Civilization November 2008


Why France’s religious strife melts away in Marseille
For Muslims, Christians, and nonbelievers in France's second largest city, the secret to harmony may be the sun and the sea.
(Photo credit: Phillipe Renault/Hemis/Corbis)

It’s evening, but the sun still blazes over the boulevard’s trash-speckled tarmac, rendering faintly incandescent the humid haze lingering from a hot summer day. Down La Canebière I stroll, heading for the glinting, faraway turquoise eyespot of the Old Port, following women dressed in ankle-length raincoats and Islamic head scarves, long-faced men in frayed djellabas and knit skullcaps, gangly youths with scruffy beards. Teens cluster at kebab stands, which dominate the thoroughfare’s culinary scene. On side streets crammed with fleabag hotels and sellers of cheap garments, swarthy boys kick around soccer balls, shouting in Arabic. I could be in Morocco, but in fact I’m in Marseille.

To reach the Old Port, I could also have taken Rue St. Ferréol, an upscale lane running perpendicular to La Cane­bière that is just as lively but sports the immaculate, AC-cooled, glassed-in preserves of Le Jasmin watch sellers with their outdoor Rolex clock, Galeries Lafayette, Yves Rocher, and BNP Paribas. No one sort of neighborhood typifies Marseille. Nor, as I see when I reach the port, is there a “typical” Marseillais. Along the promenade, next to modest leisure craft floating on motionless waters, the crowd turns more mixed. Young women in tight jeans and blouses, their heavy black tresses falling freely over their shoulders, lead their Islamically scarved mothers past pale tourists in sandals and shorts, crossing paths with youths in skimpy bathing suits and dark shades. Speedos would not be sidewalk attire in any Arab country I know of, but this, after all, is Europe. A 37-foot gilded statue of the Virgin Mary rises atop the city’s highest hill, and the forts of Saint Nicholas and Saint Jean guard the Old Port’s seaside entrance.

Marseille is France’s second-largest city, with 826,700 people, of whom one-fifth to one-quarter are Muslims, mostly of North African descent and mostly poor. They do the kinds of jobs the European French won’t touch these days. One might have expected Marseille to endure riots like those that shook France’s urban areas for three weeks in November 2005 (and a year later, on their anniversary), after the deaths of two teenagers who clashed with police in Clichy-sous-Bois, an impoverished immigrant banlieue of northeastern Paris. Yet Marseille has remained largely calm, even in the drug-plagued, predominantly Muslim slums known as the quartiers Nord, which cover about a third of its territory and nearly abut the Old Port.


I put the question to my friend Julie Borde, a 23-year-old photography student with French and Algerian parents. (Her mother, née Benhalilou, was born on the Mediterranean’s southern shore.) We sit on the terrace of the Buffalo Grill, on Cours d’Estienne d’Orves, just off the port, with a well-stirred mix of diners.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent.

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