Social Equity in Marseille

Our second module focused on social equity in which we focused on the re-development efforts of Marseille’s port and made a trip there to experience the social inequality that still pervades French society.  In order to understand this, we need some background information.  Marseille is the oldest city in France dating back around 2600 years; this makes it more of a Mediterranean city as opposed to a French city, where the fifth republic was established as recently as 1958.  Marseille has a significant Muslim population, mostly from North Africans and other immigrants that have flooded the city from French colonization.  Their colonization efforts attempted to compete with other European cities led them to North Africa and the Caribbean islands.  However, these colonizations were primarily Islamic and each had its own cultural background.  So, although these people may have French citizenship, it is almost impossible for them to assimilate into the dominant French culture – of traditional white, Catholic French.  This leaves massive amounts of poverty and unemployment due to the social exclusion from French society.  Our hostel was situated right in the middle of all of this, because public housing in Marseille is centrally located and not on the periphery of the city like most cities.  Our walks home were always interesting experiences, there are tons of beggars and people just hanging around the street (which is surprising given France’s massive social programs that are supposed to protect the poor, collecting as much as 70% of a persons income through taxes) and trash is everywhere. It was pretty appalling how there is no pride in their community to even take care of the streets that they spend everyday living on, but once you get beyond all of this Marseille is a very interesting and diverse town which made this a really unique experience seeing it firsthand.

The entire port is currently under construction, with much of the development being completed by 2013 since Marseille has been delegated the Mediterranean cultural capital for 2013.  There are tons of project going along with this, and billions being spent on infrastructure.  However, it’s hard to see whom the government is really trying to help after seeing all of the poverty firsthand.  The new modern high-rises and renovations of the business district all seem like they will bring commerce into the city, however most of it is currently vacant, so it seems like a hopeful attempt of building infrastructure with business to come in the future.  After our trip to Zurich, I began to ponder the question of how they went about coming to the decision to build two modern staple skyscrapers among the already existing traditional European façade the city has.  It appears as if the government is purely trying to improve the city’s economy and draw wealthy people into the area, displacing the current poorer residents.  We saw public housing units protesting the proposed demolition of their building in order to create room for a hotel.  So, it was seemingly transparent that the majority of middle and lower income residents would be against all of this construction that could displace them from their homes.  In Zurich, Dr. Sigrun Rohde explained the extensive pre-planning they endure in order to get the opinion of all of the citizens in an area that is the focus of development.  For instance, I thought that the participation process for a proposed allotment garden was extremely innovative.  They held a public “promotion day” where residents of all races and backgrounds were welcome to express their ideas and hopes for the project, a “garden dream factory”.  Mixed participation from the community as a whole, here, is a key.  However, this sort of participation holds true in Switzerland with their direct democracy so the citizens are used to participating in governing themselves.  We never learned about the pre-planning of Marseille’s development, but it seemed as if the government felt that this was the most effective way to increase economic growth over the long-term without taking the city’s residents’ views into account.  Only time will tell, but the massive expansion of Marseille could put the city on a more global scale, or at least make it a highlight of the Mediterranean.  But, the poverty and social exclusion are pervasive and evident in the society and there is a long way to go for a Muslim, despite making up between 30-40% of the city’s population, to feel comfortable in the city which is constantly favoring native white, Catholic French.

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