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

Wed, Oct 02, 2013 - Page 9

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.

“We’ve had enough of Marseille being compared to Kabul or Damascus. This kind of talk is exaggerated. Rather than employ military methods, we would be better off having permanent police on the ground,” Reverdy said. “We need firm acts, not just firm words.”

Marseille has undergone a renaissance as part of its designation as Europe’s culture capital, with a £552 million (US$896.6 million) program that has seen refurbished docks, new and renovated museums and public buildings, and a busy arts program.

However, it is the city’s crime woes that have grabbed the national headlines and added grist to the far-right Front National (FN) mill. The FN has profited from squabbling between the nationally ruling Socialists and the opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, which controls Marseille city hall, and their failure to end the violence, gaining support in the runup to next year’s municipal elections.

FN leader Marine Le Pen told supporters in the city this month: “Marseille is not the exception — it’s the shape of things to come. The gangrene of crime is spreading through France.”

The deleterious atmosphere was exacerbated on Friday last week when the regional Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur authority’s accounts department released a scathing report on the running of Marseille. It criticized the city’s mounting debt — currently at £1.5 billion and expected to rise by £86 million next year — and the working hours of public employees, found to be below the national average.

Jaussaud said that, apart from trying to address the crime problem and the unfair stigmatization of Marseille, the Batman campaign aimed to wrest back a sense of local pride.

“We have this wonderful culture, we have dynamic businesses, we have magnificent public buildings, but all anyone wants to talk about is crime,” he said. “This is the paradox of Marseille.”