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Drugs, violence and racism are creating a 'cocktail of neglect' in Marseille
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 28 - 12 - 2021

The southern French port city of Marseille has made headlines in recent months over the deaths of several young people in drug-related shootouts, in what is often referred to as a "settling of scores", according to a CNN report.
A spate of killings this summer, including that of a 14-year-old boy named Rayanne in mid-August, prompted two visits from President Emmanuel Macron in September and October and a promise of billions of euros to tackle the problem.
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, CNN said.
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.
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.
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.
"He was found in my car. Only his head was left, everything else was gone," 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.
'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."
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."
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.
Rebouh 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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
"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." — CNN


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