By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
MARSEILLE, France, Nov. 15 -- While several other French cities were under curfew this weekend as an antidote to violence and riot police set themselves at the ready in central Paris, a North African wedding party sped around the harbor at Marseille's Old Port, horns blaring and young men hanging out the automobile windows.
Moments later, several hundred demonstrators, some pale French, others deeply black Africans, marched to protest censorship in Tunisia. No police were in sight.
The very presence of such an ethnic collage in the downtown areas of many French cities during nearly three weeks of rioting would have been cause for alarm. But Marseille's core is a spicy stew of nationalities, giving it a make-up like no other in France.
The free and easy mixture is one answer given by Marseille residents to the question posed over and over in recent weeks: Why has their town had relatively little trouble?
"It's the special quality of Marseille," said Dia Ghazi, a Palestinian-born proprietor of the Royal Bazaar, a hodgepodge of made-in-France textiles and Middle East-manufactured coffee makers and pine nuts. "Here, we all have contact with each other. That's the way it's always been here. We are not separate from each other."
In relative terms, Marseille suffered little violence during the flare-up that shook France. One night, arsonists torched 35 cars, but that was about the extent of the unrest. Around Paris and other French cities such vandalism occurred almost nightly, and included schools, businesses and government offices as targets.
That's not to say that all is well. A trip to the outlying northern neighborhood of Oliviers revealed the same depressed social and economic conditions found in the suburbs of Paris, Toulouse, Lyon and other tense cities. Residents complain of police harassment based on skin color, of joblessness and substandard schooling. But the prevailing sentiment is that people feel at home here and that's why Marseille didn't burn.
"We have our troubles, but I can go to the center of the city without thinking I am entering enemy territory," said Abida Hecini, a mother of six. "We belong to Marseille and Marseille belongs to us."
History is one source of this stability. While other cities in France fret about the arrival of immigrants over the past 50 years, Marseille has been a magnet for outsiders for well over 100: Italians fleeing poverty, Greeks and Armenians escaping wars, Moroccan sailors jumping ship, Spanish smugglers looking for a haven, Europeans returning from France's former Algerian colony and impoverished Algerians themselves seeking work.
A substantial Jewish community exited Algeria and settled here. On any downtown Marseille street corner, distinct fashions float by: a white Arab-style caftan here, the black overcoat of a Lithuanian Jew there, an African dyed garment, and a French short-brimmed cap over there. There's a budding Chinatown up in Panier, the cluttered neighborhood of sand-colored buildings on a hill above the Old Port.
"Marseille was made by immigration," said Pierre Echinard, a local historian. Of a population of 800,000, a quarter is of North African descent. Residents say they miss the ethnic variety when they leave the close quarters of their city, which is squeezed against the Mediterranean Sea by hills.
"I dislike going to Paris. They are cold there. A few days, and I want to return. France does not attract me," said Ghazi, whose family fled Haifa, which became part of Israel, landed in Beirut in 1948 and eventually migrated to Marseille.
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.