Marseille past and present — merci, Gaston!

A recent post of mine told the story of the late Gaston Defferre (1910-1986).

Defferre was the PS mayor of Marseille from 1944-1945 and again from 1953 until his death in 1986. He was responsible for creating a party machine and turning a blind eye to political corruption and organised crime.

I’d said then that if you could compare Marseille before Defferre and after, you’d be astonished and upset to see the difference. Having researched some (tele)visuals, see what you think. With regard to the photos, where permission is needed, I have supplied links only.

Ancient history pre-Defferre

Dated c. 1485, this is the oldest image of Marseille’s Old Port. Julius Caesar observed that Marseille is surrounded by the sea on three sides.  Before him, the Greeks from Phocaea (now Foça in Anatolia [Turkey]) founded Marseille (Massalia) in 600 BC.  The Phocaeans were the first Greeks to make extended sea voyages. Although Marseille was their most notable colony, they had two others — present-day Aléria (Alalia) in Corsica and Roses (Rhoda) in Catalonia. Marseille takes pride of place as France’s oldest city, the first to be given city status in France and the country’s second largest city after Paris.

Marseille has been culturally and racially mixed practically from the beginning and its oldest families are proud of its brassage. From the past — Etruscans, Celts, Romans — to the more recent Italians, Spanish and Africans, all have left their mark on this ancient port and its people.

Given its geography, it is not surprising that Marseille was vulnerable to invasion; the Saracens invaded in the 7th century, and pirates followed. Marseille was an important point of departure for Europeans in the Crusades until the 13th century.  After that, Charles II, Count of Provence, had a naval works built. Over the next two centuries, the port was further fortified and improved so that trade became more efficient. French kings ensured further fortifications and improvements. Stately buildings were constructed. In the 19th century, Marseille became known not only for its shipping trade but also as a manufacturing centre. These illustrations show Marseille as a bustling port at the cusp of the 20th century.

The Marseille of Defferre’s childhood

The following two photos come from Roseric’s website, which features a collection of old and inspiring photos of the city around the time of Defferre’s childhood:

High atop the city is the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, a striking edifice with a beautiful Byzantine-style interior (great colour photos at the link). One lady in Marseille recently wrote to her blogger friend:

… You know that sometimes I say a little prayer to the Good Mother Protector of the Marseillais and others, so that she watches over all my friends. If it doesn’t do them any good, at least it can’t do them any harm.

Around the time of Gaston Defferre’s second birthday in 1912, these photos were taken. The photo at the lookout point at Notre Dame de la Garde carries this description:

It was unthinkable for pilgrims coming to Marseille to not make the climb to visit Notre Dame de la Garde. They brought back this view, which the photographer could take in an instant, of a landscape which was simultaneously marine and urban …

Indeed, a funicular also took people to the top, as it does today.

Also note on the same page the photos at the bottom, which show the various social classes in Marseille at the time.

By the time those photos were taken, a wave of Italian immigrants had arrived in the city. Although some came from Naples, the largest number arrived from the poor regions of Piedmont. When this migration was at its peak, 20% of Marseille’s population was Italian. A number of Russians also arrived in the city, fleeing the Revolution.

In the 1920s, Armenian survivors of the genocide perpetrated by the Turks sought refuge in Marseille. The richest landowners gave some of their land to the Armenians on which to build. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the city took in Spanish refugees.

Marseille during Defferre’s first few years as mayor

After the Second World War, North Africans were invited to rebuild Marseille after the damage the city had sustained. The pieds-noirs followed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

This photo collection shows Marseille’s two great hotels, the Splendide and the Noailles. The Splendide is near the Gare St Charles, visible in the background. (Click to enlarge.) Notice how nicely dressed everyone is and how clean the streets are.

Defferre’s later years

As I mentioned the other day, Defferre’s administration was responsible for immense and expansive tower blocks to house the city’s poorer residents.  Xavier Arsène-Henry’s buildings (pictured at left) in Marseille’s 9th arrondissement are among the most densely populated in France.

