Drugs, violence and racism are creating a ‘cocktail of neglect’ in Marseille

Ahead of the French presidential election early next year, Marseille looks set to become a battleground for candidates to show their commitment to addressing socioeconomic problems, with several pledges made by various parties amid much fanfare.

Poverty, racism and isolation are deeply rooted in the poorer areas of Marseille, where residents say a lack of opportunity and state neglect leads to some young people becoming involved in trafficking drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.

Fatima is just one of the many whose family has been torn apart by the epidemic of drugs and violence, with her husband and son being killed in quick succession in 2009 and 2010.

She didn’t want her real name to be known, for fear of becoming a target for drug traffickers who are keen to clamp down on people speaking out, and also to protect her young children.

Fatima is desperate for justice for her loved ones, and to get out of Marseille. Twelve years later though, she’s still there and little has changed — and she doesn’t know if it ever will.

‘He was found in my car’

Fatima’s son was just 22 years old when he was shot dead. She says he’d been involved in drug trafficking, and had served prison time after he was caught selling drugs.

“He picked a lot of fights, my son. A lot of fights,” Fatima told CNN. “People were scared of him. When they saw him, they’d all run away… he didn’t even need a knife to scare them.”

In June 2009, Fatima’s son was killed. Their son’s death affected her husband very badly, she says, and he became determined to find out who was behind it.

Less than a year later, in May 2010, Fatima said her husband had just brought the couple’s four remaining children back from school when he received a phone call and left the house.

A burned car sits in a parking lot in the Les Rosiers neighborhood in Marseille, southern France.

“He was found in my car. Only his head was left, everything else was gone. His shoulders, his sides, his stomach had all been completely destroyed,” Fatima says.

The two killings within less than a year of each other left Fatima to raise her remaining children alone; and the killers of her loved ones have not faced justice.

The long wait for justice has taken its toll on her.

“I’ve gotten old. I don’t show it, but even if I’m joking around or working it’s still difficult for me,” she says. “I devote my life to the children I’ve still got and I’m particularly scared for the boys.”

‘Young drug traffickers aren’t criminals’

Fatima is not alone in feeling this way in Marseille, where the northern neighborhoods are marked by drug trafficking, shootouts and high crime levels, meaning residents often fear for their lives.

Although crime levels in Marseille are lower than they were five years ago, according to police figures, the victims of shootouts are getting younger — and many of the structural problems including poverty and isolation have barely improved.

That’s why some victims’ relatives are pointing to the root causes of the issue, saying the drug trade is just the tip of the iceberg.

Amine Kessaci, 17, believes working-class youth in Marseille turn to drug trafficking because it provides a respite from the deeper problems faced by the northern neighborhoods.

“Young drug traffickers aren’t criminals,” Kessaci told CNN. “They’re victims. Victims of the system that has left them forgotten and jobless in these neighborhoods. Victims of poverty, victims of the cockroaches, dirt and rats in the neighborhood. Victims from homes where there is no internet, no heating and no elevator even on level 21.”

A woman walks past graffiti on a wall reading "State lets us down" in a street in Les Marronniers neighborhood in Marseille in August 2021.

Kessaci’s brother, Brahim, was also 22 years old when he was killed — just like Fatima’s son. In December 2020, his body was found burned. Kessaci says authorities have told him four people have been charged in connection with the killing, but the family is still waiting for a trial.

Although Kessaci says his family knew his brother was involved in the drug trade, Brahim never spoke of it out of “respect” for his family.

Kessaci believes many of the problems stem from the fact that the northern neighborhoods are often neglected by the state, creating fertile ground for drug trafficking.

Philippe Pujol, a Marseille-based journalist and writer specializing in the northern neighborhoods, agrees and says his reporting shows that most victims come from working-class North African and Comorian communities.

“The people consuming drugs aren’t doing it for pleasure here,” he told CNN. “They’re doing it to get away from their difficult lives — it’s a consumption of misfortune. And that’s linked to the fact that there are no jobs.”

‘A cocktail of neglect’

Pujol says racism and discrimination toward members of the North African community are rampant in Marseille.

“It’s much more difficult to find a job when you’re North African and you live in the ghetto,” Pujol says. “When you say your name and your address, you’re already off to a bad start.”

He isn’t alone in voicing this opinion. Nasser Rebouh, a 22-year-old who lives in the Bassens neighborhood visited by Macron last month, says he has been unable to find consistent work despite years of searching, and believes it’s due to racism.

“They put us in the ghetto and leave us there, without checking if we’re alright and whether we’ve got something to eat,” he says of the government. “No, they just leave us here and that’s it.”

President Emmanuel Macron waves to locals in the Bassens district next to Marseille's Mayor Benoit Payan (center) during a visit to the southern port city on September 1, 2021.

Other young people agree. Hassen Hammou, who created the collective “Too Young to Die” after one of his friends was killed in a shootout, says conditions in Marseille are a result of a “cocktail of neglect” resulting from poverty, poor education in the local schools, and a lack of public services and police presence.

“All these decisions have put our neighborhood at risk,” he told CNN. “And when you decide to understaff the local police force, you create that. You create this other France, this other Marseille that we know.”

Hammou remains skeptical of Macron’s intentions in visiting Marseille and whether his plan will achieve anything, highlighting the fact that the neighborhood of Bassens was cleaned up just hours before the President visited.

Like Hammou, Rebouh also has recent experience of losing a close friend to the drug gangs — just a month ago. According to Rebouh, his friend wasn’t involved in the drug trade, but was “collateral damage” — simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I could go out to buy a loaf of bread and find myself with a bullet in the head,” Rebouh says of the violence in his neighborhood. “That’s our daily reality… We’re forced to live like this, we don’t have a choice.”

