Along the waterfront in the Old Port of Marseille, fishmongers shout out prices for the morning catch. Tourists stroll under sun-drenched skies. Old men sit sipping strong coffees or pastis, the anise-flavoured liqueur favoured in the south of France.

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Marseille hopes culture can clean up gritty image

Along the waterfront in the Old Port of Marseille, fishmongers shout out prices for the morning catch. Tourists stroll under sun-drenched skies. Old men sit sipping strong coffees or pastis, the anise-flavoured liqueur favoured in the south of France.

Marseille hopes culture can clean up gritty image

This is the image Marseille wants to project as it prepares for its year in the spotlight as European culture capital in 2013 — cosmopolitan, urbane and civilised.

But a short walk from the Old Port, in the warren of streets that make up the impoverished neighbourhood of Noailles, the picture is very different.

Prostitutes and drug dealers lounge in doorways, propositioning passers-by. Piles of overflowing rubbish litter the streets.

Near the busy Noailles market, a grocery shop owner says he is afraid when he stays open after dark.

“I’ve heard about the capital of culture, there are going to be concerts and art exhibitions, yes?” said the shop owner, who gave his name only as Mohammed.

“Who needs that? What we need is security and clean streets. For people to stop being afraid.”

Marseille, a 2,600-year-old Mediterranean port and France’s second city, has long been plagued by a reputation for gang crime, drugs and lawlessness.

Keen to shed Marseille’s seedy image, French officials last week announced an ambitious programme for the year that will see millions of euros spent on new museums, world-class exhibitions and elaborate performances.

“The city clearly has problems,” said Renaud Muselier, a lawmaker with the majority UMP party who represents the mayor’s office with the Marseille 2013 organisers.

“But there are also many positive things. Marseille 2013 is a very good way of showing that there is a lot to be positive about.”

Officially dubbed Marseille-Provence 2013, the year will see €90 million ($116 million) invested in a slew of projects, including an exhibition of masterworks featuring Provence and festivals of theatre, dance and music.

As part of a larger €3.5 billion urban redevelopment, the city has built of its first skyscraper, designed by British architect Zaha Hadid, and in 2013 will open a new museum devoted to Mediterranean civilisation.

The goal of 2013, organisers say, is to highlight Marseille’s role as an ancient cultural hub and the mix of cultures — European, North African, Jewish and Armenian — that make it unique.

But the project comes amid a crime wave, including a raft of deadly shootings, leaving many sceptical that the rebranding effort will succeed.

In December, a 37-year-old policeman died after being shot by burglars with Kalashnikovs, a teenage dealer died in a hail of bullets and the bullet-ridden corpses of three men were found in a torched car on Christmas Day.

David Olivier Reverdy, a spokesman for the Marseille branch of the Alliance police union, said the city is in the midst of an “ultra-violent” outbreak of gang-related crime that shows no sign of abating.

Police say there were 20 drug-related murders last year. Armed robberies were up 28 percent, violent robberies up eight percent and burglaries up six percent.

The root of the problem, Reverdy said, is a new generation of ruthless young drug dealers and a recent proliferation of weapons, especially Soviet-designed AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles.

“They are ready to do anything to protect their business,” he said. “Where before things were decided with fists, these days for nothing — for a sideways look — out comes the Kalashnikov and the shooting starts.”

Police are struggling to contain the violence and last year saw the city’s third new police chief named in only two years.

With violent crime so rife, opposition politicians say culture is the last thing on the minds of most Marseille residents.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are due in France later this year and the opposition has pounced on Marseille, ruled by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP, as an example of government failures.

“I don’t think a city’s image is very important,” said Patrick Mennucci, the Socialist mayor of central Marseille.

“What’s most important is changing the reality of the city for its residents, and Marseille-Provence 2013 will not be able to do that.”

What authorities should be focusing on, said local opposition councillor Christophe Madrolle of the Democratic Movement, is addressing deep-rooted poverty, joblessness and housing problems.

Marseille, a city of around 860,000 people, is among the poorest urban areas in France.

Official unemployment is around 13 percent, the highest among France’s urban areas, but Madrolle said nearly 40 percent of people are actually jobless.

Marseille also holds the records for the country’s lowest higher-education levels and the highest number of single-parent families on state benefits.

“The three big priorities for people are jobs, housing and security,” Madrolle said. “Ordinary Marseillais could care less about the European capital of culture.”

The project’s backers counter that the cultural year will raise the city’s international profile and attract much-needed tourism spending.

In his downtown office, architect Michel Coulange, the head of a local residents’ association, said he wanted to believe they would be proved right, but wasn’t holding out hope.

“The people of Marseille are proud of their city, proud to be Marseillais,” he said. “But they are grieving too, because they don’t see things evolving. They hear a lot of talk, but nothing changes.”

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Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.