Mediterranean Connection

Marseille, France's oldest city - and one of its poorest - uses its year in the spotlight to reinvent itself.

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The man kicking our minivan and yelling threats through the firmly closed windows resembles the French film star Romain Duris. His lantern jaw is smudged by dark whiskers, and a pugnacious sneer contorts his street-tough features. You can’t blame him, entirely. It’s a June rush hour in Marseille, where my fellow journalists and I have just arrived, and to escape the traffic jam along the Vieux Port (the city’s original harbor, now a forest of pleasure-craft masts), our driver has swung a quick illegal U-turn, nearly knocking the man off his bicycle. Even so, the violent rant continues far longer than most such confrontations, and I realize I’m not surprised. France’s oldest and second largest city, and one of its poorest, Marseille has long had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble backwater, known for its French Connection heroin trade, gang violence, and street crime.

It’s partly justified. According to an article in the UK’s the Independent last September, the city has a huge divide in life expectancy: The risk of dying before age 65 is 23 percent below the national average in its affluent areas—and 30 percent higher in the impoverished northern districts. Yet these statistics belie a metropolis in transformation. Since the Euroméditerranée urban renewal project—the largest in southern Europe—began in the mid-1990s, Marseille’s long-dormant waterfront has become the centerpiece of a thriving new business district. The arrival of the high-speed TGV in 2001 cut rail time from Paris from four and a half to three hours, and 17 trains now arrive daily; this year, XL Airways introduced twice-weekly nonstop flights from New York City during the May-through-October high season, making Marseille the natural entry point for the surrounding Provence region. And as this year’s European Capital of Culture, the physically graceful city—with its expansive bay and high hills, reminiscent of San Francisco—is hosting an expected eight million visitors and hundreds of events, many in new, architecturally distinguished venues. How did Marseille go from the French Connection to this?

MuCEM, with a slender footbridge connecting the seventeenth-century Fort Saint Jean to Rudy Ricciotti’s dazzling new extension, is an exciting symbol of Marseille’s cultural initiatives.

Photo: courtesy Lisa Ricciotti

The story begins in the early 1990s, when the city’s situation was similar to that of once-great maritime capitals the world over. In the nineteenth century, with thriving French colonies in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, Marseille’s proximity to North Africa made it an ideal link to all of Europe. With the original port confined within the city and unable to expand, a new commercial harbor was built in the mid-1800s just to the north and west, along the open waters of the Bay of Marseille, ushering in the city’s golden age. But the end of the colonial period in the 1960s, persistent dock-workers’ strikes, and the relocation of most port activities to Fos-sur-Mer, some 30 miles to the north, put an end to the glory days. By the 1970s, “Marseille was dirty, gray, and dangerous,” according to our guide, Mika Biermann, a German who came to the city three decades ago to study art and never left. “As a student, I could rent a 200-square-meter flat on the best street in the city because no one wanted to live there.”

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