When I was in Marseille in early March, people often told me two seemingly contradictory things about their city: that it is unique, different from everywhere else in France, and that it is the true face of France, the one place where the entire country can be understood.
I came away inclined to believe both statements. Marseille did seem unique, a shabby-chic mixture of luxury enclaves, agglomerated villages, brutalist public-housing blocks, and run-down neighborhoods, all spread out over hills and cliffs that form a pocket on the Mediterranean coast. As a working-class port that has lost most of its factories and jobs, and that has long been shaped by waves of immigrant labor from Italy, Algeria, Morocco, Corsica, and the French colony of what was once Indochina, Marseille also turned out to be a good vantage point from which to observe the run-up to a presidential election dominated by the themes of immigration, national identity, the fight against terrorism, and the place of Islam in France.
I stayed with an old friend, M., who lives at the top of the Canebière, an artery that descends in a straight line to the old port, where sailboats bobbing in the water are watched over by the gleaming statue of Mary atop the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde—which everyone refers to as “la Bonne Mere.” The historic center of Marseille, unlike that of Paris, has not gentrified. I heard Arabic everywhere, and the busy central market of Noailles—where downtown residents buy their produce—was full of halal butchers, veiled female shoppers, men sitting in cafés, and shops selling olives, spices and pastries from North Africa.
This kind of bustling neighborhood seems to be the worst nightmare of many in France, who lament that in such areas, which they may never set foot in, their country has turned into “a foreign land.” The election was taking place in the wake of several terrorist attacks (beginning with the bloody assault of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015), carried out in great part by French citizens of immigrant origins. One of the front-runners in the election, Marine le Pen, was the candidate for the Front National (FN), an isolationist, populist far-right party that has campaigned on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. Le Pen is adept at mixing concerns about terrorism with fears of other “threats” to the Republic, such as burkinis, veils, halal meat and Arab rappers. But wringing one’s hands over the imminent imposition of Sharia law has become a political gambit, an intellectual industry and a literary genre common across France’s political spectrum.
“France’s obsession with identity is symptomatic of a crisis of the political system, of France’s place in the world,” Thierry Fabre, a prominent Marseille intellectual, told me. Fabre is a specialist in Mediterranean studies and a champion of cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. Twenty-three years ago he founded Les Rencontres de Averroes, a prominent annual series of public talks with scholars, artists and writers from both sides of the Mediterranean. “From the point of view of living together,” he said, Marseille, despite its divides, flaws, and contradictions, “is an emblematic city of the 21st century,” an example to be followed. Yet he admitted that France’s “machinery for integration has broken down. We are witnessing the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic.”
Indeed, a feeling of hopelessness, indignation and restlessness hung in the air in Marseille: the sense, which seems common to so many countries these days, that things can’t go on as they are. To some extent, this has to do with the economy. Growth has been stagnant for years in France, public services are strained, and unemployment hovers at around 10 percent. Yet a concern with shrinking opportunities and unfairness has morphed into a much larger malaise. France suffers from a debilitating obsession with identity, and has nothing but disgust for the country’s politicians, who are viewed as corrupt, out of touch and out of ideas. From people on the left I heard the word “catastrophe” more than once. “The point you have to make in your article,” M. told me, “is that we don’t know who to vote for.”
In Marseille, in the first round of the election, nearly half of those who cast ballots opted for the two most extreme, anti-establishment candidates: Le Pen and the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The two shared a deep suspicion of the E.U. and globalization, and a vision of the country as fundamentally bankrupt and unfair.
The election marked the nationwide collapse of the Socialist Party, which hardly anyone voted for at all. Late last year, President François Hollande was so unpopular—his approval rating was stuck in the low single digits for months—that he decided not to run for a second term. In 2015, he had alienated many of his supporters in the Socialist Party by forcing through an unpopular labor law. He also angered both conservatives—when he helped to engineer the legalization of gay marriage—and progressives—first, when he toyed with the idea, in the wake of terrorist attacks, of passing a law that allowed the state to strip citizens of their nationality (such a law was last used in Vichy France against Jews). “We have a left-wing government that has had right-wing policies,” I was told by Fatima Orsatelli, who recently finished a term as a representative for the Marseille region, elected on a Socialist Party list.
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate, advocated for a form of universal basic income and environmentally responsible development. In the final weeks before the first round of voting on April 23, he was dramatically overtaken in the polls by Mélenchon, whose Communist backing, gruff persona and lyrical tirades against the “gilded classes” drew a surprising level of support. His proposals included taxing incomes over 400,000 Euros at 90 percent, leaving NATO, renegotiating E.U. treaties, and allowing for any public servant to be fired by referendum.
