Marseille’s Ethnic Bouillabaisse

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

(Kate Brooks)
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"What makes Marseille different," said Clément Yana, an oral surgeon who is a leader of the city's Jewish community, "is the will not to be provoked, for example, by the intifada in Israel—not to let the situation get out of control. We could either panic, and say 'Look, there is anti-Semitism!' or we could get out in the communities and work." Several years ago, he said, when a synagogue on the outskirts of Marseille was burned to the ground, Jewish parents ordered their kids to stay home and canceled a series of soccer matches scheduled in Arab neighborhoods. Kader Tighilt (who is Muslim and heads a mentoring association, Future Generations) immediately telephoned Yana. Virtually overnight, the two men organized a tournament that would include both Muslim and Jewish players. They initially called the games, now an annual affair, the "tournament of peace and brotherhood."

A spirit of cooperation, therefore, was already well established at the moment in 2005 when community leaders feared that Arab neighborhoods were about to erupt. Volunteers and staffers from a variety of organizations, including Future Generations, fanned out across Marseille and its northern suburbs attempting to put into context the then nonstop TV coverage of riots erupting in Paris and elsewhere in France. "We told them 'In Paris they are stupid'; 'They are burning their neighbors' cars'; 'Don't fall into that trap,'" Tighilt says. "I didn't want immigrant neighborhoods to be locked up and ghettoized," he recalled. "We have a choice." Either "we surrender these places to the law of the jungle," or "we take it upon ourselves to become masters of our own neighborhoods."

Nassera Benmarnia founded the Union of Muslim Families in 1996, when she concluded that her children risked losing touch with their roots. At her headquarters, I found several women baking bread as they counseled elderly clients on housing and health care. Benmarnia's aim, she says, is to "normalize" the presence of the Muslim community in the city. In 1998, to observe the holiday Eid al-Adha (marking the end of the pilgrimage season to Mecca), she organized a citywide party she dubbed Eid-in-the-City, to which she invited non-Muslims as well as Muslims, with dancing, music and feasting. Each year since, the celebration has grown. Last year, she even invited a group of pieds-noirs, descendants of the French who had colonized Arab North Africa and are believed by some to be particularly hostile to Arab immigrants. "Yes, they were surprised!" she says. "But they enjoyed it!" One-third of the partygoers turned out to be Christians, Jews or other non-Muslims.

Though a devout Catholic, Marseille's mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, prides himself on close ties to Jewish and Muslim communities. Since his election in 1995, he has presided over Marseille-Espérance, or Marseille-Hope, a consortium of prominent religious leaders: imams, rabbis, priests. At times of heightened global tension—during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, or after the 9/11 attacks—the group meets to talk things over. The mayor has even approved construction, by the Muslim community, of a new Grand Mosque, expected to begin next year on two acres of land set aside by the city in the northern neighborhood of St. Louis overlooking the port. Rabbi Charles Bismuth, a member of Marseille-Espérance, supports the project as well. "I say let's do it!" he says. "We don't oppose each other. We are all heading in the same direction. That is our message and that is the secret of Marseille."

It's not the only secret: the unusual feel of the downtown, where immigrant communities are only a stone's throw from the historic center, is another. In Paris, most notably, immigrants tend not to live in central neighborhoods; instead most are in housing projects in the banlieues, or suburbs, leaving the heart of the city to the wealthy and the tourists. In Marseille, low-rent apartment buildings, festooned with laundry, rise only a few dozen yards from the old city center. There are historical reasons for this: immigrants settled not far from where they arrived. "In Paris, if you come from the banlieues, to walk in the Marais or on the Champs-Élysées, you feel like a foreigner," says Stemmler. "In Marseille, [immigrants] are already in the center. It is their home." Sociologist Viard told me, "One of the reasons you burn cars is in order to be seen. But in Marseille, kids don't need to burn cars. Everybody already knows they are there."

Ethnic integration is mirrored in the economy, where Marseille's immigrants find more opportunity than in other parts of France. Joblessness in immigrant neighborhoods may be high, but it's not at the levels seen in Paris banlieues, for example. And the numbers are improving. In the past decade, a program that provides tax breaks to companies that hire locally is credited with reducing unemployment from 36 percent to 16 percent in two of Marseille's poorest immigrant neighborhoods.

But the most obvious distinction between Marseille and other French cities is the way in which Marseillais see themselves. "We are Marseillais first, and French second," a musician told me. That unassailable sense of belonging pervades everything from music to sports. Take, for example, attitudes toward the soccer team, Olympique de Marseille, or OM. Even by French standards, Marseillais are soccer fanatics. Local stars, including Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian parents who learned to play on the city's fields, are minor deities. "The club is a religion for us," says local sports reporter Francis Michaut. "Everything you see in the city develops from this attitude." The team, he adds, has long recruited many of its players from Africa and the Arab world. "People don't think about the color of the skin. They think about the club," says Michaut. Éric DiMéco, a former soccer star who serves as deputy mayor, told me that "people here live for the team" and the fans' camaraderie extends to kids who might otherwise be out burning cars. When English hooligans began looting the downtown following a World Cup match here in 1998, hundreds of Arab teenagers streamed down to the Vieux Port on Vespas and old Citroën flatbeds—to battle the invaders alongside French riot police.

Some 2,600 years ago, legend has it, a Greek mariner from Asia Minor, named Protis, landed in the inlet that today forms the old harbor. He promptly fell in love with a Ligurian princess, Gyptis; together they founded their city, Massalia. It became one of the ancient world's great trading centers, trafficking in wine and slaves. Marseille survived as an autonomous republic until the 13th century, when it was conquered by the Count of Anjou and came under French rule.

For centuries, the city has lured merchants, missionaries and adventurers from across the Middle East, Europe and Africa to its shores. Marseille served, too, as a safe haven, providing shelter for refugees—from Jews forced out of Spain in 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition to Armenians who survived Ottoman massacres early in the 20th century.

But the largest influx began when France's far-flung French colonies declared independence. Marseille had been the French Empire's commercial and administrative gateway. In the 1960s and '70s, hundreds of thousands of economic migrants, as well as the pieds-noirs, flocked to France, many settling in the area around Marseille. Amid ongoing economic and political turmoil in the Arab world, the pattern has continued.


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