Travel: France - The French city that is home to tout le monde

Marseilles, where tomorrow England play their first match, is not just about football. By Colin Dallibar
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The Independent Travel
"SALUT, l'Algerien!" A voice behind me booms. A powerful figure barges through, jostling me to one side, and I swing round as the man grabs an Arab standing next to me. They grip hold of each other and embrace heartily in a warm, mutually appreciative back-slapping ritual.

Early evening down in Marseilles's Vieux Port, and the hugging duo are part of a hotchpotch crowd gathering for an anti-racism demonstration. A curious assortment of students, unionists, liberals, socialists, young families and old academics potter to and fro with hand-drawn placards and elaborate banners. A few days earlier, a bunch of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National cronies assembled on the same quayside, shaking fists and seething solidarity in the face of the local immigrant population. Now the anti-racists are returning the insult.

This, of course, is nothing unusual. Tit-for-tat demos seem to pop up with regularity and relative spontaneity in Marseilles. Tonight's crowd is jocular and friendly, and the occasion has the light-hearted air of a frequent social engagement, rather than a manifestation of political strength. "Xenophobia is pointless here," explains Yann, a local journalist. "In Marseilles, everyone is a stranger, there's no point in feeling self- conscious when you walk down the street. People look you in the eye, both out of wariness and curiosity." "You have to get involved here," adds his colleague Anne. "If you don't get involved, you get nothing out of it."

In a bid to get involved with Marseilles's "strangers", I tag along with the demo, progressing gently up the Canebiere, the main street splitting the city. The divide is not just geographical but spiritual and economic. South of the Canebiere, rue Paradis is a narrow thoroughfare fuming with traffic, where well-to-do ladies shop with yapping poodles in tow. North of the Canebiere, the seedy streets and cheap hotels of the Belsunce district lie in wait. Rich with life and Algerian souks by day, it is considered a no-go area after dark. A wrong turning I took led me through it one night, and I would not beg to differ. This might be paranoia; then again, it might be because it was pin-drop silent and pitch-black.

Marseilles is the original melting-pot. Settled by the Greeks in about 600 bc, it has always taken a global perspective on matters. The city became part of France only in the 1480s and retains a reputation for being obstinate. When the French moved into Algeria in 1830, the port strengthened its North African commercial ties and, while the rest of the country courts the EU, Marseilles still looks south of the Mediterranean.

It is a rough-hewn city combining earthy, honest multiculturalism with French exuberance, making it provocative and cosmopolitan at the same time. True, it has its fair share of crime, racial tension and economic hardship, but it is a perfect gem for the cultural tourist, or for writers scouting for material for the proverbial first novel. All humanity seems to congregate here.

Maghreb culture has stamped its mark on the music and cuisine of the city. At midday, a trip to one of the town's numerous couscous outlets is a healthy way of filling up, and a generous portion of couscous with vegetables or lamb goes well with a splash of vin de table. North Africa is not generally renowned for its viticulture, but half a bottle of Sidi Brahim Algerian Red slips down the throat with remarkable ease. Especially after a mouthful of fiery Harissa sauce, made from pulped chilli.

Wishing to sample further the North African influence, I tried, and failed, to get into a club where Rai musicians strut their stuff into the small hours. My modest frame was no match for the macho body language of the posturing doormen.

Even regulars bartered their way through the door, and groups of men whispered with bouncers in the shadows as banknotes changed hands and they were sneaked in. In the interest of keeping my possessions and, for that matter, my teeth, I decided that perhaps visiting a Rai club wasn't so high on my list of Marseilles must-dos after all, and put it down to experience. Or rather lack of it.

While Algerian culture is certainly strong in the city, immigrant influence is not confined to North Africa. Marseilles brings together a plethora of Tunisians, Chinese, Italians, Jews and Brazilians, but the centre of town is not particularly ghettoised. Everyone lives - quite literally - on top of one another, and it is in the Panier that this can be most keenly observed.

The Panier is a beautifully dilapidated quarter, boasting a distinctly bohemian, Mediterranean atmosphere. It has always been a bubbling cauldron of free-thinkers and radicals, and during the Second World War it provided cover for many Resistance fighters. In return, it was blown up by the Germans. But their efforts to raze the Panier to the ground almost pale in comparison to today's attempts to gentrify and sanitise the area.

Turn a cobbled corner and houses are being pulled down, walls sand-blasted left and right. The mindless mandate to plaster and smooth over the cracks on the Panier's walls is sadly being followed. Getting rid of the shady bars to prim patisseries and tourist-friendly craft boutiques will lose the very essence that makes the quarter worth visiting in the first place.

I stopped to ask a gaggle of school kids kicking a ball around a dusty square in the Panier about their favourite team. "L'OM! Marseilles!" they chimed together at the top of their lungs. Okay, I ventured, so who's going to win the World Cup? "Bresil! Bresil! L'Italie!" they bellowed defiantly. I was taken aback. Not France? My suggestion was met with a melange of derisive snorts. They'll be lucky to get through the first round, said one. A heated debate among the prepubescent gathering ensued, way beyond my vocabulary.

The incident spoke volumes about the attitude here to soccer. Even among third generation immigrants, national allegiances may well reside in distant lands and continents, but in this city, Marseilles rules the roost. This mood is most tangible at the Stade-Velodrome, where colour, race, religion and language are immaterial - you leave your prejudices outside the building. The atmosphere on the terraces verges on the frenzied, and the stadium is peppered with national flags - Argentina, Germany, Brazil, and Jamaica all waving furiously - but not a single French tricolore.

OM supporters are immensely proud, cultivating a reputation for exemplary behaviour. Organising themselves into self-policing groups with identities and nicknames like the Dodgers and the Yankees, they check fellow fans to see no bottles or potential weapons get into the ground. This might sound like lunatics taking over the asylum, but it actually works. Considering the human menagerie that is Marseilles, and in the face of strident nationalism in the south of France, this level of successful co-operation is admirable.

A game ends and fans spill out. Tomorrow afternoon, those fans will be from England and Tunisia, both playing their first match of the tournament. In Marseilles, it goes without saying, the North African fans will be in the majority.

MARSEILLES fact file

Getting there by train

TGVs to Gare Saint-Charles from Paris Gare de Lyon run 10 times daily, journey time 41/2 hours. From pounds 20 single. Inter-Cities also run to Nice (from pounds 18.50 single, about 2 hours) and Bordeaux (from pounds 39, 51/2 hours). Above prices are "Discovery" Fares, if booked 30 days in advance. Call Rail Europe (0990 300003) for details.

Getting there by air

British Airways fly to Marseilles from pounds 211 return. Easyjet fly to Nice from pounds 110 return.

Accommodation

Hotel Ibis, rue Colbert. About pounds 35 for a double room. Hotel Bearn, rue Sylvabelle. About pounds 30 for a double.

Tourist Information

Main Marseilles Tourist Office, 4 La Canebiere, (00 33 4 91 13 89 00).

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