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POLITICS

Why has a former French Prime Minister suggested flattening Marseille?

President Emmanuel Macron is on a visit to France's second city to unveil a huge spending plan - but the headlines have been grabbed by a former Prime Minister who has suggested instead razing parts of the city to the ground. So why did he say this and what does it reveal about Marseille's sometimes complicated relationship with Paris?

Why has a former French Prime Minister suggested flattening Marseille?
Manuel Valls' solution to the problems in Marseille? Flatten the poorest neighbourhoods. (Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP)

Former French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has made quite the debut as a broadcast news commentator.

Describing the suburbs of Marseille on French radio station RMC he said: “We must flatten all of it. We must reconstruct everything. We must repopulate these neighbourhoods differently.”

His comments come as President Macron and seven cabinet ministers visit France’s third largest city, which saw a surge in gang-related killings over the summer.

READ ALSO What are Marseille’s problems and what does Macron plan to do about them?

Valls’ words triggered outrage online. One Twitter user suggested that it was ‘TV panels that we should flatten and populate differently’.

Journalist and activist, Taha Bouhafs, likened the words to those that Christopher Columbus may have uttered when he first arrived in the Americas.

Meanwhile Cédric Mas, a military historian and president of the Institut Action Resilience tweeted: “This morning on RMC, Valls proposes to ‘flatten Marseille’ like Hitler & [Vichy France leader] Pétain did in January 1943.”

Back when Valls was still Prime Minister, he too put in place an investment plan worth hundreds of millions of euros to help develop infrastructure in the struggling city. So why the change of heart?

Shock jock

The 59-year-old served as Prime Minister under François Hollande, but quit ahead of the 2017 presidential election, in which he hoped to stand as the candidate for the socialist party (he lost the primary to Benoit Hamon).

He retired from French politics in 2018, setting his sights on the municipal elections in Barcelona – Valls was born in the northern Spanish city. He failed to win the mayoral race but was elected as a councillor. He stood down at the end of August to become a full-time political commentator on RMC and BFMTV.

Both RMC and BFMTV are considered right-leaning broadcasters in France. Fulfilling the role of the contrarian ‘shock jock’ could be the former Prime Minister’s best strategy for ensuring a long and successful career in the business.

Manuel Valls stepped down as a municipal councillor for Barcelona last month (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

But the fact that he chose Marseille for his incendiary comments was probably not an accident.

Problems in Marseille

During his three-day visit, Macron is expected to announce a ‘Marseille plan’ worth billions of euros to help deal with long-standing problems including crime, poverty and poor infrastructure.

But he is not the first French leader to make such overtures to the city.

Back in 1999, then-president President Jacques Chirac visited Marseille, also pledging huge investments to turn things around.

But the city remains plagued by crumbling infrastructure, inadequate housing, and sub-standard public services.

Then there is the gang violence. In the space of two months over the summer, 12 people died in shootings – including a 14-year-old boy. In August one victim of gang violence was burned alive.

A woman walks in a street in the “Les marronniers” neighbourhood of Marseille. The graffiti behind her reads reads ‘The state lets us down’ (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

So perhaps it is out of sheer exasperation that the situation hasn’t improved after close to two decades of massive public investment that Valls is calling for a re-set.

Culture clash

France’s two largest cities – Marseille and Paris – have a frequently spiky relationship, and not just when it comes to football.

The people of Marseille would say that the Paris-based government is aloof and arrogant, alternatively neglectful and dictatorial when it comes to Marseille.

Paris, on the other hand, might point to the frequent protests and rebellions in Marseille as a sign that the city is never happy.

Gilles Pinson, a professor in political science at the Sciences Po University in Bordeaux, previously told The Local: “Marseille is a city that has a special relationship with the French state.”

To read the full feature on that ‘special relationship’ – click HERE.

Valls also singled out the suburbs of Marseille for his comments and, just like Paris, the suburbs have significant populations of newly-arrived migrants and people of colour. These are the areas that Valls suggests should be “repopulated differently”.

His comments echo then-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2005 call to clear the racaille (scum) out of Paris suburbs.

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ENERGY

Cold water, 19C heating and cash bonuses: How France will cut energy use this winter

Lowered heating, speed limits, cash bonuses and lighting cuts - the French government has unveiled its 'energy sobriety' plan to cut France's energy use by 10 percent and avoid blackouts this winter.

Cold water, 19C heating and cash bonuses: How France will cut energy use this winter

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne unveiled the long-awaited plan on Thursday, outlining the cuts that will allow France to make it through the winter without Russian gas.

The plan for sobriété enérgetique (energy sobriety) will also become part of France’s longer-term commitment to reducing its energy use by 30 percent by 2030, in order to combat climate change.