How can people live comfortably in such an atmosphere?  Where is there room to breathe, to grow, to explore, to spend time in open spaces?  Being crammed together like lab rats — socialist atoms — cannot be healthy for body or soul.

Near the end of Defferre’s life, Marseille’s immigrant population from the Maghreb and other former French colonies in Africa continued to grow. Even this rosy essay from News of Marseille, which documents the city’s history, admits:

We can only hope that [integration] works as well for the newer arrivals from the second half of the 20th century, but the cultural differences between the French and non-Western immigrants makes adapting more difficult and also poses problems in understanding [each other’s] religion.

Marseille post-Defferre

The following are must-sees.

Lecacou, a lifelong Marseillais resident from a generations-old Marseillais family, has been documenting his home town in photos, the way it is todayWhat a change from a century ago.

See the trash blowing around the main shopping boulevard, La Canebière. And the filth around the Chamber of Commerce. And an area near the Old Port — talk about an eyesore. It also seems the city is a random drop-off point for shoes and mattresses.

A Spanish site features these pictures. Where do you think they were taken? None other than in the European City of Culture 2013. Contrast them with the street scenes in the photos of the Splendide and Noailles Hotels above.

In 1999, Marseille was home to 50,000 Comorians. A recent statistic stated that 70,000 live in the city. However, this YouTube commentary says there were 80,000 as of 2010 — the largest agglomeration of Comorians in the world and, if accurate, nearly 10% of Marseille’s population. By contrast, Moroni, the Comoros’s capital, has a population of only 40,000.

Here are two films about Cormorians in Marseille. The first is 15 minutes long; it details the experiences of older as well as younger immigrants. It seems, in the case of the man who works in the mayor’s office and the woman who is a controller for the SNCF, that some have done well. In any event, a few angry YouTube comments followed, one of which says, ‘You stole Africa’s resources, now it’s payback time. France will be an Islamic republic within 40 years’:


Here is another video. It features a Cormorian National Day event in the centre of Marseille in July 2011, where a number of the participants look as if they’re thinking ‘payback time’:


A local blog, Le Meilleur de Marseille, gently criticised the event, stating that most Cormorians in Marseille have integrated well and consider their national day to be July 14, along with the French. This didn’t go down well with one reader who responded, in part: ‘This article is a pile of rubbish. Who writes such stupidity? … So, everyone is French? Even Martians?’

Le Meilleur de Marseille is about unity, which they present well. I would like to think that the following is more typical of the Marseillais, past and present: the 15th annual relay marathon to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde (note the surnames of various participants) and a feature on one of RMC’s Grandes Gueules’ panellists, Karim Zéribi (wearing a tie), head of public transport in Marseille, who could soon become an MEP.

It would be nice to think that Marseille could continue to be a model city in the best sense of the word and maintain its 2600-year brassage, and I hope it does. However, if people start thinking in terms of ‘payback’ and the like, things look less certain. An equally worrying aspect of Marseille is Defferre’s socialist urban legacy, which looks set to play out across France. When people have no consideration for their environment, they lose consideration for each other. And that’s where Marseille finds itself today.

More on Marseille soon.

9 comments for “Marseille past and present — merci, Gaston!

  1. ivan
    May 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    The one and only time I been to Marseille was a couple of years ago to help a friend move out. It was a depressing place then and appears to be worse now.

    The big problem is that the rot is not limited to there but is spreading down the coast towards the Spanish border. Even my local city of Perpignan has an immigrant population that is growing into a ghetto where ‘respectable’ don’t go, sad really but to be expected in todays atmosphere of ‘do your own thing’.

    • May 20, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      Thanks, Ivan. I didn’t know about Perpignan, which, from a French lady (originally from Narbonne) who has lived there for three decades, always sounded like a closed city. The Perpignan natives always tell her, despite her Mediterranean looks, that she ‘will never be one of them’. One wonders what they say to the newcomers. 😉

      Didn’t realise things were spreading between Spain and the French part of the Mediterranean coastline. I am probably not alone in wanting to hear more on the topic. As in the UK, this information is also surpressed in France. Few people talk about it, even on the lightly moderated RMC boards. Do you listen to RMC? Fascinating morning shows, which the readers’ fora ‘interpret’:

      Check out ‘Actualites — France’ and ‘Les Shows RMC — Bourdin, Grandes Gueules, Carrement Brunet’. (Apologies for lack of accents.)

