(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Marseille 2

The town of Marseille is dishonest. That’s how it seems to me. And I don’t mean that as you might think. I don’t mean it because a friend of mine got pick-pocketed twice within an hour of arriving here. That’s ridiculous. That could happen anywhere. It certainly didn’t happen to me. The tangle of streets around the Gare Saint Charles that seemed so dangerous to the Americans, Czechs and French in the hostel, to me seemed friendly, approachable.

The town is dishonest in another way – perhaps a better word would be inauthentic. It is dishonest, or inauthentic, because it is neither France nor the Maghreb. It cannot be France because it is home to too many migrants from the Maghreb, North Africa (70,000 in 2006 according to one source). And it cannot be the Maghreb because it is not their home, it is France.

La Porte d’Orient. A memorial to dead people who fought in the East.

Because of the current economic condition of France, there are too many young Maghrebi men on the streets, just waiting to go home. That’s not a very restful state of mind and helps to create Marseille’s frantic atmosphere. Many are resentful of their French hosts and the feeling is mutual. It is nearing election time and last week Sarkozy declared that there are too many foreigners in France.

While waiting for the ferry to take me to Tunisia, I spoke to a friendly Tunisian man (a tautology if ever there was one: they are all friendly). He told me that French attitudes towards resident foreigners are going down. Scared by the prospect of the forthcoming elections, Sarkozy is blaming France’s high unemployment and faltering economy on foreigners. Cheap and nasty political rhetoric.

But with Ben Ali gone in Tunisia, my friend can return to his country. He can take his business near the Swiss border, take his taxes and leave. Tunisia is the gateway to North Africa and is the beneficiary of a lot of investment after the revolution.
 “I can say ciao to Sarkozy,” my friend says, bitterly.

“Ciao Sarkozy.”

Others are not so lucky. Every evening while in Marseille I went to an Algerian kebab shop right next to the hostel. It was cheap, E2.50 for a merguez sandwich, and the proprietor was friendly, always smiling, always joking. But he was dishonest, of course. No, he never short-changed me, but he never knew when to speak Arabic and when to speak French. Overwhelmingly, to other guests, it was Arabic. But we were in France, so to me he spoke French. And his smile disappeared when he spoke of Algeria. His gap-tooth grin morphed into a snarl of fierce pride.
 ‘Do you know Algeria?’ he asked me.
 ‘No,’ I replied.
 ‘Why not? It is a beautiful country, better than Morocco, better than Tunisia.’ He looked angry. All I could do was smile and say that I hoped to go there soon.

Marseille is dishonest because, even as the exterior is given a fresh lick of paint for its parade as the European Capital of Culture in 2013, on the inside it is tearing itself apart. It is France’s major link to North Africa, with all of the history, violence and despair which that entails. So how can it dare to reinvent itself as a tourist destination? It is the crucible of too many Maghrebi dreams: of freedom from tyranny and of return. It is dishonest as a place where people both yearn to arrive and yearn to leave. It is better than oppression, dictatorships or civil war – and it is nothing. These contradictions pull strongly in two directions and you pull together or you pull apart, to make use of a cliche.

Marseille’s football team is perhaps a symptom of this malaise. With so many North Africans, Marseille is the most tribally of supported teams in France. North Africans are simply more passionate about football than Frenchmen. But the team is a shambles. They have lost four games in a row, sit eighth in the league and last night were defeated by AC Ajaccio, a newly promoted team from Corsica. The feeling in the bar where I watched the match was anticipated deflation. A group from Lille sitting on the next table along covered their mouths to hide their laughter as the winning goal was bundled in via a deflection, a suspicion of handball and a static goalkeeper. The ball scarcely crept over the line. The bar rumbled threateningly.

Then there was a power cut. The bar cheered. Welcome distraction.

Not the Stade Velodrome. These kids might be better than the current hapless bunch.

What do you think?