Why has a former French Prime Minister suggested flattening Marseille?

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)
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?

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?

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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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