On the right, the suave François Fillon ran on a socially conservative platform and promised the moral leadership to impose the austerity he deemed necessary to revive France’s stagnant economy. Then he was sandbagged by a series of corruption scandals, the most damaging of which involved the allegation that he had hired his children and wife to hold fictitious jobs as aides, paying them over 900,000 Euros. Many suggested that Fillon should resign; instead, he cast himself as an embattled victim, accusing the press, the judiciary and the Hollande government of engaging in “a political assassination.” This approach rallied his supporters, but for many other voters Fillon came to exemplify the endemic corruption and blind entitlement of politicians to whom the rules never seem to apply.
The weakening of the candidates of the traditional left and right provided an opening for Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old whiz kid of finance and politics. A product of France’s elite schools who made a fortune in banking and served two years as Hollande’s finance minister, Macron left the Socialists to found his own independent movement, En Marche! (“On the Move!”), which he has described as a pragmatic, economically and socially liberal third way. Macron has been ridiculed by adversaries as lacking substance (“the hologram candidate”), but his boyish charm and technocratic optimism appeal to many. He also seems willing to break some taboos. This spring, on a visit to Algiers, Macron condemned France’s colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity”—a remark that was met with indignation and discomfort.
Macron was the country’s best chance to beat back the far right and “save the day,” Orsatelli told me back in March. But the question remained of whether voters thought there was something worth saving. Orsatelli’s own views of the political system are scathing: it is ruled by nepotism, determined to stifle outsiders and reformers and thinks it can simply “buy the poor” through patronage networks. Such condescension has led to “a political collapse,” she said. Meanwhile, “Islam is being politically manipulated” and the right is “surfing on populism and people’s misery.”
Macron, as predicted, won the first round of voting alongside Marine Le Pen, who could count on the solid support of her base in the second round. Macron presented himself as a candidate for change, a young and dynamic figure running without a party structure. But he did not propose a stark departure from the status quo, just a smart recalibration of it. Wealthy, educated, backed by a significant portion of the political establishment and a savvy media campaign, he struck many as “smooth and empty”—“a pure marketing product,” as one of M.’s friends said.
Fifteen years ago, when I was a student in Paris, Jean-Marie Le Pen—Marine’s father, the founder of the FN, and a Holocaust denier—made it for the first time to a run-off against the incumbent, the conservative-leaning President Jacques Chirac. Le Pen thought France should never have given up Algeria; he likened people with HIV to “lepers” and suggested Ebola could “solve France’s immigration problems.” That he was in the running for the presidency shocked and shamed many. I remember following my French friends into the streets to protest as soon as the results of the first round were announced. Chirac refused to debate Le Pen. Left-wing voters supported Chirac in the second round, forming what was known as “the Republican front,” an alliance against the FN.
That front has held the last fifteen years, but the FN has continued to inexorably gain ground, especially under the leadership of Le Pen’s blonde and middle-aged daughter Marine. She took over the party in 2011, ousted her father entirely within a few years, and oversaw a makeover of the party’s image. Today FN candidates will be kicked out of the party if they are caught making overtly anti-Semitic comments, although Marine Le Pen herself still skirts the line. While campaigning before the first round, she said that the responsibility for the deportation of French Jews to concentration camps during World War II falls to individual officials, not to the French nation. (In 1995, barely two months into his first term as president, Chirac said the opposite in a public ceremony.)
Le Pen, meanwhile, doubled down on her condemnation of immigration and “Islamist fundamentalism.” She has compared Muslims praying on the sidewalk outside mosques to the Nazi occupation and is in favor of banning the headscarf everywhere (it is currently banned in high schools). The veil is “a sign of women’s subjugation—there are no consenting victims,” she said in a presidential debate in April, exasperating the left-wing candidates, who argued that applying France’s existing 1905 law on laïcité, which protects freedom of religion and the secular nature of the state, is largely sufficient—there is no need for new provisions targeting Islamic practices in particular. Macron told her: “The trap you are falling into, Madame Le Pen, with your provocations, is to divide society,” making “enemies out of more than four million French men and women whose religion happens to be Islam.”
In the first round, Fillon tried to offer more respectable versions of the FN’s positions. Last year he published a book entitled Beating Islamic Totalitarianism, another contribution to the crowded field of texts that suggest France faces a choice between civil war and submission to Islam—a blindly literal adaptation of the scenario envisaged in Michel Houllebecq’s tongue-in-cheek 2015 novel Submission. During the campaign he proposed placing mosques under “administrative control”—meaning sermons would be reviewed by government officials—and dissolving associations that are allegedly connected with Islamist or fundamentalist movements.