The plan is divided into three sections – measures for government offices and public buildings which are compulsory, measures for businesses which are voluntary but which businesses are expected to sign up to on a sector basis and measures that households and private individuals can take, which are entirely voluntary.

Here are the main measures; 

Government

Government officials and politicians are expected to “be exemplary”, which is why you’re likely to see a lot more politicians modelling knitwear this winter, to show how they have turned down their office heating.

Among the measures for government offices are;

Heating – government offices will not be heated to above 19C, lowered to 18C on days when the EcoWatt app (which shows the risk of energy shortages) is on a ‘red’ day – find out how EcoWatt works HERE. The heating will be turned down at night.

Dress code – dress codes are relaxed for public sector employees to allow them to dress warmly for work. 

Remote working – working from home – télétravail – became a fixture during the pandemic and looks like it might be coming back if you work for the government. Government departments will encourage home-working with an increase in the remote-working allowance for public servants. 

Travel – government agents who need to travel for work should use public transport rather than the car. If this is not possible, they should not exceed 110km/h when driving on the autoroute, in order to save around 20 percent of fuel (emergency workers are exempt from this requirement). These tactics are encouraged – but not compulsory – for private employees and individuals. 

Turn off hot water – office managers are asked to turn off hot water supplies, except when it is essential, such as for showers. Employees will therefore need to wash their hands in cold water, and boil a kettle if they want a tea or coffee. 

Building fund – funds will be available to make buildings more energy efficient.

Public spaces

Local authorities are also included in the plan, for both their own offices and for the public buildings that they manage, such as swimming pools and leisure centres. Buildings such as hospitals, nursing homes or anywhere that houses vulnerable people are exempt from these measures. 

Pools and gyms – gyms must lower their standard temperatures by 2C, while the water in swimming pools will be 1C colder. 

Lighting – lighting including street lights, lighting of public spaces and illuminating buildings should be reduced by turning off lights earlier, reducing light intensity and switching to LED lights. Many local authorities had already announced cuts to lighting on public buildings, including the city of Paris where the lights on the Eiffel Tower will be turned off one hour earlier.

Sports stadiums – sports clubs – both professional and amateur – are asked to reduce the time that pitches are floodlit and stadiums lit up before and after matches by 50 percent for daytime matches and 30 percent for evening games. 

Ski resorts – ski resorts will slow the speed of chair lifts in order to save energy but the lifts themselves as well as other ski infrastructure will still be running.

Offices – local and national government are asked to save office heating by grouping as many offices as possible into a single building. 

Businesses

Businesses are asked to sign up to energy commitments on a voluntary basis. The government is creating a brand called Les entreprises s’engagent (Companies that are committed) that companies who sign up to and implement measures will be awarded. Many businesses have already begun to make some of the outlined changes. 

Lower office heating – Offices should not be heated to more than 19C and the temperature should be dropped to 16C at night. If the office is to be closed for three days or more, heating should be lowered to 8C while staff are away. Companies are also asked to move by up to 15 days the switch-on and switch-off dates in autumn and spring for heating, although this will depend on the weather. 

Hotels, bars and restaurants – these and other businesses that welcome the public will also be asked to sign up for the 19C maximum for heating, while retail stores will be expected to go for a maximum of 17C.

Lighting – companies should turn off interior lighting as soon as an office, store or other workplace is closed. Exterior lighting should be reduced, including for advertising, and should be turned off by 1am at the latest. 

Travel – businesses should reduce unnecessary travel by employees and use public transport wherever possible for employees who do have to travel.

Households

These measures are advisory only, but will be accompanied by a publicity campaign – named Chaque geste compte (every action counts) encouraging individuals to do their bit and help to reduce their energy use.

Temperature – lowering the temperature in your home by just 1C can save around seven percent of your energy use. It is recommended to have the living spaces no warmer than 19C, with bedrooms at 17C. This is voluntary, and vulnerable people such as the elderly or those with a disability may need to have the heating at a higher setting.

Appliances – a range of energy-saving tips are suggested, from turning off lights in rooms that are not used to not leaving appliances on standby and unplugging appliances if you are going away. 

Carpooling – in order to encourage car-sharing, there will be bonuses for people who sign up to car-share schemes. 

Cash bonuses – households that manage to reduce their consumption this winter will be in line for a bonus sobriété (sobriety bonus) from their gas or electricity company. Several companies have already announced bonuses of up to €120 for households that make significant cuts.

Heat pumps – homeowners will be able to get grants of up to €9,000 to switch a gas boiler to a heat pump, through the existing Ma PrimeRenov scheme.

Energy forecast – TV channels will start to broadcast the ‘energy forecast’ in a similar way to the weather forecast, showing how high the risk of energy shortages are in the days ahead. 

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