Few conurbations in Western Europe have been as thoroughly rejected by their own elites as Marseille.footnote1 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.’footnote2

To the visitor, Marseille appears to be an enigma: a city founded some 2,600 years ago which seems to have little or no history. One of the most entrenched clichés about it maintains, indeed, that Marseille has repeatedly made a blank slate of its past. Proof of this is located in the fact that the majority of Marseillais are of immigrant origins, whether recent or distant: Italians and Greeks arrived in large numbers in the 19th century, followed by Armenians, Spaniards and Kabyles in the early 20th and, in the postwar period, by Corsicans, Algerians, Pieds-Noirs, Tunisians, Comorans and others; at present, an estimated 150,000 of the city’s population is of North African origin. But far from being erased, Marseille’s civic culture persisted alongside these waves of immigration, which assimilated that culture and enriched it in their turn. The capacity for assimilation, however, has been markedly reduced by the disintegration of the city, its culture, its social and urban fabric. Absence of memory does not, of course, mean absence of history; merely that the latter has been written by the victors—and that Marseille as a city has been defeated.

The process of civic disintegration has been a long one. Founded by Greek colonists from Phocaea around 600 bc, ancient Massalia became one of the most significant ports in the western Mediterranean, under Hellenistic and Roman auspices alike. From the 5th century ad, periodic bouts of plague and pillage drained the city of much of its importance, but around the year 1000 it began to regain its former prominence as a mercantile hub. By the mid-12th century, the Arab geographer al-Idrisi could describe medieval Marselha as ‘a small town, but with an urban character; it is surrounded by vineyards and cultivated fields. It is built on the slope of a mound of earth which overlooks the sea.’ For a time, the city was able to secure virtual independence by balancing the suzerain claims of the counts of Provence and Toulouse; but by the mid-13th century it had been absorbed by Anjou, and through a combination of warfare and medieval dynastic statecraft was effectively incorporated into France in the late 15th century. Annexation by Paris brought a gradual shrinkage of the city’s autonomy, culminating in full subordination to the absolutist state in 1660.

Marseille remained fractious, however. Indeed, after the Revolution of 1789 its 120,000 inhabitants reclaimed their earlier civic independence so energetically that they were accused of ‘federalism’ and threatening the unity of the Republic. In 1794, a four-man delegation from the Convention even decreed that the name of this ‘criminal commune’ be erased; the city was to be known as ‘Without Name’ until it was allocated a new one.footnote3 Political pugnacity was rooted in a deep sense of local particularity. The Marseille dialect of Provençal for centuries resisted the metropole’s push for linguistic standardization; as late as the mid-1800s, when Marseillais had to make a trip beyond Avignon they would say they were going ‘to France’.

In medieval Marseille, as in other Western European cities, urbs and civitas had coincided: the inhabitants of the town constituted a political community, the city. One could say, schematically, that if the civitas was liquidated by the French nation-state—which required the dissolution of all existing forms of community in favour of atomized allegiance to the state—the urbs has been dismantled by capitalism. While the first phase took several centuries, the second has unfolded much more quickly. Today, the rupture with a thousand years of urban history seems to have been consummated. What follows will trace the relentless progress of Marseille’s destruction—a process which gathered pace amid the deindustrialization of the postwar period, with the neoliberal era bringing a renewed assault on the urban fabric.