September 3, 2021 - 10:24am

To understand Marseille — France’s second city, its poorest and its most violent — would take a lifetime. President Emmanuel Macron is spending three days there, his longest official visit of any kind since he was elected in May 2017.

Macron last night announced a 3bn, 15 year “rescue” plan for a city that has the highest unemployment, poorest housing, most dilapidated schools and — above all — the highest murder rate in France. 

This summer alone there have been 12 drugs-related killings of young people (by young people) in the city’s poor, northern districts. They included a 14 year old boy and a 17 year old girl who had no known connection with Marseille’s perpetual drugs war. 

The most depressing thing about these death figures is that they are neither high nor surprising. There were 28 similar murders last year. There were 35 in 2016. In previous years, Marseille (population 900,000) has proportionally as many drug-related murders as New York (population 8,000,000).

To even begin to understand Marseille, you have to grasp that there is not one city but two. The southern parts, including the old port, city centre and wealthy southern outskirts, are vibrant and relatively prosperous and peaceful. 

The northern part sprawls for 10 kilometres over ridge after ridge of low, limestone hills. Each is crowned by a white citadel gleaming in the Mediterranean sunshine which, as you approach, turns into a group of shabby tower blocks.

Up to the 1960s, these were the scrublands and the hard-scrabble villages of the Marcel Pagnol novels set in the early part of the century. These hilltop “cités” — with lyrical French village names like La Savine, Les Maronniers and La Castellane — are now the home of  North Africans, Africans, Asian and Roma migrants and their first, second and third generation descendants. 

Almost 40% of people who live here are below the poverty line, compared to 26% in Marseille as a whole and 15% nationally.  

For 10 years or more, these housing estates have been wracked by a drugs war between two principal gangs — Les Noirs and Les Gitanes (“the blacks” and the “gypsies”) — complicated by local turf rivalries between the different estates. The poor level of education and high level of unemployment means that recruits for the war are plentiful — and younger every year.

Similar problems exist in poor, inner suburbs on the edges of all French cities. In Marseille, the housing estates are within the city boundaries. The problems are more acute and more visible.

Macron’s visit to Marseille is partly electoral. Security will be a big issue in next year’s elections. He deserves credit, all the same, for promising to treat the city’s problems “at their root” — better transport and schools, better housing as well as more police. Four new tram lines will be built to span the gulf between north and south. 

Every French government in recent decades has made similar promises. Little has been delivered. Macron has at least grasped the heart of the problem. Marseille can only be healed if it becomes one city, not two.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.