But it is difficult, if not impossible, to beat Le Pen at her own game. She has inherited her father’s aggressiveness, tempered by superior political instincts. In interviews, she is smiling but pugnacious, dismissing the premises of questions outright and pivoting to her talking points. Presenting herself as a patriot at war with “mondialistes” and out-of-touch elites, she wants to improve relations with Russia and leave the E.U. She would have France immediately deport undocumented immigrants (and potential refugees) back to their home countries, and slash the number of legal immigrants to ten thousand a year (a decrease of 80 percent). She supports giving “national priority” to French citizens, making foreign residents wait two years to access France’s public services, and imposing a tax on businesses that hire them.
There is little evidence that these policies would create employment or spur growth. But they speak to a frustrated middle class that resents the country’s media and political elites and feels it can regain control of the country by ridding it of E.U. bureaucrats and free-loading immigrants. “France has been too generous … It has become an El Dorado for immigrants,” says Le Pen. “The French can’t take it anymore.”
Others feel disgruntled too, although they don’t blame foreigners. My friend M. immigrated to France from Portugal as a child. In Paris, she had a job as a social worker and set up a successful restaurant that purposely hired refugees and immigrants; one of her first cooks was a young Afghan who had crossed Europe on foot. Working endless backbreaking shifts, she never paid herself more than minimum wage, about 1,500 Euros a month. M. is quietly outraged at the way France seems to be turning its back on its most vulnerable: the working poor, the homeless, refugees.
She and her friends—thirty-something creatives, professionals, owners of small restaurants and libraries—are exasperated by voting, election after election, “for the lesser evil,” supporting candidates they have little enthusiasm for just to keep the FN out of power, even as the political center seems to shift further and further to the right.
Still, after the election narrowed down to Macron and Le Pen, “there was no choice” but to vote for him, M. told me later. Even those who had sworn they would spoil their ballots this time ended up supporting “the banker,” not wanting to bear the responsibility of empowering the FN. And Macron grew a little on M., who said that as she saw more of him, she was struck by his intelligence. In a bitter televised debate between Macron and Le Pen—in which the latter hurled falsehoods and veiled insults—he martialed his arguments and “held his ground against her.”
The FN is strong in the southeastern region to which Marseille belongs; it performs well in the countryside, and in suburbs and affluent towns such as Nice and Toulouse. But so far, it has only managed to win one maire-de-ville seat within the city of Marseille itself. In 2014, Stephane Raviers won his seat partly thanks to a corruption scandal that had engulfed the Socialist incumbent.
Ravier has said that the problem with Marseille is its diversity: “By being diverse, a large part of the population no longer knows who it really is: ‘Am I French? Am I Algerian? Am I Moroccan? Am I secular? Am I a Muslim, since I live in a country that is traditionally Catholic?’ All this mixing produces something indigestible. We’re trying to combine couscous with sauerkraut and daube à la provençale. It’s inedible … The mixture of kinds is a collective suicide. And that’s what we’re preparing for.”
The FN does not have an amicable relationship with the press, and my requests to meet with Raviers and calls to the local party office went unanswered. When I dropped by unannounced, the workers at the front desk were polite, suspicious and stunned by the apparition of an American journalist.
The office was a modest ground-floor hall, with fresh paint and white linoleum. A poster on the wall showed a mother and her child in a car with the caption: “Sandra has been sleeping in her car, with her son, for three months. Too bad for her she’s not a migrant.” Other posters told Islamists and Arab youths—sporting backward caps, baseball bats, and pit bulls—to “get out.”
Across from me, three elderly white men were shaking their heads over crime in downtown Marseille. One of them kept looking my way, wide-eyed and eager to talk. Before long he had sidled over to tell me that the FN would stop immigration “because there are too many immigrants and everything is for them.” It would also back Le Pen’s idea of Frexit because the E.U. has become “like the Soviet Empire.” He gave Donald Trump an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
The FN does not encourage contact between the press and its supporters, many of whom tend to depart quickly from the party’s new smoothed-over message. My confidante was eager to show me a collection of memes and videos on his cell phone, but before he could, he was shooed away by a smooth blonde party cadre, who after telling me no interview would be possible, politely but firmly responded to my questions with generalities.
Le Pen’s slogan in the first round was “Putting France Back in Order,” which potently indicates the overlap between the FN’s arguments about identity (such as Ravier’s) and economics, all of which promise to wrest back things that have allegedly been lost: control of the borders, respect for French traditional values, public resources that have been monopolized by foreigners, security, jobs. The far right in France is also still fighting—in its imagination—the lost war to keep Algeria, a point echoed by many people I spoke to. Its relationship to Arabs is marked, says Thierry Fabre, by a “an old resentment, a colonial mourning.”
“We repeat too often that the FN speculates on fear, on ignorance,” writes Philippe Pujol, a renowned Marseille journalist and the son of Corsican immigrants. “I have realized that its best breeding ground is frustration. A feeling accentuated by the perpetual and universal fear of downward mobility, of living less well than one’s parents, of the latest immigrants catching up with us. Worse! Of them overtaking us. Last one in close the door!”
FN supporters have no monopoly on frustration. The young men, many of them the children of immigrants, who have committed terrorist attacks in France in recent years have often had troubled childhoods and histories of delinquency. More than one thousand French citizens have travelled to Syria since 2012, and at least seven hundred remain there. In his book Les Revenants(“The Returnees”), journalist David Thomson interviews dozens of those who have come back. Some explain their actions in terms of France’s colonial past, its ongoing racism against Arabs and blacks. Others speak of the emptiness of consumer culture. Zoubeir—who traveled to Syria in 2013 and returned to France disillusioned—told Thomson, “When you see that the only project of Western democracies today is to offer people purchasing power, that’s empty, that doesn’t make you want to live.”
This supports French sociologist Olivier Roy’s idea that we are witnessing “an Islamization of radicalism, rather than a radicalization of Islam,” and that what is most remarkable about these teenage jihadis is their nihilism and narcissism. Roy has argued that young people in search of a form of revolt try to find it in radical Islam because the French vision of laïcité has made public manifestations of religion the ultimate taboo.
For many jihadis, who radicalize online in the span of weeks or months, Syria is a fantasyland where they hope to find meaning and power, to transform themselves from losers to winners. But Marseille is different in this respect, because it hasn’t witnessed many departures for Syria. One theory, shared by Roy and Pujol, is that Arab kids with few opportunities already have a violent adventure they can turn to: the drug trade.
On the city’s northern hills, overlooking its industrial port, stand nine huge white towers and apartment blocks that resemble scattered building blocks abandoned by some giant child. This is Kallisté, named after the Greek word for “most beautiful,” an ironic legacy for what has become Marseille’s poorest, most infamous public housing project. Built in the Sixties as temporary housing, its 753 apartments are decrepit today, many of them rented out to new arrivals in the city by so-called “sleep merchants.” The five thousand or so people who live in Kallisté suffer from some of the highest rates of poverty, illiteracy, delinquency and poor health in the city.
The jobs for which immigrants moved to France for in the Sixties began evaporating within a decade, victims of the 1973 oil embargo. In Kallisté, as in the infamous banlieues surrounding Paris and other French cities, immigrants and their children have remained socially and spatially segregated, and were the hardest hit by the 2008 financial crisis. “It’s not a question of ethnicity or origins,” Didier Bonnet told me. “We’re in the third generation of unemployment; these are kids who have never seen their parents go to work.”
Bonnet, a tall, raffish presence in a leather jacket who likes to describe himself as “a big mouth,” has worked with civil society organizations in the poor neighborhoods of Marseille for decades. “We abandoned these neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s because we left a vacuum that drug dealing and radicalization took over.”
In a café at the foot of Kallisté, Bonnet and I met Mourad Radi, a resident of the cité and a former colleague of Bonnet’s. Their project—to get contractors to hire local residents to carry out the buildings’ maintenance and cleaning—had failed, sabotaged, they say, by vested interests and corruption. Radi is a small puckish man who sucks on his e-cigarette voraciously and taps my shoulder to punctuate each of his sentences. He speaks in a heavy Marseille accent, and at an astounding velocity, so that I am usually a beat behind his jokes. When I ask what brought his parents to Marseille from Morocco when he was two, he replies without hesitation: “No, we didn’t come to work. We came to steal. We came to collect social security.”
As we sipped our coffees, Radi delivered a riff that mixed dark humor, provocation and genuine exasperation. He touched on the stigmatization of Arabs in France (“The French don’t respect us. They say we steal their jobs, but we work the jobs they don’t want.”), dwelled on the corruption of politicians (“We slave away. Then we realize our leaders, who talk to us about integrity, are a bunch of thieves. They say: Tighten your belts. We’ve been tightening our belts for forty years. I was born with my belt tightened.”), and asserted the failure of democracy (“We have no representatives. We are locked in on ourselves.”). A grandfather married to a Frenchwoman, who has spent his whole life here, said he is being “de-integrated.” When Radi exclaimed, “I’ll vote FN! I’ll vote FN!” I didn’t know whether to take it literally or see it as his way of signaling his exasperation. Why would anyone who lives here vote FN? I asked. “Ras-le-bol,” was the answer, which is on the lips of many French today. “Fed up.”
On our way back into town, Bonnet took us past La Castellane, another infamous cité. Here it is impossible to simply visit: only residents and customers are given permission to pass by the many young men with baseball caps and intent gazes who work as look-outs, posted at every approach. The police crack down intermittently, in “coups-de-poings” operations. But mostly, said Bonnet, these areas are left “to slowly boil with the lid on.”
Residents of housing projects in Marseille are actually less segregated, administratively and spatially, than those of most other French banlieues, which are completely separate from city cores. The question of young people in these neighborhoods has been a feature of French politics at least since 2005, when two teenagers were electrocuted hiding from police in a power station in Clichy-sous-Bois, on the outskirts of Paris, and riots spread across the country. Kids would head out in the evening to torch cars and throw rocks at police, doing almost all their damage in their own already marginalized neighborhoods. Although the state has launched one plan after another to rehabilitate housing projects and reinforce security, little has been done to create jobs or promote greater social integration.
One night as I was walking to dinner in Marseille I came across a demonstration against police brutality. The crowd was young, and people were holding flares and a banner that read: “What do the police do? They rape, kill, mutilate.” These kinds of protests have multiplied in recent years, spurred by several incidents in which young men of color have been killed or brutalized in detention. It is widely acknowledged that French citizens of immigrant origin are discriminated against in housing and employment, stopped by police for questioning many times more frequently and treated more brutally. Yet French law and political culture is deeply suspicious of any mobilization on the basis of race or religion. This is often condemned as communitarisme, a pejorative terms that implies forming a closed community around a sect or ethnicity, which is seen as undermining the universal values of French citizenship.
“When I hear communitarisme, I see the national assembly,” Rania Majdoub told me when I met her in a café in Marseille. “Mostly white men.” Majdoub is an activist with the Indigènes de la République (Native People of the Republic), a radical group that tries to raise the issue of race and, as they say, to “decolonize the political system.” People of color are “present yet absent” in France’s political discourse and face an “internal war,” said Majdoub, who is Tunisian but has lived in France for a decade and is applying for citizenship. For activists like Majdoub, France’s foreign policy and social inequality are “a continuation of colonial policies of exclusion and exploitation.”
“We talk about Islam so as not to talk about all the rest,” said Fatima Orsatelli, the activist and former conseillere régionale, who is herself of Moroccan origin. Orsatelli has long been worried about radicalization and the growing focus on religious identity, but she views these problems as part of a political failure. France has certainly witnessed a spread of Salafism, the ultra-conservative, literal interpretation of the Koran espoused and backed by Saudi Arabia and ISIS. In marginalized and troubled banlieues, religious opportunists have used Islam as a means to gain authority over communities and to accrue political power—often enabled by government officials in search of local intermediaries who can guarantee “social peace” and perhaps votes.
The problems in France’s banlieues are real, as Roy has emphasized, but to suppose that terrorist attacks are harbingers of a coming civil war, that Muslim fifth columnists in France will join forces with a global Islamist ideology to bring the West to its knees, is to indulge ISIS’s own fantasies. It is to overlook the ongoing integration of Muslim middle classes, the high number of mixed marriages, the growing number of Muslims elected in local municipalities. The weakness that terrorists expose is “the weakness we attribute to ourselves,” Roy says; their sharpest weapon is the fear of Islam.
This strikes me as true, although I found it remarkable how common it has become in France today to invoke a looming “civil war,” both in trepidation and also, it seemed to me at times, with a sort of excited wistfulness—so seemingly strong is the desire to lance the boil, to have a reckoning of sorts.
That reckoning has been averted, for the moment. On May 7, Macron beat Le Pen handily in the second round of voting. But the Front National isn’t going anywhere. Le Pen won nearly 11 million votes, twice her father’s total in 2002. Her party wants to enlarge its presence in the next parliament. And over a third of French voters abstained or filled in blank protest votes—the highest such percentage since 1969.
Mourad Radi, like most residents of the housing projects, voted for Mélenchon in the first round and Macron in the second. When I called him the day after the results were announced, he was relieved at Le Pen’s defeat. I reminded him that he had said he might vote FN.
“I say that every time,” he laughed, “out of anger. Then when I get to the polls it’s another story.” In fact, he said, there was “an enormous line” at his polling station—people were there to vote against Le Pen more than for Macron. Radi doubted the new president would bring change to Kallisté. “He’s a capitalist. No one knows him. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Photo credits: Lorie Shaull, Mathieu, Blandine Le Cain, Z S, Mémoire2cité, Selden Vestrit (Flickr/CC BY)