      • ivan
        May 21, 2012 at 5:28 pm

        The thing with Perpignan regarding French from further north is that a lot of the people there consider themselves Catalane – as do many of the towns and villages around.

        My village flies the French and Catalane flags at the Maire and a Catalane flag high above the village.

        Narbonne is more Occitane therefore not Catalane hence the suspicion.

        If you search some of the government sites you may find the list of ‘no-go’ areas listed by the gendarmes – that is assuming they still have the maps for public consumption – I forgot to bookmark the page a couple of years ago.

        I don’t listen to the radio reception is so bad my dog moving from one place to another can change the tuning Too many mountains reflecting signals, where I am reception is bad yet 20m down the road it is OK, the same with TV except the village has a repeater for a couple of the Catalane channels – most people use satellite and since my dish is set to get English TV I can’t get the French channels.

        • ivan
          May 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm

          Here is the site listing the 700 odd no-go zones.

          • May 25, 2012 at 12:45 am

            Thanks for this, Ivan, and my apologies for the late reply. I hadn’t realised that Occitan and Catalane had played such a large part in identity. I still wonder what they say to someone from Africa or the Maghreb.

            Thanks also for the link to the ‘no-goes’ — much appreciated. 700 in France altogether – blimey. :/ Not good — at all. When I lived there, everywhere was ‘go’.

            I’ve just looked closely at Marseille’s maps. Taking Marseille’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 6th arrondissements, everything is cut off from the main railway station — Gare St Charles — to the end of La Canebiere, barring a short distance between there and the Old Port. So, according to the aforementioned photograph collection in the post, that would mean the Splendide and Noailles are in the no-go zone. Very sad, especially when you see the photos from the 1950s. It also makes it difficult for a first-time tourist to navigate around the large no-go area.

            Also, the other arrondissements have no-goes. One wonders if there is a correlation between those areas and Defferre’s council flats. (My guess: probably.) But there is the larger problem of people refusing to integrate with French values; to what extent this plays a part in no-go areas should be investigated, although it won’t happen now for at least another five years.

            On that note, I wonder if with Hollande, the no-goes will reduce in number … Hmm.

            Sorry your radio reception isn’t that good. Have you tried the Internet? That’s how I listen to RMC in Blighty.

  2. Greg Tingey
    May 21, 2012 at 7:56 am

    You misssed something …
    was that deliberate, or was it just an omission?
    Marseille was very badly damaged, just before Deferre became mayor/
    Here is the piece, form one of the web-sites you linked to:
    “En janvier 1943, les allemands, aidés de la police française, dynamitent les vieux quartiers de la rive nord du port. Plus de 1500 immeubles sont détruits, des milliers de personnes arrêtées et plusieurs centaines de juifs déportés. En 1944, les allemands dynamitent le pont transbordeur et détruisent complètement les ports. Dix ans de travaux seront nécessaires pour les remettre en état”

    Notice … The Nazis, aided by the French police dynamited the old North port ….

    • May 25, 2012 at 12:37 am

      Yes, but the Resistance had many different political factions. What are you saying, exactly? The French police are bad? Every policeman, detective, inspector, etc.?

      Sounds as if you’re saying Defferre was some sort of saviour.

      All of us know that collaborators existed everywhere. A French failing, this love of the Germans. As my better half says, even though France is our favourite holiday destination, ‘The French — pah. Collaborators.’ 😉

  3. May 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Went through Perpignan from Spain but know Narbonne far more, having spent an extended period there. I suppose the two are greatly different.

    • May 25, 2012 at 12:47 am

      I worked with someone from Narbonne (not the aforementioned lady). He was a very well-mannered chap, as a matter of fact, and in his own way aspired to being northern European, despite his Mediterranean looks. I’ve since lost contact with him.

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