Cosmopolitan Marseille is fiercely proud that its housing estates did not erupt in the violent rioting of the Paris suburbs in 2005. Many felt it was because youth are fiercely proud of their Marseillais identity in a city that is not split into the ghettoes of racism of the Paris outskirts. But despite Marseille's ongoing transformation, its poor are struggling to stay afloat and gun-toting criminals are back in the headlines.
Three young men were shot dead in a car waiting at traffic lights in northern Marseille two weeks ago. It was the biggest single death toll of a series of murders over drug feuds and turf wars. "Marseille has always had organised crime, but in the past month we've seen an acceleration, a much greater density of attacks and murders," said Jacques Dallest, the state prosecutor. He listed 70 gun attacks this year. The number of armed hold-ups of boulangeries, small grocers and tobacconists in Marseille is rising so fast that the government has stepped in with special measures.
Across France, from Grenoble to Ajaccio, the number of feud murders by hitmen rose from 58 in 2007 to more than 120 last year. But Dallest said criminal execution-style killings remained Marseille's "regrettable speciality". On Tuesday night , "La Brise de Mer", the Corsican gang that has dominated the Marseille crime scene, saw one of its biggest godfathers murdered by a sniper. He was the second major godfather killed in Corsica in less than a month. On Marseille's northern housing estates, social workers say poverty has worsened the problem. More than 20% of the city's population live below the poverty line. Although Marseille has recovered from the 1990s horror years of industrial decline and acute unemployment, joblessness still exceeds the national average. Local politicians warn that some estates have more than 40% youth unemployment and there is an "underground economy" of drug deals and turf wars. When Fadéla Amara, the minister responsible for overhauling France's estates, visited Marseille's high rises last week, she was assailed by residents complaining about run-down housing and the lack of hope for the young. "Where there is poverty and no prospects for young people, crime seems like an option, a way to climb the social ladder, and Marseille has always been a good university of crime," said the Marseille thriller writer Xavier-Marie Bonnot, who has made several films about the city's underworld. Drugs have long been central to gang crime in a city that boasts the biggest port in the western Mediterranean. After the second world war, Marseille gangs known as the "French Connection" ran vast illegal laboratories processing heroin coming in from Turkey and the east. By the late 60s, about 80% of heroin in the US was trafficked from Marseille. In 1971, the figure of the Marseille drug baron was immortalised in the Hollywood film the French Connection, and for a decade, the city's criminal gangs killed each other in vicious feuding. A drug trafficking trial last month showed that although Marseille is no longer a heroin or drug processing capital, it remains at the centre of the trade in cannabis coming into Europe through Spain from Morocco. The city is also a key point in the cocaine smuggling route into Europe from South America through west Africa. Local police have warned that members of the new generation of criminals are ready to use automatic weapons over the slightest drug trafficking rivalry.