ANALYSIS: Why have so many in Marseille rebelled against French government health measures?

ANALYSIS: Why have so many in Marseille rebelled against French government health measures?
Bar and restaurant workers throw plates on the street to protest against the Covid-19 closures. Photo: AFP
France's second largest city has seen a lot of anger at the government since the decision to temporarily close down all restaurants and bars in the city, in a bid to halt the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the area.

The decision, announced by health minister Olivier Véran during a press conference, did not go down well with local authorities, who said they were not consulted in advance and quickly denounced what they claimed was a central government out of touch with anywhere that was not Paris.

The metropole of Aix-Marseille is currently the only area of France on 'maximum alert' level which involves closing all bars and restaurants, although Paris could be following suit on Monday.

On the first day of the closure, several bars and restaurants seemed to be deliberately flouting the rules.

“End the health dictatorship,” read the banner of a restaurant that refused to close down, along with a few other establishments in the city, at the risk of steep fines if caught by police.

“I'm not scared, not of anything, I don't give a flying fig,” the owner of one of the restaurants that kept open told French media.

 
But was this a Covid-specific situation or are the people of Marseille more prone to rebel against the Paris-based government?

A restaurant that did not want to close down in Marseille. Photo: AFP

 
'A city without name'

 
Marseille is France's second biggest city. It is a long-time rival of Paris, for its size, its football team and rap music. 
 
“Marseille is a city that has a special relationship with the French state,” said Gilles Pinson, a professor in political science at the Sciences Po University in Bordeaux.
 
To understand that special relationship, we have to go a little bit back in time.
 

Marseille was integrated into the French kingdom in 1481, relatively late and following several failed attempts by the central power that were pushed back by rebels in the city.
 
In the centuries that followed, this became some sort of pattern: Marseille rebelled, Paris quashed the rebellions.
 
One of the most humiliating episodes occurred just after the French revolution in 1789, when the Paris authorities punished Marseille for its refusal to back up the Jacobin government by renaming it “A city without name.”
 
The port
 
Despite the occasional tensions with Paris, Marseille for a long time enjoyed a relatively autonomous power over its economy, which – thanks to its port – was thriving. 
 
Then, in the 1960s, the French state decided to nationalise the port and Marseille lost control over its top income source.
 
“By meaning well, the state contributed to break down Marseille's economic system,”  Pinson said.
 
This was, Pinson said, “a painful story of impoverishment” and its scars are still visible today. 
 

 

A new kind of French rebellion? Photo: AFP
 
When local officials following the bar and restaurant closures used loaded rhetoric such as “collective punishment” and “sanctions,” they remind Marseille and the world that Paris had a history of acting in a way it said it was in Marseille's best interest, but turned out to be harmful.
 
“Local authorities in Marseille learned long ago how to use old tensions between Marseille and the capital to score points,” said Nicolas Maisetti, a political researcher at the Gustave Eiffel University Paris-Est.
 
When Michelle Rubirola, Marseille’s Green Party Mayor, tweeted: “I do not accept the people of Marseille to be victims of political decisions that no one can understand,” she was spinning an old line, appealing to a decades-old, hurt collective ego.
 
'Marseille against the world' 
 

This also helped explain the city's cult-like enthusiasm for Didier Raoult, the controversial microbiologist made world-famous for his unequivocal support for hydroxychloroquine as a remedy for Covid-19.
 

 
 
Raoult's ragged looks, loud voice and unashamed bashing of the “elites”, made him the “ultimate” Marseille character, Maisetti said. 
 
“It was Marseille against the world. People supported him no matter what he said, it was crazy,” Maisetti said.

 

A few years back, Maisetti created a website called Marseillologie.net, a website that aims to do away with what he said was an obsession by the rest of France to make Marseille into an exception. 
 

“The stereotype of Marseille – that it is a dirty, crime-ridden, corrupt city, neglected the elites and infested by mafia – has had harmful impacts during the pandemic,” Maisetti said.
 
Although not true, stereotypes like these pushed a narrative that Marseille could not itself make its own decisions about Covid-19 – it could not even govern itself properly, Maisetti explained.
 

“But really, you could talk about Marseille like you talk about Gironde, or Brittany, or Corsica,” he said, other areas of France that traditionally have sought to emphasise their local uniqueness and difference from the capital.

 
“Mistrust towards Paris is not the exception, it's the rule, but people pay more attention to it when it happens in Marseille because it fits into their world-view,” Maisetti said.

 

'France is extremely centralised'
 
Cesare Mattina, an Italian sociologist at the Aix-Marseille University, agreed. 
 
“I think we should turn the question around: Is Marseille a particularly rebellious city or is the French state just really centralised?”
 
Mattina, who grew up in Napoli, another proud European city that has a longstanding rival relationship with the capital, said Marseille historically had been more subject to domination than his Italian hometown.
 
“France extremely centralised, everything is focused on Paris,” he told The Local.

 
“There is an almost colonial link that exists between Paris and certain cities, Marseille too. In Italy, Rome is the capital, but Rome does not mean everything in Italy,” Mattina said, adding that Germany and Spain also allowed more autonomy to regions than France.
 
“In France, the Parisian domination is so accepted that it's perceived as something against which we are powerless.”
 
“My Italian point of view is that, with respect to Covid-19, is that if decisions are taken too far away from the cities and towns themselves, they won't work,” he said.
 
 


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