Sitting on a balcony in Marseille

Sitting on a balcony four floors above the street that runs beside the port where the big ships leave for the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and cities on the North African coast like Algiers, it is hard to fathom how a city like Paris can burn with the anger of almost a century’s worth of the results of French colonisation and its aftermath. Then the sun goes down here in Marseille and the results of that colonisation become very real indeed.

The evening began with police sirens and traffic being turned around and rerouted. We thought that it was a result of Macron still being in town. He was here on Monday, which led to the Vieux Port area being totally closed down and me being separated from my travel companion. At first I thought that this was like having the American president in town, but I read later that the authorities were expecting trouble from angry workers and unionists who were upset at possible new measures limiting their pensions.

There were police everywhere, and all sorts of police—the local police, the gendarmerie and the CRS, those notorious riot police with their black outfits and scowls. But for the most part they were pleasant, but firm. ‘You can’t go down there, or to your left, or to your right. The only way you can move is up the hill away from the port’. Okay, that’s the way it is when the pres is in town. Then a young man was killed by a policeman in Paris and everything changed.

The police shooting of Nahel M in the banlieue of Nanterre, just outside of Paris, has reminded the French of the basic racist nature of their society, which is so entrenched and pervasive it seems reductive to blame the problem on racist police. It isn’t racist police, it is a society that is divided in every way by race. Put that together with the results of the COVID epidemic, which we all know affected the poor in disproportionate ways, and rising unemployment, inflation etc., and one young man’s death takes on a greater meaning, the result of which I saw the other night.

Marseille is France’s second largest city. It is a port city, which brings out the divisions in a society in sharp relief. It has a large population of North African descent, as well as many other immigrant and refugee groups. So much of France’s wealth through the ages came through this port, and so much of its poverty as well. But still it is a magnificent city, set against the blue of the Mediterranean in front of it and the grey and brown of the Calanques behind it. I really love this city. It has a history of more than 3000 years and it is glorious.

But back to the less glorious present. We were sitting on our balcony and the noise started. Car horns, police sirens, people screaming. Then we could see groups of people, many wearing scarves around their head and faces, coming from the Vieux Port. They were throwing firecrackers and fireworks at the police, who were responding with tear gas. Did you know that tear gas can affect you four floors up? I didn’t, until my eyes started watering and my throat felt like I had just munched down on one of those extremely tiny but terribly hot chillies beloved by the Mexicans.

I got over it, but the noise went on for a while—the banging of the fireworks and then the banging of the tear-gas canisters going off in response. Eventually the deadly carnival moved on and the place became quiet. The next day we could see the damage, but it was not so great in the areas we went into. Even the old port area looked okay. But of course, we are tourists and we don’t see the other side of the great divide.

The next night, it was quieter where we were. The city virtually closed down. The cafes, cinemas and shops were all but totally closed by sundown. Public transport was stopped at 9 pm. We did hear a big explosion, and I read that many hundreds of mostly young men were arrested in Marseille somewhere. They also broke into a gun store and stole weapons, but no ammunition. Stores were looted and shop windows were smashed. But not near us. That division again.

We went to the Saturday market in Aix-en-Provence, which is a lovely small city near Marseille. On the way we saw that divided city again in stark relief. Along a road in an area which looked almost totally derelict was a street market—a real street market, where all the goods were lying on the street and on tables. The population looked mostly North African and there were no artisanal cheeses or baguettes to be had. Instead there was second-hand electrical equipment, and lots of clothes. Somebody in the car said that if the clothes were new, they probably came from one of the shops looted the night before. It was a serious comment, and it was probably true. This wasn’t a market for the bourgeois tourist.

Aix, on the other hand, is the classic French market. Beautiful fresh summer fruit, cheeses from around France, linen clothing and handmade knick-knacks. It was a lovely place to wander and ask the stall-holders about their produce, and think about the €3000 sculptures in the art gallery. There were no broken store windows, no burnt-out cars, very few people of North African descent. It is like Marseille, half an hour down the road, is as far away as Cairns is from Perth. This is the very real divide in France, and it feels almost unbridgeable.

The French were so married to the idea of equality that they gave the people of their colonies French citizenship, and those people came in their millions looking for that equality. The French were also so entranced with the idea of racial equality that they have never had a question about race or ethnic identity in their census. This resulted in a blindness to the reality of racial divides. How do you understand the relationship between ethnic identity, race and poverty, for example, if you don’t look for it in the most basic of policy designs? This is not to say that countries that do have questions about race in their censuses are more equal; clearly they are not. But they at least know where to start to look, if that is what they want to do.

I did not come to Europe this year to research police actions, but I have seen plenty of them, from attempts to quell drunken football violence in Prague to riot squads attempting to stop a revolt in Marseille. My next stop is the Camargue with its pink flamingoes, wild horses and bulls. Much quieter really.

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About the author

Grazyna Zajdow

Grazyna Zajdow is a retired Associate Professor of Sociology at Deakin University where she taught for many years. Her research interests have been the experience and social effects of drugs and alcohol and feminist sociology. She was a co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series).

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