La Marseillaise

by Elfie Lawson, French:-

Marseille has never enjoyed the same popularity with travellers as other cities in the south of France. One of its famous inhabitants, author Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000) wrote, ‘Marseille isn’t a city for tourists. There is nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed’. Both in spite of and because of this, Marseille has always possessed its own kind of allure.

Founded in 600BC, Marseille is France’s oldest urban settlement, a metropolis that sprouted from a busy port providing trade links for Ancient Greece and its empire. However, in more recent years the city has struggled to shake off its supposed status as the country’s crime capital. This reputation can be seen across popular culture. In literature, Jean-Claude Izzo used Marseille as the setting for his celebrated crime trilogy about fictional local detective Fabio Montale, pioneering a whole genre of Mediterranean noir. On screen, the city has featured in several Hollywood thrillers and this year provides the backdrop to a new Netflix series called Marseille, billed as a political drama about rivalry and corruption.

Yet many of these works also draw on the unique cultural identity of Marseille’s people. As a city built on centuries of immigration, it has over time absorbed influences from France, the Mediterranean and North Africa. Moreover, in spite of some other social problems, Marseille prides itself on the relatively untroubled coexistence of its various different communities – it is often stated that it was the only major French city unaffected by violence during the 2005 riots that were sparked by racial tensions in Paris.

It seems to me that Marseille is a greatly underrated year abroad destination. Although large and chaotic, from day to day, I meet people who are welcoming and often eager to share stories of how they or their families also moved here from abroad. I have begun to feel at home far more quickly than I expected. My initial impressions of Marseille were of a city that was in some way detached from the rest of France, especially the south, where the rise of the National Front presents more and more of a threat to multiculturalism. But, with the passing of time, I have gradually realized that Marseille, along with its relationship with France itself, is far more complex than I first appreciated.

Perhaps this realization started after the terror attacks that took place in Paris on the 13th November, sending shockwaves through Marseille and the rest of the nation alike. Whereas until then I had witnessed hostility towards the capital (largely founded on football rivalry), the people of Marseille now gathered to demonstrate solidarity with the Parisians and unite with France by lighting candles in the city’s Old Port and singing the national anthem, La Marseillaise.

During this national state of mourning President François Hollande publicly responded to the tragedy by swearing ‘merciless’ revenge. In Marseille security checks were immediately implemented outside all major public buildings and, being a teaching assistant, I participated in new safety drills ordered by the government to prepare schools in case of future attack. Some voiced concerns that the general backlash might inadvertently fuel islamophobia, and have a particular impact on Marseille, whose population is an estimated 25% Muslim.

Clearly it is too early to really know how all this will affect France in the long-term. Recently, attention has turned to Marseille, where a series of anti-Semitic attacks have taken place over the last three months, making national headlines. The first occurred in October, when a man injured three Jewish worshippers outside a Synagogue. However, following the ISIS-led attacks in Paris, there have been two more high-profile incidences of anti-Semitic violence, this time perpetrated by self-proclaimed supporters of the Islamic State.

These events are not only disturbing on account of the young age of the most recent attacker ( a mere 15 year old boy), they have also unsettled the community because anti-Semitic violence had until now been very uncommon in Marseille, which is home to a Jewish population of 80,000. At this point Marseille’s reputation for racial and religious tolerance risks becoming a thing of the past.

In response, the president of Marseille’s Jewish council has urged men to avoid wearing the kippah, or skullcap, in public so as to avoid being targeted. While this advice is surely in the interest of safety, other religious leaders have been outspoken in their criticism that to do so would be to ‘give in’ to Jihadists. It can only be hoped that the threat of violence dies down soon enough for this to be an end to discussion.

In the meantime, I pass by a Jewish primary school on my way to work near the site of the last attack. While elsewhere political debate continues, parents drop off their young children at a gated entrance that is protected by armed guards, resolutely going about the school run just like they would on any other day. As I reflect on this, I know that despite the uncertainty of the times here and throughout France, the greatest impression I leave with will be of Marseille’s people and their spirit I can’t help but admire.

Photo courtesy of

Elfie reflects here on the spirit of the people of Marseille. Previously Thea Bradbury also saw a city deeply affected. Read about her experiences in Berlin in The City with a Scar at its Heart.

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