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.
The following are must-sees.
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.