French policemen check the identity papers with a resident during a control operation in apartment housing buildings at Air-Bel in Marseille, on March 15, 2013. (JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/Reuters)

This was supposed to be the year for Marseille.

The gritty Mediterranean port, France’s second-largest city, was appointed the “cultural capital of Europe,” a rotating European Union honor. City fathers launched beautification projects, created new tourism attractions and invited people from around the world to visit. A splendid stone esplanade was laid around the Old Port, peppered with novel sculpture, and a high-tech historical museum went up next to City Hall.

But despite the cultural renaissance — not to mention Marseille’s famed fish soup — all people here are talking about is murder and drug trafficking. In the past two weeks, five killings have been recorded that police say are linked to gang wars for control of hashish sales in the city’s infamous high-rise slums.

The eruption has refocused attention on Marseille’s long-standing reputation as a European drug-smuggling hub, a place where entire neighborhoods have slipped away from police control and fallen under the command of gangsters who earn millions importing and selling North African hashish and settle turf disputes with AK-47 assault rifles.

“Marseille is sick with its violence,” Interior Minister Manuel Valls said.

Vowing to squash the drug trade and end the violence, Valls last week dispatched 250 paramilitary and other national police officers to reinforce the usual deployment of around 3,000. The night after they were deployed, with television cameras in tow, another body was found, burned to a crisp with a bullet in its charred skull, the execution method local traffickers call the “barbecue.” The next day, two Turkish immigrants were shot and wounded, and a pair of youths driving by on a motor scooter opened fire with a pistol on a third man, wounding him in the legs.

Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, from the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), said the city is doing its best to improve the poor suburbs, inhabited mainly by North African immigrants, where youth unemployment is double the national average of 10 percent. But he said ending drug violence in Marseille is mainly up to the Socialist-run government in Paris headed by President Francois Hollande.

“We are making great efforts, but the safety of people and property depends essentially on the government,” Gaudin said in a Q&A with the newspaper Le Figaro. “I would like the government to fully realize that Marseille needs to be helped.”

Gaudin’s statement underlined the political quotient in Marseille’s violence. The city, along with others across France, has scheduled municipal elections next year. A particularly important prize with 850,000 residents, Marseille has become the target of several potential Socialist and UMP candidates.

Moreover, security was a major focus of the conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande is eager to show he, too, can be tough on crime. Valls, his interior minister, has made a reputation as anything but a squishy liberal in the 10 months since Hollande took office.

Limited budgets

In that spirit, Patrick Mennucci, a Socialist member of the National Assembly from Marseille, suggested a march against violence but also encouraged police to frisk everybody entering or leaving drug-infested neighborhoods, to make buying hashish more difficult.

“For people found to be in possession of hashish bars, we should no longer simply give them a warning, “ he said. “We can, because the law permits it, seize their cars and let them go home on foot. Maybe that will make them think twice.”

Despite its political overtones, Gaudin’s analysis was based on the way the French government is organized. Municipal police, often unarmed, have not been accorded the responsibility for suppressing crimes such as drug smuggling. That is the responsibility of national police organizations, which take orders from the Interior Ministry in Paris but whose budgets are limited by the European financial crisis.

The reinforcements sent in by Valls are based elsewhere and are likely to stay only a few weeks before moving on, according David-Olivier Reverdy of the local Alliance police union. In that light, the emergency deployment resembled similar widely publicized shows of force organized under Claude Gueant, the preceding interior minister under Sarkozy.

‘It’s all down the toilet’

Whatever party runs the government, a sudden infusion of manpower looks good on television but does little to change the situation, Reverdy said. Agreeing with his analysis, many Marseille residents have become skeptical when they hear about police reinforcements and see new checkpoints go up in the suburbs.

“They search people coming home from work, families bringing their children home from school, and the real guys, they’re gone,” said a resident of the Air Bel neighborhood where the latest body was found. “It’s just a show,” he added, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “It’s eyewash.”

As he spoke, two youths huddled in the entrance to a nearby apartment building, apparently acting as sentinels watching for police. On hearing a shout from behind the building as a reporter approached, they fled into the shadows.

Reverdy said the sudden explosion of violence and public concern occurred just as the struggle against drug violence appeared to be gaining ground. Valls in November sent in 150 permanent additions to the city’s anti-drug police squads. As opposed to the fly-in reinforcements, they came to stay and were integrated into units surveilling and otherwise seeking intelligence on the drug business.

“As things were, we didn’t understand very well how the business works,” Reverdy said, “so that was important.”

The number of drug-related slayings, which stood at 24 in 2012, began to stagnate in the first two months of this year, and a ton of hashish has been seized since the fall. Hope was rising among police that they might be able to get a grip on the violence. Local media attention turned to other subjects, including Marseille’s role as the capital of European culture.

“The mayonnaise was starting to take,” Reverdy said. “But now, with five dead in two weeks, it’s all down the toilet.”