A Tale of Two Cities: Gentrification in France

Marseille and Nice are geographically similar and separated by a mere 200 kilometers. Dry chaparral vegetation gives way to sharp rocky cliffs and the cobalt blue Mediterranean.  Culturally however these two cities are quite distinct. Marseille is a bustling and diverse port city. It has a distinctive Mediterranean flare, and despite being the oldest city in France, seems less “French”. Ethnically the city is estimated to be between 25 and 40 percent Muslim (France does not keep official records on religion and it is a crime to do so). In recent years money has poured into the city in attempt to modernize the port area. This money is used for economic redevelopment and to more strongly tie the city with France.

Nice is best described by its unofficial anthem Nice la Belle or “Nice the Beautiful.” Unlike Marseille there is very little trash or graffiti on the streets. The main squares are filled with tourists and look culturally French. Designer chain stores such as Armani and H&M make up most of the retail. Expensive restaurants line streets on one side and artists sell their work on the other. The expansive stone beach and boardwalk draw tourists from the city to the Mediterranean’s edge. These amenities help make Nice the very embodiment of French bourgeois. Ethnically the city appears noticeably less diverse than Marseille. Since the cost of living and everyday expenses are much greater, low-income residents are priced out of these areas.

Despite these major differences the two cities do share some similarities. The “redeveloped” areas of Marseille are noticeably more “French” in appearance and design. Designer chain stores line these areas and the lone Starbucks in Marseille is found here. These “redeveloped” areas also have large billboards displaying artistic renderings of the future Marseille. The same billboards cover the now vacant public housing. This public housing was supposedly cleared for just the construction phase, but completion dates of 2010 on the billboards indicate different priorities. Many immigrants of Maghreb or Comorian descent previously lived close to the port in these areas and this redevelopment was supposedly for them. Why then does the public housing still sit unfinished and vacant while commercial portions remain open?

Much of the redevelopment process in Marseille involves making the city more “French” and drawing it closer to France. Why then does this appear to be synonymous with gentrifying low-income immigrants? Perhaps France is not quite the republican color-blind society it claims. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy used the word “racaille” (scum) to describe young ethnic protestors. These underlying ethnic tensions are not discussed or mentioned in France very much, but have a major effect on the immigrant population. Immigrants’ upward social mobility is hindered by prejudicial hiring practices where a non-French name on a resume can doom an applicant. They are then further marginalized by these redevelopment projects that often displace them from their homes and communities.

Marseille’s redevelopment is creating two cities. One city is the Marseille featured on National Geographic’s cover. In it the city is a described as a Mediterranean melting pot with unique social structures. These structures kept Marseille (an extremely diverse and large city) from burning in 2005 when the rest of France’s ethnic youth was rioting. The other city is the more “French” version that wants Marseille to essentially become a larger Nice. This city is responsible for a half vacant skyscraper that blights the skyline. In it business and commerce displace public housing from the city center. This second city is threatening to tear down some of the social structures that make Marseille unique. If redevelopment continues creating this second city Marseille may lose its unique cultural and social distinctions. Today people who live in the city pride themselves as being from Marseille, but in the future this sense of belonging may no longer exist.

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