The focus of the French elections on crime puts Marseille gangs in the frame

Emmanuel Macron on Monday promised a major initiative against crime in France, embarking on a debate that could be a defining element of the presidential elections in April, especially in divided urban centers.

Although he has yet to announce his candidacy, the French president is expected to run widely, but his biggest threat will likely come from right-wing opponents who have made security a major part of their campaigns.

Speaking in Nice, stronghold of the great challenger Valérie Pécresse of the conservatives Les Républicains, Mr. Macron gave substance to the promises to strengthen security. He said he would double the number of police officers by 2030 and set up a specialized security force to tackle areas particularly affected by drug gangs or violence.

Mr Macron said many police officers deal with “tasks that don’t make a difference in your daily life” and prevent them from patrolling neighborhoods, giving them examples of guards during court hearings and public buildings.

Instead, he vowed to “free them from these tasks” so they can return to the streets.

For her part, Ms. Pecresse is just as firm on the voters’ priorities around delinquency and the marginalization of gangs. “We need to restore order, both in our streets and in our national accounts,” she said in an interview published on Monday.

Mr Macron’s speech gave shape to the bones of a trip last year to neighboring Marseille where he vowed to turn the tide of crime. There is perhaps nowhere in France where Mr Macron’s message on crime could have resonated more than in Marseille, the Mediterranean city which has been fighting violence for years.

In 2021, violent inter-party conflicts resulted in 30 murders or attempted murders recorded between June 15 and September 15 alone. Murders in the southern port city are often linked to drug trafficking. Charred bodies have been found in car trunks and children as young as 14 have been among the victims.

Powerful automatic weapons are also widespread. In August, the city’s prosecutor said the killings were “extremely cruel and utterly unhuman” and warned that the victims were only getting younger.

In September, Mr Macron traveled to Marseille for three days – his longest domestic trip outside of Paris during his tenure to date – to unveil a multibillion-euro plan to reduce crime, drug trafficking and poverty. The plan would include hundreds of new police officers.

“I have suffered so much, I cannot put it into words. I want to leave, ”a woman told Mr. Macron as he met residents of the Bassens estate.

Some Marseillais maintain that the city has been unfairly treated by the media. They say that although it is accepted that in some areas gang violence is common, the public perception of the city is misleading and people do not understand why some communities, generally neglected, are prone to crime related to gangs. Drugs.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives to meet residents of Marseille's Bassens district on the first day of a three-day visit on September 1, 2021. Photo: AFP

In December 2020, Benoit Payan, member of the Socialist Party, becomes mayor of Marseille. He succeeds Jean-Claude Gaudin, who held this position for 25 years. Mr Payan stressed the need to invest in the city’s schools, saying they are in “an unworthy state”.

In particular, the northern districts were affected. Traditionally, these areas are where many refugees and migrants arrive. These neighborhoods suffer from higher levels of deprivation and unemployment.

“We are a port; we are a port. And of course we are not so far from the crossroads with Spain, Italy, North Africa. We are therefore at the heart of communication and that includes, of course, the circulation of drugs, ”explains Jérémy Bacchi, 35, local senator and member of the French Communist Party.

“You also have to understand… until the mid-1980s, Marseille was really a city where there were a lot of industries. Here we go, and of course a lot of people stayed on the side of the road because of deindustrialization, ”explains Mr. Bacchi, who grew up in the northern suburbs of Marseille.

A woman walks in the Marronniers district in Marseille in front of graffiti that reads:

He believes that major investments are necessary and that the local population needs more support to obtain jobs that do not require a multitude of skills.

Joseph Downing, senior lecturer in international relations and politics in the UK, said poor quality, overcrowded housing in parts of Marseille and unemployment was a toxic mix.

“For each indicator, there are social issues. Even if you fix the education system, children still come home to a barely coping family with no place to study. Deeper societal issues are all there, ”says Mr. Downing, who lives in Marseille about four months a year and has written extensively on the city and French Muslims.

“These people who cannot access jobs – they need to survive, they need to make a living,” Bacchi said. “And that (drug trafficking) is a way for them to survive for a living because they don’t have a sustainable job available to them.”

The La Castellane real estate complex, north of Marseille, is one of the city's most famous housing estates.  Photo: AFP

These long-standing factors have been around for some time, but more immediate issues are also at play.

Mr Downing says the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of the issues at stake in Marseille, in part because of the prevalence of cash jobs.

“There are a lot more people surviving on the bread line in the black / gray economy genre. They’ll work in a kitchen or a store for money and stuff if they don’t have the right papers.

“And during the closures, obviously, these people fell completely through the safety net provided by the French state.

Police remove a body after a man was shot dead in Marseille in 2016. Photo: AFP

“They say in southern Italy, Covid and lockdowns have actually bolstered the Mafia because they have become the only spectacle in town. And they’re making more money because the one thing that never stopped working and the one thing that made more money during the lockdowns was the drug dealers. “

Mr. Bacchi says that recently, “some very, very big gangsters have served their sentences and been released from prison. Big, big criminals. So now they’re back… and of course, they want to reclaim the space they used to occupy. Of course, there is a struggle for territories, for influence.

He says the justice system and the police are rightly trying to tackle the problems. But he maintains that there is no point in sweeping aside small street vendors.

“You have to investigate, find out where the drugs come from, who gives the orders, how are the drugs transported? You need to empower and empower [to] customs and excise.

But there is a larger point about Marseille, something Mr Bacchi is particularly keen to point out – that the city has an undeserved reputation and unfairly attracts negative headlines.

Granted, there are parts of Marseille where violence is rife – Mr Downing says there are a handful of areas that are almost impregnable – but most of France’s major cities are.

“Sure, The French connection was in Marseille, ”Bacchi said, referring to the city’s major role in shipping heroin to the United States in the middle of the last century.

The French connection is famous all over the world including the United States and, you know, we’ve inherited that story. I mean, it’s part of our history too. And it seems pretty hard to get out of it.

The reality is quite different from some of the negative connotations that still exist, says Bacchi, adding that the people of Marseilles are proud of their city and the sense of belonging is strong.

“Yes, the traffickers are certainly still settling their scores among themselves. But, you know, the people of Marseilles, they don’t feel any pressure.

He remembers a time during his studies when he spent a lot of time in a neighborhood synonymous with drug trafficking.

“Yeah, the traffickers came to us and they said, ‘Well, if you want to buy the stuff, you know, make sure you come see me and I’m here.’

“But otherwise, they were actually quite polite. They just wanted us to know that if we wanted to buy the products, they were available and where to find them.

“But if we weren’t interested in them, they weren’t interested in us. They would leave us alone. As long as you’re not part of a gang of traffickers, as long as you have nothing to do with it, they leave you alone. They leave you alone.

Updated: January 10, 2022, 3:58 p.m.

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