SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Coming up, pension backsies, but first, in the three-week wave of unrest that swept minority neighborhoods throughout France last month, one city was notably spared, the bustling colorful southern port of Marseilles. The town is one of the country's highest concentration of immigrants, but following a centuries-old tradition, the residents of Marseilles do not live in segregated communities and they demonstrate a stronger sense of loyalty to the city than to the nation. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this report.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:
Marseilles was founded more than 2,600 years ago, long before the French nation. Surrounded by hills, it faces south on the Mediterranean Sea and virtually turns its back on France. The city has always had an independent streak. Guide Coreen Semasian(ph) relates how in the 17th century, King Louis XIV came to Marseilles to quell a rebellion.
Ms. COREEN SEMASIAN (Guide): This is the reason why we have that city there, San Nicola. The cannons were turned toward the city and not towards the sea in case of invasions but just to control our population. (French spoken)
POGGIOLI: The city of "French Connection" fame has a bad reputation in the rest of the country. It was often run by gangsters and is seen as a haven for shady activities. Marseilles has always been more interested in trade than in highbrow pursuits. It has 800,000 residents. Three hundred thousand are of Italian origin. Two hundred thousand are North African Arabs. Eighty thousand are Jewish. And there are large communities of Comorians, Armenians, Turks, Vietnamese and Chinese. Soheib Bencheikh is the mufti, the Muslim leader of Marseilles.
Mr. SOHEIM BENCHEIKH: (Through Translator) Marseilles is a port and it is the portal of France, the waiting room for integration. Here you have many communities over many generations. People here are not disturbed by strange or foreign behavior of others. That is not the case in the rural parts of France.
POGGIOLI: Every year, 40 percent of all immigrants who come to France arrive in Marseilles.
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Unidentified Singer: (Singing in French)
Backup Singers: (Singing in French)
Unidentified Singer: (Singing in French)
Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)
POGGIOLI: This is a weekly program on Radio-Gallier, a community-run station. Contrary to the rest of France, there are many non-white journalists in the local media. Host Nafesa Segerat(ph), who is of Algerian origin, says the program is aimed at giving young new arrivals of different ethnic groups a forum for dialogue.
Ms. NAFESA SEGERAT (Host, Radio-Gallier): (Through Translator) We want to give them a chance to talk themselves and where they come from, their first encounters here, what was positive and what was negative, their job search and how they're integrating with the society. Has France lived up to their expectations, and, most of all, their dreams?
POGGIOLI: Programs like these go against a long-standing French tradition that does not acknowledge ethnic differences. And in Marseilles, city authorities are also less observant of the French principles that ensure strict separation between church and state. The municipality gives grants to associations that have some religious or ethnic connotations and it has created a task force called Marseilles Hope. Whenever there are problems between communities, the mayor calls in the leaders of all the faiths not to talk about religious issues but to try to resolve social and political tensions and restore calm. And in a country that firmly rejects the notion of affirmative action, the Marseilles police force has many agents of North African origin. One of the main promoters of outreach to minorities is deputy mayor Michel Bugat(ph).
Mr. MICHEL BUGAT (Deputy Mayor, Marseilles, France): We must stay in the reality, not in what we want and what the whole France want. We must be very realist if we want to move to a good society for our children.
POGGIOLI: Bugat is a doctor by training. Ten years ago, his 15-year-old son was killed on the street by a homeless Moroccan teen-ager. Since then, Bugat has dedicated himself to preventing delinquency in the poor immigrant neighborhoods. He says one of the reasons Marseilles did not experience unrest in November can be found in its particular urban structure. Unlike other cities, its minority neighborhoods are not distant outer suburbs but are centrally located. Young people of different social classes and ethnic backgrounds hang out in the same central squares.
Mr. BUGAT: Marseilles is a melting pot, a real melting pot. In our ghettos, they exist, of course, but they're inside the urban net. That's the reason. The link between people and between communities is still very, very strongly alive and better than in other towns.
POGGIOLI: But Bugat acknowledges the city's main problems. There's 14 percent unemployment and community relations are not perfect. Twenty percent of the population, white French people, vote for the extreme right.
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Unidentified Singers: (Singing in French)
POGGIOLI: This outdoor marketplace is in the center of Marseilles. Arabic music is played in a halal butcher shop. Nearby, fishmongers yell out their wares with the rolling R's of the Marseilles dialect. Customers wear a variety of attire--a white djellaba of a North African, a long black overcoat of an Orthodox Jew, a blue blazer of a French yuppie. Huad Hasami(ph) was born in Algeria and has lived here for 30 years.
Mr. HUAD HASAMI: (Through Translator) I know every corner of Marseilles. This is the real Mediterranean, a crazy mix of people: Italians, blacks, Arabs, Turks, Greeks, Corsicans. It's great here but not with the French. I don't feel French, but I do feel like a citizen of Marseilles.
POGGIOLI: But there are cracks in the picture. Marseilles is not isolated from the rest of France. In the marketplace, one can hear bitter comments (French spoken), disparaging references to the French interior minister who many here see as a symbol of French discrimination against minorities. Municipal authorities are aware that they can maintain peace in Marseilles only by quietly bending the rules. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
As France suffered weeks of riots last month, the colorful southern port of Marseille was spared. The city has one of France's highest concentrations of immigrants, but residents there do not live in segregated communities.
Diverse Marseille Spared in French Riots
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Though France suffered three weeks of widespread rioting last month, one city was spared: the colorful southern port of Marseille. The city has one of France's highest concentrations of immigrants, but residents do not live in segregated communities and have a stronger sense of allegiance to the city than to the nation.
Of Marseille's 800,000 residents, 300,000 are of Italian origin, 200,000 are North African Arabs, 80,000 are Jewish and there are large communities of Comorans, Armenians, Turks, Vietnamese and Chinese.
Contrary to the rest of France, there are many non-white journalists in the media. The police force has many agents of North African origin. The ethnic neighborhoods are not isolated, but centrally located. The municipality also gives grants to associations that have some religious and ethnic affiliations.