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New Left Review 75, May-June 2012

alèssi dell’umbria


Few conurbations in Western Europe have been as thoroughly rejected by their own elites as Marseille. [1] This article is based on extracts from Histoire universelle de Marseille: De l’an mil a l’an deux mille, Marseille 2006, with additional material supplied by the author; thanks to Editions Agone for their assistance. France’s second most populous commune, with 850,000 inhabitants—almost twice the size of Lyon or Toulouse, the next largest—it is today widely seen as the last great working-class city in the country; a fact which recently acquired positive connotations, but has more commonly been noted with nose held. More than any of the usual stereotypes and clichés, it is the experience of contempt that defines the city’s identity. ‘Proximity to Algiers has made Marseille too barbarous’, wrote one delicate observer in 1647; in 1793, a member of the National Convention delegation sent to bring the city to heel announced that ‘Marseille is incurable unless all its inhabitants be deported and it receive a transfusion of men from the North’. Two centuries later, little had changed: at the end of the 1980s, a tv anchor could roll out a dubious stock joke: ‘What is the first Arab city the Paris–Dakar rally passes through?’ Answer: Marseille. Though the city became fashionable in the mid-1990s, this did not mean an end to the contempt; quite the contrary. In November 2003 Claude Valette, the mayor’s deputy in charge of town planning, declared: ‘We need people who create wealth. We need to get rid of half the city’s inhabitants.’ [2] Interview in Le Figaro, 18 November 2003.

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Alèssi Dell’Umbria, ‘The Sinking Of Marseille’, NLR 75: £3

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