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.

“There are several theories,” Julie says. “One is, up in Paris you have gray skies, concrete, and a culture and all kinds of stores definitely not for the poor, but here in Marseille, you have the sea, the sun, and the mountains. Anyone can enjoy these things, whether they’re rich or poor. It’s just not depressing here like it is up north. The atmosphere in Marseille is light.”

What at first seems like a facile answer to a complex question turns out to have the ring of truth. The blending of cultures here has produced a métis attitude and panache all its own, free and easy and almost un-French, if chicly brazen in an à la française, ’hood sort of way. A few years ago, a popular musical, Les Enfants du Soleil, celebrated the city’s eclectically tolerant ethos. Bars and cafés fill with mixed Marseillais couples, and Arabic slang peppers their speech. The younger ones especially tend to speak French with an animated, Afro-Arab accent entirely different from the traditional southern twang that so grates on the northern ear. Julie embodies the more Western aspects of the mélange, wearing skirts and tops that accentuate her curves, keeping her shoulder-length russet hair loose, marching down Marseille’s sidewalks with the confidence of one at ease both in the quartiers Nord and on Rue St. Ferréol.

A less optimistic theory holds that the quartiers Nord stay calm because the local drug-running mafia would punish youths who threatened the peace and order on which it thrives. Riots would be bad for business. Julie doesn’t discount this. “French kids, even girls, go into the quartiers to buy shit”—slang for hashish—“and the dealers need to protect them. They’d deal really harshly with any thug who robbed a customer.”

Possibly the Marseillais have simply had enough time to adapt to a more varied demography. So close to Italy, with Africa and the Middle East just across the sea, Marseille has long been France’s most “foreign” city. In 1884, Guy de Maupassant wrote that Marseille

perspires in the sun like a beautiful girl who doesn’t take good care of herself … it smells of the innumerable foods nibbled on by the Negroes, Turks, Greeks, Italians, Maltese, Spaniards, English, Corsicans, and Marseillais, too.

Whatever the cause, Julie wouldn’t live anywhere else. “We in Marseille reject extremes, we love our city and love living here. I’ll never leave. It’s a ville du coeur, you know?”

One hopes, probably against reason, that other Europeans facing the newcomers in their midst will learn to adjust as artfully.