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Crime-ridden Marseille ready for culture bonanza

Celebrations will begin in Marseille on Saturday to mark the launch of a year-long series of festivities as part of the city's status as the 2013 European Capital of Culture. Authorities and residents of the French port city are hoping the cultural bonanza will help rid the city of its more shady image.

Crime-ridden Marseille ready for culture bonanza
An artist performs in Marseille, during a rehearsal of the Light Parade by Sud Side Company ahead of the 2013 Capital of Culture launch. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

Long plagued by a reputation for gang crime and lawlessness, France's port city of Marseille is hoping its year as the European Capital of Culture will finally give its image a makeover.

The gritty Mediterranean city will kick off the festivities on Saturday with a downtown parade, fireworks and the opening of a slew of exhibitions.

Organisers are hoping 300,000 people will take part and that the event will kick off a year leading to a cultural renaissance in France's second-largest metropolitan area.

"Marseille needs a bit of romance, to bring it out of everything that's been said about it in recent times," said Fanny Broyelle, one of the organisers of the opening ceremonies.

Ahead of the launch, Marseille has undergone a major facelift, with its famed Old Port remodelled, many museums renovated and new facilities opened under a 660 million euro ($865 million) public-private investment programme.

On Saturday French President Francois Hollande and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso will be in town to mark the completion of works on a major new facility – the seaside Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations –  that will open in June near the port.

The influx of investment comes at a crucial time. A key port in the "French Connection" drug smuggling route since the 1960s, Marseille has for decades suffered from its image as a hotbed of crime.

Recent years have seen Marseille especially hard hit by a wave of deadly shootings, often with automatic rifles and mainly in the city's impoverished outer districts.

The city saw 245 homicides from 2007 to the end of November, including at least 75 linked to organised crime, according to interior ministry figures.

The violence has reached such levels that a local official last year called for the military to be sent in and the government formed an inter-ministerial task force to tackle the crime wave. The region is poor, with unemployment at 12.1 percent. With poverty and social exclusion at the root of much of the crime, many in Marseille are hoping the capital of culture year will act as an economic springboard.

Marseille's Chamber of Commerce says it expects a billion euros in extra cash to flow into the city this year, while tourist officials are forecasting 2-3 million extra visitors and a 20 percent jump in tourism jobs.

"I'm thrilled we're doing all this. The city has pulled out all the stops. It's impossible that people will not want to come," said Georges Antoun, owner of the 100-room New Hotel of Marseille on the Old Port.

Others are cautious, however. Jean-Luc Gosse, the head of a neighbourhood commercial association, said he is "a bit sceptical" that benefits from the cultural events will trickle down to small businesses and poorer areas.

"I'm not sure that everything was done for small producers and businesses," he said, adding that he hopes tourists will leave the centre of the city for struggling neighbourhoods and the suburbs.

"We're not just crooks! If we can show that the neighbourhoods, the suburbs, are more than this image, then we can help everyone," Gosse said. For some, the battle was already won when Marseille was awarded the 2013 Capital of Culture designation, a European Union tradition since 1985, along with the Slovak city of Kosice.

"The important thing was to win the title of Capital. Marseille is so much in search of recognition," said Marseille sociologist Jean Viard, adding that he believes 2013 "is the start of a new era" for the city.

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CRIME

French court convicts 8 for stealing Banksy from Paris terror attack site

A French court on Thursday convicted eight men for the theft and handling of a Banksy painting paying homage to the victims of the 2015 attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.

French court convicts 8 for stealing Banksy from Paris terror attack site

Three men in their 30s who admitted to the 2019 theft were given prison sentences, one of four years and two of three, although they will be able to serve them wearing electronic tracking bracelets rather than behind bars.

Another man, a 41-year-old millionaire lottery winner and street art fan accused of being the mastermind of the heist, was given three years in jail for handling stolen goods after judges found the main allegation unproven. His sentence will also be served with a bracelet.

Elsewhere in the capital, the defence was making its final arguments in the trial of the surviving suspects in the 2015 Paris attacks themselves, with a verdict expected on June 29.

‘Acted like vultures’ 

British street artist Banksy painted his “sad girl” stencil on the metal door of the Bataclan in memory of the 90 people killed there on November 13th, 2015.

A white van with concealed number-plates was seen stopping on January 26, 2019 in an alleyway running alongside the central Paris music venue.

Many concertgoers fled via the same alley when the Bataclan became the focal point of France’s worst ever attacks since World War II, as Islamic State group jihadists killed 130 people at a string of sites across the capital.

On the morning of the theft, three masked men climbed out of the van, cut the hinges with angle grinders powered by a generator and left within 10 minutes, in what an investigating judge called a “meticulously prepared” heist.

Prosecutor Valerie Cadignan told the court earlier this month that the perpetrators had not sought to debase the memory of the attack victims, but “being aware of the priceless value of the door were looking to make a profit”.

She said the thieves “acted like vultures, like people who steal objects without any respect for what they might represent”.

During the trial, Bataclan staff said the theft sparked “deep indignation”, adding that the painted door was a “symbol of remembrance that belongs to everyone, locals, Parisians, citizens of the world”.

Investigators pieced together the door’s route across France and into Italy, where it was found in June 2020 on a farm in Sant’Omero, near the Adriatic coast.

Three men involved in transporting the door were each jailed for 10 months, while a 58-year-old Italian man who owns a hotel where it was temporarily stored received a six-month suspended sentence.

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