Wed, Oct 02, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Crime-weary Marseille calls for a Batman

The plea for a superhero’s help comes after politicians suggestions that the French army should tackle drug gangs who are creating an atmosphere of rampant lawlessness in the port city and masking a cultural revival

By Kim Willsher  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

To the Greek sailors who landed at Massalia 600 years before Christ was born, it was a haven of trading and culture, known for the wisdom of its lawmakers and ability to successfully repel looting and pillaging barbarians. Today a similar struggle is being waged for the soul of France’s second-largest city. While enjoying its status as the European capital of culture, Marseille is waging a war against modern barbarians: drug gangs.

The city still has a way to go to rival neighboring Corsica and even the French overseas department of Guiana, as crime capital of France, but the 15 gangland killings in Marseille since the beginning of this year have created an atmosphere of rampant lawlessness in the Mediterranean port.

And since la bonne mere (“the good mother”) atop the church of Notre Dame de la Garde, the huge golden figure who dominates the city skyline, is clearly not doing her job as guardian and protector, frustrated local people are calling for “a Batman to save Marseille.”

The group of young Marseillais evoking the caped crusader has collected hundreds of signatures for a petition mocking the apparent impotence of both local and national authorities to tackle crime in the city.

Jean-Baptiste Jaussaud, a founder member of the group, says calling on Batman is no more ridiculous than recent calls for the army to occupy local housing estates or for military drones to be used to keep tabs on drug dealers.

“It’s as if the politicians are trying to outdo each other with bigger and better proposals, none of them any more credible than expecting Batman to swoop down and solve the city’s problems in a day,” he said. “We have to stop the stigmatization of Marseille. Of course the murders are worrying and the city has a crime problem, but it’s not going to be solved by more and more outrageous press statements.”

Part of the Batman campaign is to combat what the collective sees as the bad press Marseille is getting.

“Crime in Marseille is not significantly worse than anywhere else in France,” Jaussaud said. “Nor are we all gangsters walking around with Kalashnikovs, which is the impression being given.”

However, the group’s aims are vague: Urging local residents to “take crime in hand,” make people “more responsible” and “act against incivility.”

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Marseille was the hub of the so-called French Connection, a well-organized drug network controlled by Corsicans, through which heroin was smuggled from Turkey to France and on to the US. Today most of the dealing is in hashish and cocaine and done by smaller, more disparate groups of youngsters in the rundown northern city suburbs, home to the large community of immigrants of North African origin, where unemployment is high.

The Collectif des Quartiers Populaires de Marseille et Environs (association for the working-class areas of Marseille and surrounds) says inequality and discrimination have created a climate of violence in the housing estates.

“We are opposed to all forms of violence ... but we cannot ignore the causes of this violence. We have to take into account the numerous frustrations, discriminations, relegations and exclusions that the citizens of these popular areas endure as part of their daily existence,” it said.

David-Olivier Reverdy, of the Marseille police union Alliance, said that if French President Francois Hollande’s government had money to spend on sending in the military or buying expensive drones, it would be better spent on more local police.

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