I HONESTLY THINK September 2014 - Page 72

Nobody has ever told me to avoid Paris because it’s too dangerous, despite the tendencies certain arrondissements have towards rioting and car-burning. Telling people that they’ll get shot if they go to Marseille is as unfair as warning people off London in case they get mugged. By focusing on crime and dilapidation, we risk overlooking an exciting, lively and, in some places, genuinely beautiful city.

violence and rampant drug abuse) come with statistics attached. As a place to settle down, Marseille has its risks. Most of the places I discovered and fell in love with are in the south of the city, which is comparatively affluent. The big problems – and we are talking about serious problems, like a third of all French murders occurring in and around Marseille – are concentrated in the northern districts. But even in the north, Marseille is improving.Its residents and its politicians are determined to combat the social problems that have led to high crime rates and whatever they are doing appears to be working. School dropout rates are falling; at one college they have gone from 15% to 3% in just two years thanks to a successful campaign from its head-teacher, Rania Moussaoui. Unemployment has also dropped by nearly 10% in the past 20 years and last year the French government announced that they were investing €7 billion euros into Marseille, especially into education, policing and infrastructure.While many consider this a cynical move on behalf of President François Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to gain votes for the Socialist Party, the Marseillais don’t seem to be particularly bothered. Money is money and some areas are already reaping the benefits of the huge regeneration project.

So no, Marseille is not perfect. Far from it. But I am reluctant to dwell for too long on its imperfections when there are so many wonderful parts of the city to explore. The Marseillais take pride in their city, so much so that in 1760 they marched to Paris singing a song about it. That song is now the French national anthem.In the face of gangs, organised crime and political corruption, the Marseille sense of community has only strengthened. Of all those people who so vehemently warned me against Marseille, none of them had actually been there. Most were from northern university cities or the more affluent parts of Paris and hadn’t been further south than Lyon. It’s easy to concentrate on the scary parts of a city when you haven’t experienced its great ones, like its hugely diverse population and ambience of vibrancy and openness.

Steps to le Cour Julien, 6th arrondissement, Marseille

Picture credit: Clara Guest

Rowena Ball

View from Gare St Charles, Marseille

Picture credit: Rowena Ball