, Mivielle said, a new mosque is scheduled for inauguration Thursday in one of the neighborhoods scheduled for renovation. "We wouldn't do that if we expected to make an exclusion zone in the city center," she said.