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The Hope of Marseille

By Claire Berlinski

France’s most Muslim city offers a surprising model in the war on anti-Semitism.


Ammar lunches regularly with members of Chirac’s inner circle. Official France, Ammar believed, was shaken to the core by the rise in anti-Semitism. “We, the Jews, we’re used as a kind of barometer. We may only be 1 percent of the population, but they know that if they are allowed to attack us, tomorrow they will go much, much further. A politician told me last week, ‘You, the Jews, you’re French here in France, it’s your country, but if there’s trouble tomorrow, you have Israel. Us? Where will we go? Nowhere. We don’t know where to go.’” Even ministers widely seen as sympathetic to Arab grievances were profoundly alarmed. “I met Dominique de Villepin two weeks ago. He, minister of the interior, responsible for security, boss of the French police, he told me, ‘Monsieur Ammar, le pire n’est pas derrière nous. Il est devant nous.’ The worst is not behind us. It is ahead of us.”
The government was doing all it could, Ammar believed. But the problem, he thought, was that the minds of Arab youths in France had been bathed in ravening hatred by broadcasts from the Middle East, from al-Jazeera and from al-Manar, the Hezbollah propaganda station. “The images, the music, the speeches—they are all designed to incite to the maximum, to make you want to go out in the street and find Jews to kill.” In almost every Arab home, there is a satellite dish. “Sincerely, I am telling you: I don’t see how you can put a policeman behind every Jew. It’s not possible.”
Perhaps. Yet, as he agreed, France’s new law enforcement initiatives had been more successful in Marseille than the rest of France. Clearly there are solutions. But why should police tactics that have failed in other French cities be more effective in Marseille?
Seeking an answer, I took this question to those I thought might know: Marseille’s police.
 
I spent the following day at the National Police Equipment Convention of France. Some thousand-odd police officers had arrived for the outdoor event, held in a leafy Marseille suburb under the bright sky of a Mediterranean summer. Between the demonstrations of new police gear and tactics, I sat at a lawn table shaded by a parasol, amid big bushes of pink flowers, and spoke to the cops who patrol Marseille’s streets. I started by speaking to two of them, but soon others, overhearing our discussion, sat down: They all wanted their say. Before long, a dozen cops were sitting at the table. Marseille, they agreed, was different; it was cosmopolitan; it was a port; ethnic conflict was not as much of a problem as it was in other cities. But that didn’t mean the place wasn’t a mess. “There are neighborhoods we can’t even enter,” one told me.
“There’s no respect for the police anymore,” another added.
“Kids these days don’t have a good upbringing. They don’t respect anything.”
“We don’t have enough money. We need more money.”
“Are you going to talk to Sarkozy? Tell him we need more money.”
Cops, everywhere—the same complaints.
Of the cops at the table, about half were white. There was one black man, and the rest looked as if they might be of North African origin. There were two women. I asked whether the police force made an effort to hire ethnic minorities, as it did in the United States.
“Oh yes, of course.”
“But not officially. You can’t do that officially. That’s against republicanism.”
“But unofficially—of course!”
Everyone in official France, from top to bottom, knows the party line: We are a republic. There are no ethnic groups. But everyone, I discovered, also knows that this is a fraud.
I spent the rest of the day looking for Marseille’s police chief, Pierre Carton. I spotted him just as a gigantic, flame-red police helicopter swooped down from the sky. The special forces had arrived to rappel down the side of a four-story building. I had to shout to make myself heard, because the loudspeakers were now blasting the theme from “The Ride of the Valkyries.” The chief was beaming: He was proud of his men. He kindly suggested that we might be able to talk more comfortably in his office, and invited me to join him there later in the afternoon.
The police station was massive, with the atmosphere and architecture of a Saracen fort, and the chief’s office was spacious and sunny. “There’s been tension since the beginning of the Second Intifada in Israel, yes,” said Carton in response to my question, “but not a débordement—an overflow. It’s not like other cities.” He was modest about this achievement: “If we’ve had any success, it’s very relative. It’s owed, in part, to the geography and sociology of the city. Marseille is a city with space. It’s an agglomeration of what we call village nuclei, small neighborhoods that form a complete fabric. What’s particularly important is that the banlieue is in the city itself.” In other French cities, the banlieue—the suburbs—form menacing rings of criminality and unemployment around the city. This was a common theme of my conversations in Marseille: The city owes its peace, in part, to the fact that immigrants have not been shunted off into suburban slums as they have been in other large French cities.
Marseille is particularly spread out. Its 800,000 inhabitants enjoy a city twice the size of Paris, with a coastline that spans more than 35 miles. The population of greater Paris, by contrast, is 10.5 million. During the 1960s and 1970s, when France launched huge collective housing projects, Marseille benefited from these reserves of space. Immigrant neighborhoods are now distributed evenly throughout the city, and young people, whatever their ethnic origin, congregate in the same neighborhoods: The Vieux Port, the Canebière, St. Ferréol Street, the beaches of the Prado, the Velodrome. This use of urban space is uniquely Marseillais. In Nice, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Paris, and other major cities, youths of foreign origin and the native-born do not socialize in the same places. This, clearly, is an important reason for Marseille’s comparative calm.
His deputy agreed: “This is important. The projects aren’t detached from the rest of the city or from its traditional structures. The fact that the projects are sprinkled through the city means the inhabitants don’t feel cut off from civic life or the traditional life of the city. If they use public transport, kids from the projects can be in the center of town within five minutes.”
I asked the chief whether Marseille’s policing tactics, at the street level, had changed significantly under Chirac. Absolutely, he said; under the Socialists they had been crippled, but now the power of the police had been unleashed. Encouraged by signals from the Chirac government, he now responded to minor anti-Semitic crimes with a “furious” display of force—something he felt unable to do in the political climate of the Jospin era. “During the Socialist era, between 1981 and 1986, the organization of the police was a bit different. We had less power at our disposal for a strong reaction—police power was spread out. Now it’s been regrouped. Now we have forces that can respond quickly and forcefully. This was a national initiative, but it suits us well here.
“The mentality is different now. We try to be visible. We try to be very present in difficult areas. That frightens the delinquents and reassures the honest people. That’s been our policy for the past few years. Now, even small aggression, verbal aggression, is punished. Because that’s where it starts. We try to react quickly. If you leave it, if you don’t react, it degenerates rapidly. We want to avoid having others get the same idea, because here you have young people watching things on television, images of the Intifada... we make arrests to show it won’t be tolerated.” He was quick, however, to specify that these were republican arrests, not communitarian arrests. “In France, we arrest individuals—it’s you who threw a stone at me, not the group to which you belong.
 “Our model here isn’t repression, though,” he added. “It’s permanent contacts among groups, in the schools, among associations. The police have a permanent dialogue with neighborhood associations—when there’s a problem, we go directly to the source. We have personal relationships with the Jewish community, with the Islamic community. We have personal contacts at many levels: Not only the chiefs, but the cops on patrol have regular meetings with community representatives. Not only with religious leaders but with ethnic leaders.”


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