Marseille: Europe's most dangerous place to be young

Away from its glamorous tourist centre, 15 men have died this year as the city's drug war spirals out of control. John Lichfield reports

To understand Marseille catch a bus – bus number 30 from the Bougainville metro station. The route starts at the northern terminus of the metro system, five kilometres from the city centre. It winds past motorways, factories, unofficial rubbish tips and a 10th-century monastery.

France's second city sprawls for another 10 kilometres over ridge after ridge of limestone hills. Each is crowned by a white citadel gleaming in the Mediterranean sunshine which, as the bus approaches, turns into a group of shabby tower blocks.

Up to the 1960s, these were the scrubland and the hard-scrabble villages of the Marcel Pagnol novels set in the early part of the century. Fragments of the Provençal villages can still be seen. The "garrigue", or scrub, survives on the jagged mountains which crowd in from the east. But Marius, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources and their descendants have long gone. My fellow passengers on the 45-minute ride to La Savine, one of the northernmost estates, are a blend of North Africans, Africans, Asians and Roma.

The bus passes through the poorest districts of the poorest city in France. Almost 40 per cent of people who live here are below the poverty line, compared to 26 per cent in Marseille as a whole and 15 per cent nationally. In the richer, mostly white, areas south of the city centre, the risk of dying before the age of 65 is 23 per cent below the national average. In north Marseille, it is 30 per cent higher than the French average.

If you are a teenage boy or young man from northern Marseille, you risk dying long before the age of 65. Fifteen young men, mostly from the city's northern districts, have been shot dead this year as part of a war for the lucrative franchise to sell drugs – mostly cannabis and cocaine – to the people from the wealthier parts of the city and the suburbs.

In fact, there have been almost as many killings of young men in the first nine months of 2012 as in the whole of last year. Proportionally, Marseille (population 800,000), now has almost as many drug-related murders as New York (population 8,000,000). Eyeing the issues, the French government has announced emergency action this month to stop the city, which will be the "European capital of culture" from January, from claiming title of the European capital of youth murder.

At the end of the bus ride to La Savine, I met Rachida Tir, leader of the estate's resident's association. "For seven years now we have been losing our young men," she said. "This is not just about drug trafficking. That alone cannot explain the killing."

"There is a suicidal instinct, a desperation in some of these boys. It starts with failure and rejection at school and the lack of jobs. They see no future. They live for the present, in a world of easy money and, now, violence."

Earlier this month, Samia Ghali, the mayor of the 15th and 16th arrondissements of Marseille, which embrace most of the poor northern districts, detonated a verbal bombshell. She said that the drug-related violence in northern Marseille had become so extreme that only the army could defeat it. She called on the government to deploy troops to confiscate the cheap automatic weapons flowing in from the Balkans and North Africa and to interrupt a drug trade which is, she says, conducted with impunity.

Ms Ghali, a child of northern Marseilles like Zinedine Zidane and Eric Cantona, admits that her proposal was mostly a "cry of alarm". "I was born and grew up here. I know what I'm talking about," she said. "I can no longer stomach seeing children that I have known since they were born drilled with holes. I cannot forget the distress of the girlfriend of [a recent victim] who found him shot 30 times. It is time to stop the massacre." Ms Ghali, a Socialist, berates the attitude of some politicians and commentators – including the centre-right mayor of Marseille Jean-Claude Gaudin - who dismiss the murders as "règlements de compte" ("tit-for-tat killings" or "a turf war"). "By using that kind of language, you're saying that these murders – and murder is the right word – are separate from polite society or the law," she said. "You are saying, 'let them kill each other'." Back in the busy, friendly centre of Marseille – a different planet from Bougainville and La Savine – I met Laurent Gaudon, a lawyer who has represented families of the victims. He also disputes the phrase "turf war". "Often it is not clear why these kids are dying," he said. "In one case I had last year a boy of 17 was shot because he had been disrespectful to another young man. The killer wanted to prove that he was tough enough to be in a drug gang." Marseille has always had gangland killings, Mr Gaudon said. "This is the city of the French Connection. All the organised crime of the Mediterranean basin passes through here – Corsicans, Sicilians."

In the late 1990's the police dismantled the biggest of the old crime gangs. Since then the kids in the poorer estates have gradually taken over the local drugs trade. "The old gangsters had a code of honour but not the new ones," Mr Gaudon said. "The kids can buy guns for next to nothing and they use them for next to nothing."

Ms Ghali's call for military intervention was dismissed as absurd by local and national politicians of Left and Right. It was, all the same, hugely successful. Within days, the government had drawn up an action plan to "rescue Marseille". The interior minister, Manuel Valls, and justice minister, Christiane Taubira, were in the city last week to set up a new "priority security zone" in the northern districts. There are to be 230 extra police officers and – for the first time in any French city other than Paris – a proper city police chief or "Prefect de Police". The Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has also promised the city the political and economic weight it needs to become a thriving "mediterranean metropolis".

The population within the city boundary is relatively poor. Many richer people – the great grand-children of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources – have moved out to the suburbs. This is the reverse of the usual French pattern where the cities are well-heeled and the inner suburbs poor and troubled.

Mr Ayrault this week appointed another Prefect with the Herculean brief to dissolve local political jealousies and create a single, political and economic agglomeration, reconnecting Marseille with its rich satellite towns. He might begin by trying to dissolve the boundary between first and third worlds which begins at Bougainville metro station. "We have been abandoned. Forgotten," said Rachida Tir. "Most people here want to live decent, legal lives. But what choices do they have?"

A local mayor said that the drug-related violence was so extreme only the army could defeat it

Drug war in numbers

26: Percentage of people in Marseille who live below the poverty line, against 15 per cent nationally.

15: The number of men, mostly from northern districts, shot dead in the city's drug wars.

300: The number of Kalashnikovs reportedly intercepted in Marseille this year.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Sport
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam