The City of Marseille Rises Up in the Face of Collapse



On November 5, 2018, two poorly-maintained housing building collapsed in Marseille, killing eight people — this, when the city is the site of aggressive gentrification. The residents have risen up to protest the ever-growing urban inequalities.

Translated from French by Chanelle Adams.

On Wednesday December 5, 2018 at 9:05AM, a crowd of two hundred people united in downtown Marseille, not far from the site where, just one month prior, the apartment buildings at 63 and 65 Rue d’Aubagne collapsed. Those that gathered were there to observe 9 minutes of silence: 8 minutes for those who died in the collapse (Chérif, Fabien, Julien, Marie-Emmanuelle, Niasse, Ouloume, Simona, and Taher) and a 9th minute for Zineb Redouane, 80, who died at the hospital on December 1, after a tear gas grenade struck her 4th floor apartment located just mere meters from Rue d’Aubagne.

From Emotion (l’émotion) to Riot (l’émeute) ///

The fatal grenade that struck Zineb Redouane was fired by the police forces that were suppressing the protests. The demonstrators came out in large numbers to denounce Marseille’s substandard housing conditions and to demand action from city authorities — especially regarding the 1,500 people hastily evacuated from their apartments by the city authorities who fear more collapses.

Ever since the fateful day of November 5, Marseille’s city center has been pulsing with the movement of evacuations and demonstrations in solidarity with the families of victims and evacuees. During an otherwise solemn demonstration of mourning on November 14, the Saturday following the collapse, grief gave way to rage. A packed crowd marched down Rue d’Aubagne, passing by the rubble of the collapsed buildings. Emotions palpably rose as the procession progressed, resembling a riot by the time the crowd arrived in front of the city hall. There, the protestors’ projectiles and smoke bombs were met by police officers ready to go to enormous lengths such as the deployment of tear gas. The repression was brutal. The prefecture called in a special brigade (the Anti-Crime Brigade, BAC) to handcuff protesters and beat anyone that came within reach of the baton, including ordinary passerbyers and people seated at nearby cafe terraces.

The highly repressive and punitive response to legitimate expressions of anger only further discredited the legitimacy of the municipal — most recognizably, Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin (holding office since 1995) who has been held responsible for the dilapidation of downtown Marseille. Slogans such as “Gaudin, murderer!” and “Gaudin, resign!” were among the chants of during the mobilization on November 14 and subsequent demonstrations on November 24 and December 1, protests which also turned into riots. The anger of the inhabitants has remained strong in the face of the municipality’s negligence. As essayist, activist, and well-known figure in Marseille, Alèssi Dell’Umbria, reminds us: “it is no coincidence that the French words for riot (émeute) and emotion (émotion) have the same etymological root.”

Chekkat Funambulist
March organized on November 10, 2018 in Marseille to pay tribute to the eight victims of the collapse of the housing buildings in Rue d’Aubagne. / Photo by Gerard Bottino.

Anger in response to the city’s unsuitable housing has only been intensified by its convergence with the already ongoing struggle for the Plaine neighborhood (located next to where the buildings collapsed). For several months, inhabitants have mobilized against the city’s reconstruction project for La Plaine, the large, emblematic market square in Marseille. The market at La Plaine that drew largely low-income crowds was recently shut down by the municipality — a preliminary measure in a wide-sweeping urban renewal project to develop the neighborhood (“requalification de la place”) by chasing out the poor in order to put in a new road to attract large retailers and increase the value of the surrounding buildings.

The struggle for Marseille’s Plaine neighborhood (“la bataille de la Plaine”) already faced a major blow when the mayor decided to cut down the century-old trees and erect a 2.5 meter tall wall to permanently prohibit access to the square for residents. The operational costs are estimated at 20 million euros (not including the cost of site monitoring by permanent police and private security). “20 million to destroy la Plaine, and not one cent to save Noailles [where Rue d’Aubagne is] — Who stands the most to gain?” could be seen written across a large black banner during the demonstrations following the collapses on Rue d’Aubagne.

The last, large, working-class city in France ///

For at least two decades now, the people of Marseille have regularly spoken out to denounce city center’s dangerous, dilapidated housing conditions due to general the lack of city funding invested in the city center — a dynamic which has left neighborhoods such as Belsunce and Noailles to fend for themselves.

 Marseille is undoubtedly the last big, working class city in France. While the poor have mostly been driven out of the centers of Paris and Lyon, the Phocaean city of Marseille, with nearly a million inhabitants, remains the last exception. Although most city centers are similar in France (paved streets, streetcars, luxury stores or belonging to major retailers, bourgeois buildings, etc.), Marseille continues to shelter modest neighborhoods in its historic center, just a stone’s throw away from the Vieux Port where tourists come to roam all year long.

The past 150 years have seen a permanent war against the poor, all the way back to when Haussmann-style buildings were erected on Rue de la République, the street adjoining Vieux Port. Similar types of city planning aimed at driving fishermen, sailors and immigrant populations out from the city center have multiplied. The most spectacular example of this during WWII when Saint-Jean and “little Naples” were destroyed by actions of the German Army solicited by French local authorities resulting in the expulsion of 25,000 people from their homes.

Throughout these terrible historical events, the cohesion that was once present in the historic center through its streets, squares, and places has been destroyed. Evictions and the closing of many businesses were carried out without long-term political vision and no real desire to re-invest in these neighborhoods, which found themselves abandoned. The municipality does not know what to do with the old buildings in the city’s center and its inhabitants, and has opted to just let the situation deteriorate. Until the collapse of November 5, that is.

The Shock Strategy /// 

Known by some as “Chicago-Marseille” for harboring organized crime, Marseille appears to be an anti-modern city in many ways, notably due to its rampant corruption. Since 1947, the clientelist political regime has had a solid presence. After the great post-war workers’ insurrection, the socialists and the liberal right-wing bourgeoisie formed an alliance against the Communist Party, aware of its power at the time. Socialist Gaston Defferre, who had run the city for three decades, laid the foundations of Marseille’s clientelist system — one in which the union Force Ouvrière plays a pivotal role. The resulting clientelist system operates on a mafia-style modality, highlighted by the tragedy on Rue d’Aubagne and the calamitous crisis mismanagement that has ensued.

Since November 5, the municipality has only perpetuated disorder with evacuations of hundreds of buildings, often resulting in eviction. Notes hastily placed at apartment building doorsteps — without even a stamp or official signature — alerted occupants to leave the premises as soon as possible. Roughly 1,500 people became homeless overnight. Some have since been relocated into hotels, as a temporary solution. Many residents are finding themselves having to fend for themselves in the absence of more long-term solutions. The funds allocated to those in need are far from the necessary amount. Confusion reigns as city hall communication remains convoluted and contradictory.

The evacuation of buildings — mainly in the city center, but also on the outskirts — has had the effect of dispersing residents, breaking bonds of neighborhood solidarity and mutual aid that have been woven over time. The empty, precarious buildings will likely be demolished and handed over to real estate projects with the intention of attracting new residents with higher incomes. Far from calling into question its unjust practices, this crisis of unsafe housing is being used by the city government to carry out a project of “revitalizing” Marseille’s city center. The convergence of movements deepens the legitimacy crisis of local authorities who are currently now sitting on more than 60,000 vacant homes. The struggle for Marseille, against a backdrop of widespread protest across France, is far from over. “Marseille, stand up, get up!” the crowds chanted into the streets on December 1.