Marseille is cleaning itself up to become a 2013 European Capital of Culture. But between ambitious projects and construction sites, the city is battling deeply ingrained problems like criminality and poverty.
It's 9:00 a.m. at Vieux Port, the oldest harbor in Marseille. Here, in the place where local fishermen used to sell their catch each morning, the view of the oblong harbor basin is obscured by metal fencing. The sound of pneumatic drills and digging fills the air.
Time is running out: In just a few weeks, on January 12, the Culture Capital of Europe kicks off. Alongside Marseille, more than 97 cities and villages from the region will be aiming to impress with a range of spectacular exhibitions and events.
The old harbor, where the Greeks threw down their anchors and founded a town they called Massalia in 600 BC, is being transformed into a traffic-free zone. In addition, the once six-lane highway surrounding the area will be reduced to two lanes. The street along the pier will become a large pedestrian square complete with a sun canopy.
"That's progress," sighs Nana, an 82-year-old fish-seller. The woman with short gray hair and a suntanned face fears that Marseille's traditional fish market will slowly die out as a result of the urban regeneration project.
Biggest construction project in Europe
Just a 15-minute walk north of Vieux Port, the beating heart of the city, countless construction cranes protrude into the sky. They mark the area of the largest city construction project in Europe, known as Euromediterranee.
Billion-dollar office blocks, luxury hotels and apartments are being built on the 480 hectares surrounding the former harbor area. "We're building a new city on the city," the president of Euromediterranee, Guy Tessier, explained.
"The old harbor quarter has seen a reduction in its activities over the decades and is even more poverty stricken with apartments that are in a state of disrepair," he added. "This part of the city has been completely redeveloped over the past 12 years."
In one of the poorest cities in France, where 13 percent of the population is unemployed and just over half of all households pay taxes, the urban regeneration project should provide a needed boost to the local economy.
Statistics indicate that construction work on the project has already created 20,000 new jobs, Guy Tessier said. "We want to create a large metropolis on the Mediterranean and show that Marseille is an ambitious and hard-working city where you can have a good life."
Urban developers want Marseille to glitter with a host of buildings designed by a stellar cast of architects from around the world. They've designed museums, skyscrapers and office spaces for France's second-largest city.
Gleaming office blocks have sprouted in the skyline formerly dominated by shabby storage sheds. An almost two-kilometer-long promenade along the coastline has been built, along with a slick shopping arcade packed with restaurants, cinemas and a lively business quarter.
"The main aim of Euromediterranee is to expand and shift the city center, which until now was limited to a few streets in the old harbor, northwards," project spokesman Anthony Abihssira explained. The goal is make the city more attractive for local residents and tourists, while at the same time turning Marseille into the economic capital of the region.
A grand museum for Mediterranean civilizations, an old grain elevator transformed into a concert hall and conference rooms, and a former tobacco factory turned alternative media and culture center are just a few of the regeneration projects. A hospital, a university, schools, and apartment blocks are also planned.
From poverty to prestige
Until now, socially disadvantaged groups such as single mothers and immigrants from North Africa have lived in the former harbor district. A number of dilapidated apartments and buildings have been renovated or, in some cases, demolished.
But rents have sky-rocketed as a consequence, forcing many residents to move to other districts. Abouatil Nouredile, from the association A Downtown for Everyone, is unhappy about the lack of a clear plan for residents forced out of the area. A number of real-estate brokers have also been accused of malpractice.
However, spokesman Abihssira said that the regeneration project had been carried out according to regulations and that social housing had been built specifically for the disadvantaged segments of the population.
"It's really exciting to follow the modernization process, and one can already see the first results, like the new shopping street Rue de la Republique, which is popular," says an elderly resident, looking at the miniature model of the city and admiring the futuristic sights of the new Marseille.
Her husband would like Marseille to stay true to its down-to-earth character and not become a glamorous city like St. Tropez on the Cote d'Azur. While many residents believe that the facelift will bring Marseille forward, some also fear that the character of the city will be lost between the new shiny office blocks and slick museums.
Above all, locals are longing for the completion of the Euromediterranee project, since the numerous construction sites continue to clog the already congested city with traffic jams and diversions.
Criminal scene next door
Just a short distance from the construction sites in the new harbor quarter is the social housing district, Felix-Pyat. White concrete blocks up to 20 floors tall and covered in graffiti perforate the deep blue sky. A strong wind blows plastic bags and trash through the empty streets.
The glittering, silver headquarters of the shipping and logistics firm CMA-CGM is just a 15-minute walk, but for 14-year-old Karim, it's like another world.
He rarely leaves the confines of his neighborhood and often stays home alone in an attempt to avoid the local drug scene. "All my old friends in the area are in that scene," he explains.
Felix-Pyat is located in one of the poorest districts of Marseille and is populated mainly by North Africans, Comoros and immigrants from the island of Mayotte. Every second young person is unemployed.
Noro, 34, grew up in the area and is unhappy about the way it has changed over the past few years. "The quarter has become a ghetto," she says. When she first started school in Felix-Pyat, her class had a mixture of Comoros, Algerians and French pupils. Now it is just immigrant families with no prospects for the future.
Her boyfriend, Rachidi, agrees and mentions his daughter who has been unemployed since graduating from high school. Many other young people are unemployed despite having a university education.
It hurts Noro to see "the children hanging around between the housing blocks waiting to warn drug dealers that the police are coming, risking their lives for a couple hundred euros."
Everyday drug deals
A group of young men are sitting in a dark blue car parked between two housing blocks. Every seat in the car is occupied. A 19-year-old North African winds down the window. "It's not a good life," he says. "We all want to work but there are no jobs."
His friends says that young people here are stuck in a vicious circle and he wishes that there were more opportunities for them, that someone would come and take care of them. A joint is passed around. But none of them admit to being involved in drug dealing.
It's a very dangerous milieu and many people live in fear of bullets. "So we arm ourselves and pray. Kalashnikovs are very fashionable," they explain. "Once you're in it you probably won't live long. When things go bad, you'll get killed. And when things are good, it's a paradise."
The so-called guetteur, those who warn drug dealers about the police, earn a minimum of 100 euros (about $130) a day. The few who allow drugs to be stored in their homes can earn up to 5,000 euros ($6,600) per month and the head of a drug clique can get double that.
Difficult to control
The leader of the police trade union, Alphonse Giovannini, has been following the drug scene in Marseille for 20 years and believes that the city isn't heavily policed enough. For that reason, the drug trade has spread to neighboring housing developments and there are continual conflicts between rival gangs.
"The drug dealers are fully prepared to do anything to secure their position in the lucrative drug trade. There are no rules anymore, the only thing that counts is making a quick buck," Giovannini said.
Because Marseille is a port city with high-rise housing blocks at its center, the drug trade is particularly hard to control. Alphonse Giovannini says he is curious to see the new "global action plan" announced by new government.
France's Interior Minister Manuel Valls has promised to tackle the problem from different angles, including education, work and housing. He's also sent 200 extra police officers to Marseille since the beginning of November.
Finding a way out
Noro has found her own way to support young people in her area. She runs an organization called Pepse, helping the area's youth find jobs, from her apartment in one of Felix-Pyat's housing blocks.
"I appeal to them through cultural initiatives like dance, music and sport, because it's a way for them to vent their frustration with life in the city. And there are many stuck in the drug scene who want out," she says.
Marseille is a city in the middle of a transformation. The second largest and second oldest city in the country is working on its image and its problems. That's how Marseille, once the poor cousin of France, the rebellious city in the South, hopes to make headlines for all the rights reasons in future.