Does the French city of Marseille deserve its 'dangerous' reputation?

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Does the French city of Marseille deserve its 'dangerous' reputation?
Buildings in front of the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica in Marseille, southern France. (Photo by BORIS HORVAT / AFP)

After another spate of drug-related homicides in Marseille, many are wondering how dangerous France's port city on the Mediterranean really is.


When travelling to France, depending on the French person you are speaking with or the travel blog you are reading, you might be told to steer clear the southern port city of Marseille, as it is often associated with violence and crime. 

This conception is not a new one - Marseille's negative reputation in France, and particularly amongst Parisians, has been been brewing for hundreds of years. The Mediterranean port city 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 rebellious attitude by renaming it "A city without name."

In the time since, people from northern parts of the country came to associate Marseille with corruption, organised crime and gangs, and poverty.

In 2022, headlines circulated across France naming Marseille the "second most dangerous city in Europe", and most recently three people died and another eight were wounded in three separate shootings in a single day.

But Marseille is also France's second most populous city - referred to in French as the ville-carrefour (crossroads city) for its history and current status as a place of arrival for diverse groups of immigrants coming to France. It is not only home to Paris Saint-Germain's rival football team, Olympique de Marseille, but it is also a popular tourist location, situated next to the popular Calanques National Park and welcoming at least five million tourists per year.

The data v the stereotypes

It is true that Marseille is historically poorer than much of the rest of France. As of 2021, at least 210,000 people living in Marseille were considered 'poor' (living on less than €1,000 per month).

"There are no major cities in France other than Marseille where there is such a concentration of poverty," Louis Maurin, a representative from the Observatory of Inequalities, told France 3 Régions.

Poverty in Marseille is primarily concentrated in the city's northern districts - five arrondisements, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 14th and 15th - have poverty rates of above 40 percent.

The seven poorest districts in France were all located in Marseille, as of 2021. Two neighbourhoods on the edge of northern Marseille - Saint Baura and Belle de Mai - were also found to be among the poorest in Europe. 

Unemployment, too, is historically high in Marseille - six percentage points higher than the national average in 2018.

In 2018, a dilapidated building collapsed in Marseille's 1st arrondissement, causing the deaths of eight people - an event that came to be seen as symbolic of the neglect and poverty of France's second-largest city.

Crime, particularly related to drug trafficking at the city's port, is also a challenge. 

The regional police chief, Frederique Camilleri, told AFP that the three deaths which occurred on Monday were part of a turf war between rival gangs rooted in the Paternelle housing estate in northern Marseille.


In hopes of building up Marseille and addressing these deep-rooted issues, the city has tried introducing a larger police presence, expanding tram and bus lines into poor, less connected parts of the city, and undertaken plans to renovate 174 of the 470 schools and to build 30 new school groups in the sectors where the needs are most urgent.

In 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron chose to launch his re-election campaign from Marseille, a few months after having unveiled a €1.5-billion plan to help the city tackle crime and deprivation, calling such efforts a "duty of the nation".

Despite these efforts, gang violence rose to its highest level since 2016 in 2022 - with 32 people shot dead. In just three months, 13 have died so far this year, including the latest victims, according to a toll from AFP.

Marseille v the rest of the world

It is true that Marseille faces a wide range of challenges, but that does not mean the city is better left avoided. In fact, when compared with other cities of similar size outside of France, Marseille is considerably safer. 

Almost all American cities of similar sizes reported higher murder rates. As of 2015, Marseille was home to about 861,635 people. When compared with Baltimore, Maryland in the United States - home to about 576,498 people, homicide rates were significantly lower. In the last three months, Baltimore has reported 66 homicides, double the amount in Marseille for the whole of 2022. Baltimore, Maryland recorded 322 homicides for the whole year of 2022 - about 10 times the amount in Marseille.


In an interview with The Guardian in 2017, the former mayor of Marseille's 15th and 16th arrondissements, Samia Ghali, referred to the homicide rate, saying “It’s too many. But for a port city with a tradition of gangsters, it’s not that many".

Outside of the United States, when compared with North West England, which includes the city of Manchester (home to 553,230 people), there were 95 homicides recorded in 2022 - still more than Marseille.

It is also worth noting that the violent crime in Marseille described above is also largely concentrated within certain areas, namely those in the northern parts of the city.

"The Paternelle [a large housing complex in northern Marseille] is linked to almost all the killings in Marseille over the last months, with two sides that are fighting over the dealing spots and which have probably entered into a cycle of vendettas," the regional police chief Frederique Camilleri told AFP, after the most recent three deaths.

Marseille v the rest of France

In reality, tourists visiting southern parts of the city, and tourist areas like the Vieux Port, likely have little to worry about in regard to violent crime. Petty crime, such as pickpocketing, however, can be an issue, as it is in other major cities in France, like Paris and Lyon.

In all three cities - the number of non-violent robberies per 1,000 inhabitants can range between three to seven times higher in the tourist or transport-oriented districts than on average for the whole city, according to Franceinfo.

READ MORE: Reader question: Is Paris a safe city to visit?

In Marseille, non-violent theft was found to be more frequent in the 1st arrondissement (particularly in areas such as the Saint-Charles station, Belsunce, and Vieux Port) than in other parts of the city.


Similar results were found for Paris' 1st arrondissement - home to the Louvre Museum - and Lyon's popular 2nd arrondisement. As of 2021, Lyon and Paris both had higher levels of non-violent theft than Marseille.

Though Marseille is known as a hub for drug trafficking - mostly due its location on the drug-smuggling routes through the Mediterranean and into Europe - its département, Bouches-du-Rhône, ranked below other French départements for the total number of drug-related offences, as of 2020. It was Paris suburb Seine-Saint-Denis, which came in first place for the highest number of drug-related offences.

Dodgy data

When discussing the 'dangers' of Marseille, a one particular statistic is often cited - the 2022 ranking which placed Marseille as the second most dangerous city in Europe.

However this ranking, from the Numbéo website, has been disputed across the French press for having only used data based solely on the 'feelings of security' of anonymous internet users (not necessarily living in Marseille or even having visited) who participated in the poll - not real crime data.


Despite its enduring reputation, Marseille is popular as a tourist destination, especially with French tourists.

During 2021 - a year that saw tourism begin to rebound across France after the Covid-19 pandemic - four million tourists visited the city of Marseille. Still less than figures from before the pandemic, when over five million people per year visited Marseille, the city has begun to see its tourism numbers increase.

Marseille is also a common stopping point for Mediterranean cruises, with 350,000 visitors coming to the city via cruise ships alone in 2021.


It's easy to see why the port city is so popular - situated on the Mediterranean coast, Marseille bathes in an average of 300 days of sunshine a year, all the better to enjoy its beautiful beaches, while the stunning rugged coastline makes it a popular destination for hikers.

In fact, so popular is the Calanques national park that a quota for visitors has now been introduced in summer, to prevent damage to the landscape from over-tourism.

READ MORE: Visiting France: What activities and places do I need to reserve in advance?

Within the city itself there are numerous museums, from the little exhibition on the history of Marseille's soap trade to the huge and award-winning Mucem (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean), and beautiful areas to explore from the bar-lined Vieux Port to the Basilica perched on the hill above the city.

Marseille also has a lively nightlife, a thriving restaurant scene and a generally relaxed and fun vibe that makes it a pleasure to visit - while in 2024 it will host the sailing events for the Paris Olympics.

So why not give it a try? After all, five million tourists can't be wrong . . .

Hear more about Marseille in our Talking France podcast


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