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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Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.