France’s second-biggest city has long been known for its run-down streets and desolate housing estates, as well as its gritty charm and fierce local pride.
But with the April 2021 presidential elections approaching, a surge in deadly shootings has put its long-standing social problems on the political agenda.
“I’ve suffered so much, I can’t put it into words. I want to leave,” one woman on the verge of tears told Macron as he met residents of the Bassens estate in northern Marseille at the start of his visit.
Others asked for more police, public investment and better housing as they described their daily encounters with drug dealers, as well as the decrepit local schools and high-rise blocks.
Chaos here in Marseille as Macron plunges into an (unfiltered) crowd on a housing estate in the northern banlieue. The estate was tidied up before his visit, and the police presence was heavy. But you don’t see many leaders do this sort of thing pic.twitter.com/kS4kv8ENpU
— Sophie Pedder (@PedderSophie) September 2, 2021
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“We’re scared on this estate,” one 63-year-old social worker from Bassens told AFP ahead of Macron’s arrival. “When I get back from work at 10 pm, it’s deserted and sometimes you hear shooting like it’s a Western film.”
The three-day trip by Macron, accompanied by seven members of his cabinet, is intended to make a statement about his investment in security and education, just eight months from presidential elections.
“It’s a city that has been emitting a number of warning signals,” a presidential aide admitted on Tuesday. Macron is well aware that his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen is expected to campaign next year on a law-and-order platform.
Marseille’s northern districts, some of the most deprived urban areas of France, serve as the hub for the city’s vicious narcotics trade, which Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has already promised to tackle.
“We won’t give up,” Macron told police officers on the frontline of the battle during a visit to a station on Wednesday. “We have improving results. We’ll carry on, to the end, in making sure drug-dealing spots close permanently.”
Two people died in northern Marseille last weekend in another drive-by shooting, while the week before a 14-year-old was killed in automatic gunfire near one of many dealing points where marijuana and cocaine are openly sold.
During the same period, another man was forced into a car and burned to death when the vehicle was set on fire.
Twelve people have been killed over the last two months in what appears to be a drugs turf war that is sparking tit-for-tat murders, say police, but the levels remain below 2016 and to the particularly violent periods in the 1980s.
“Nobody cares about what happens here,” one local resident told AFP in the desolate Les Rosiers housing estate this week. “I get the sense that they (politicians) think ‘let’s leave these paupers and foreigners to kill each other out there.'”
Over the course of his visit, Macron is expected to build on recent announcements for Marseille: an extra 300 police have been promised for the city, as well as extra magistrates.
He is also expected to announce support for the Socialist mayor’s plan to renovate the city’s public schools, some of which are in a “woeful” state, according to head of the local education board.
Newly elected mayor Benoit Payan has promised to invest 1.2 billion euros to renovate and rebuild 200 of the city’s 472 public schools and is looking for backing from the central government.
“The schools are unworthy of the republic,” he told AFP this week, adding that housing in Marseille was also “not in keeping with the world’s sixth-largest power”.
Payan has given multiple interviews in recent weeks to sound the alarm about drug-related crime.
“If people are killing each other with Kalashnikovs, it’s because Kalashnikovs are circulating almost freely in this city,” he told broadcaster Franceinfo in August after the murder of the 14-year-old school boy.