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Marseille's Ethnic Bouillabaisse

Some view Europe's most diverse city as a laboratory of the continent's future

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One morning in early November 2005, Kader Tighilt turned on the radio as he drove to work. The news reported that 14 cars had burned overnight in Marseille's northern suburbs. "They've done it," Tighilt said out loud. "The bastards!" It seemed his worst fears had been confirmed: riots, which had first broken out in the suburbs of Paris on October 27, had now spread to the port city and one of the largest immigrant communities in France. For the previous two weeks, Tighilt, his fellow social workers and community volunteers had been working feverishly to prevent this very thing from happening, fanning out across the city to places where young people gathered to spread the word that violence was folly.

"We were worried that [our youths] would try to compete with Paris," says Tighilt, 45, who grew up in an Algerian family in a shantytown on the outskirts of the city. He was not alone. Marseille is not only arguably Europe's most ethnically diverse city, but also has as high a proportion of Muslims as any place in Western Europe. It suffers from high unemployment and the usual brew of urban problems. "We were waiting for the place to explode," one city official confided later.

But it didn't. Tighilt called a friend on the police force that morning, only to discover that the radio report had been exaggerated: yes, 14 cars had burned, but not in the Marseille suburbs alone—in the entire department, an area with a population of nearly two million people. By Paris' standards, the incident was trifling. And that was about it. For three weeks, riot police would fight running battles in the French capital, in Lyon, Strasbourg and elsewhere; dozens of shops, schools and businesses would be ransacked, thousands of cars torched and 3,000 rioters arrested. Yet Marseille, with a population of slightly more than 800,000, remained relatively quiet.

Despite being home to sizable Jewish and Muslim populations, Marseille had largely avoided the worst of the anti-Semitic attacks that swept France in 2002 and 2003 in the wake of the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) in Israel. And the 2006 Israeli incursion against Hezbollah in Lebanon produced anti-Israeli demonstrations in the city but no violence. At a time when disputes over the role of Islam in Western society are dividing Europe, Marseille has recently approved construction of a huge new mosque on a hill overlooking the harbor, setting aside a $2.6 million plot of city-owned land for the project. "If France is a very racist country," says Susanne Stemmler, a French studies expert at the Center for Metropolitan Studies in Berlin who has focused on youth culture in the port city, "Marseille is its liberated zone."

It seems an unlikely model. The city has not historically enjoyed a reputation for serenity. For Americans, at least, it may best be remembered as a setting for The French Connection, the 1971 drug smuggling thriller starring Gene Hackman. French television series depict the city as a seedy, rebellious enclave lacking in proper Gallic restraint. Yet its calm in the midst of a crisis has caused sociologists and politicians to take a fresh look. Across Europe, immigrant populations are mushrooming. There were fewer than one million Muslims in Western Europe after World War II before guest-worker programs fueled immigration. Today there are 15 million Muslims, five million in France alone. That change has exacerbated tensions between communities and local governments struggling to cope with the newcomers. Could Marseille, gritty yet forward-thinking, and as the French say, convivial, hold a key to Europe's future?

These questions come at a time when Marseille's image is already undergoing an upgrade. The world of drug lords and crumbling wharves has been giving way, block by block, to tourists and trendy boutiques. The French government has pledged more than half a billion dollars to redevelop the waterfront. Cruise ships brought 460,000 visitors this year, up from 19,000 a decade ago. Hotel capacity is expected to increase 50 percent in the next four years. Once merely the jumping-off point for tourists heading into Provence, the old port city is fast becoming a destination in itself. "Marseille is no longer the city of The French Connection," Thomas Verdon, the city's director of tourism, assured me. "It's a melting pot of civilizations."

Fifty years ago, from Alexandria to Beirut to Algeria's Oran, multicultural cities were the norm on the Mediterranean. Today, according to French sociologist Jean Viard, Marseille is the only one remaining. As such, he says, it represents a kind of "laboratory for an increasingly heterogeneous Europe." It is, he adds, "a city of the past—and of the future."

When I visited Marseille, in the waning days of a Provençal summer, a "three-masted" tall ship from a Colombian naval academy was moored in the inner harbor, sporting a display of flags from around the world and blasting samba music. At first glance, Marseille, with its jumble of white and brown buildings crowded around a narrow harbor, seems to resemble other port towns along France's Mediterranean coast. But less than half a mile from the historic center of the city lies the hectic, crowded quarter of Noailles, where immigrants from Morocco or Algeria, Senegal or the Indian Ocean's Comoro Islands haggle over halal (the Muslim version of kosher) meats as well as pastries and used clothing. Impromptu flea markets blanket sidewalks and back alleys. Just off the rue des Dominicaines, one of the city's older avenues, across from a shuttered 17th-century church, Muslim men kneel toward Mecca in a vacant shop lit by a single fluorescent bulb.

That night, the Colombian cadets were throwing a party. Thousands of Marseillais from the Arab world, as well as Armenians, Senegalese, Comorans and native French, descended on the Vieux Port to saunter along the waterfront or stop for a pastis (anise-flavored aperitif) at a local café. Some danced on the ship's deck. A shipboard band, not far from my hotel, played on until early morning. Then, as the first Vespas began roaring around the port-side boulevard at dawn, a lone trumpeter outside my window played "La Marseillaise." The national anthem, composed during the French Revolution, took its name from the city because it was popularized by local militias who sang the call to arms as they marched on Paris.

Of the city's 800,000 souls, some 200,000 are Muslim; 80,000 are Armenian Orthodox. There are nearly 80,000 Jews, the third-largest population in Europe, as well as 3,000 Buddhists. Marseille is home to more Comorans (70,000) than any other city but Moroni, the capital of the East African island nation. Marseille has 68 Muslim prayer rooms, 41 synagogues and 29 Jewish schools, as well as an assortment of Buddhist temples.

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