Rebouh also alleges there is racism even in police handling of drug trafficking, and claims he and his friends have been arrested before simply because the police didn’t manage to catch the real suspects. As young men of North African origin at the scene, he says the police arrested them despite there being no evidence, although they were later released.

However, Frédérique Camilleri, police commissioner for the Bouches-du-Rhône department to which Marseille belongs, tells CNN in response that there are systems in place for citizens to flag any acts of suspected racism by police officers.

The entrance of Les Marroniniers neighborhood in Marseille, southern France.

“There is no systemic racism in the French police force,” she says. “Quite honestly, the police force in Marseille reflects general society and we don’t make those kinds of distinctions. The job of the police is to arrest the criminal, whoever it is.”

Although Camilleri acknowledges that “poverty, isolation and a lack of prospects are an ideal ground for criminality” in Marseille, she is focused on solving the drug crisis, and is adamant that “nobody has abandoned the northern neighborhoods.”

‘The youngest ones kill each other’

When 14-year-old Rayanne was killed in August, it proved to be somewhat of a turning point in public attitudes to drug-related violence in Marseille, and it was followed by two more shootouts in quick succession. Macron’s first visit followed just a few weeks later.

Rayanne is thought to be the youngest French victim of drug-related violence to date, and in Macron’s speech in September he said the killing had “shocked” the nation.

Speaking to CNN affiliate BFMTV, his family insisted he was not involved in drug trafficking, but was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. An investigation into “assassination by an organized gang” is underway, BFMTV said.

Camilleri says the victims of violence are getting younger, because ruthless traffickers find younger people easier to recruit to the drug trade.

“Generally, we find younger people at drug trafficking points, because traffickers who live abroad and pull all these strings employ more vulnerable people and pay them less to do this grueling and dangerous job that they shouldn’t be doing,” she says.

However, she insists the situation is improving, with police figures in Marseille showing 16 “settling of scores” incidents so far this year, compared to 26 in 2016. Camilleri says more than 800 drug dealers have been arrested this year In Marseille, an increase of 50% from last year.

Local inhabitants and police officers stand in front of a wall in Marseille displaying prices of drugs during a visit by President Macron (unseen) on September 1, 2021.
Involving younger people is advantageous for those at the top of the drug chain, says the journalist Pujol, as they are easier to exploit and more likely to avoid legal consequences. In France, the law dictates that minors under the age of 16 cannot be given more than half of an adult sentence, and benefit from the “excuse on the grounds of minority.”

“The strategy of the dealer is to get them into debt,” Pujol says. “And when they have a lot of debt, they try to set up their own little deals, and that creates a lot of competition… The youngest ones kill each other, and it’s the most violent who survives.”

According to the police, targeting consumers is key. They say most charges are for cannabis, while some are for harder drugs like cocaine and ecstasy. A new measure allowing on-the-spot fines to be issued to consumers has led to 1,000 fines in Marseille in the last year.

Monitoring the sale of weapons is harder, as it involves uncovering international networks and the weapons themselves are not expensive, Camilleri says, adding that the Marseille police force seize around 200 handguns and 200 long guns every year.

In August, Marseille Mayor Benoît Payan told FranceInfo that buying a Kalashnikov was “as easy as buying a pain au chocolat,” and called for the state to make the issue of gun control a national priority. CNN sought comment from the mayor multiple times; he declined to comment.

‘It’s never too late’

In his September speech, Macron told Marseille’s leaders he was demanding public involvement from the city’s residents and innovation — and that he would be back to check on them in October and again in February 2022. He’s kept his word so far, and returned to the city for another visit in mid-October.

The French President praised Camilleri’s work in reducing crime rates in his speech, saying, “The figures are good and they’re improving. But there’s an increasingly violent form of crime that’s largely linked to the drug trade.”

Although he promised “it’s never too late” and pledged “between 3 and 4 billion euros” ($3.4 to $4.5 billion) in aid for the city, of which more than $9 million (8 million euros) will be used to supplement the police force, many citizens remain skeptical.

Police commissioner Camilleri says several hundred more police officers are scheduled to arrive in Marseille on the orders of the interior minister, and spoke of a “feeling of closeness” between the police and citizens, united in their fight against the drug trade.

This isn’t necessarily reflective of how citizens on the ground feel, though — especially given Marseille’s historical role as an election battleground for potential leaders of the country.

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“I’m not sure there is any political will,” Pujol says. “Because as soon as there’s an election, we make use of the working-class areas to speak about violence, immigration, jobs, and the people who allegedly don’t want to work.”

Marseille has already been used as a talking point by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, seeking to defeat Macron in the upcoming elections after losing to him in a run-off in 2017.

Writing on Twitter in August, Le Pen said there was “only one solution” to the “savagery and drug trafficking” of Marseille, calling for stricter border controls to restrict immigration.

The problem doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon — with around half a dozen incidents of murder since Macron’s first visit, although only one has been classified as a “settling of scores” by police so far.

Kessaci, the youth activist, points out that Macron is far from the first French head of state to try and tackle Marseille. He is frustrated by the lack of consultation with residents in Macron’s plan — and says that’s why he’s skeptical about change.

“We’re in the middle of this war between the left and the right, and we just keep watching, we get killed,” he says. “In the middle of all these politicians, there are human lives at stake. As long as people who’ve never lived it are making the decisions, they’ll never understand.”

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