Marseille's cultural clash: Far right gets unlikely lift in Muslim quarters

Part 1 of 3: In Marseille, one of France's most multicultural cities, the anti-immigrant National Front is moving from the fringes into the mainstream with the support of disenfranchised Muslims, amongst others. 

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
National Front Senator and Marseille 7th Sector Mayor Stephane Ravier (l.), along with FN-allied politician Nicolas Bay, speak to reporters in Marseille, France.

France, like much of Europe these days, is in a period of social tumult. Far-right parties like the National Front are gaining ground and influencing local governments. Muslim immigrants face worsening Islamophobia. And the outrage that many Muslims feel about Western and Israeli policies in the Mideast is fostering a very old problem: anti-Semitism. Marseille, a multicultural city on the Mediterranean, offers a vantage point onto these related issues. 

Today, the Monitor reports on the National Front's rise and its unlikely supporters. 

Marseille has always stood out as an atypical French city. In many ways, that’s been a criticism. A port city in every sense, it’s poor and scrappy, rough around the edges.

But where Marseille has always fared well is in inter-religious and -ethnic relations. An amalgam of peoples, from the Greeks who settled here 2,500 years ago, to Italian refugees escaping fascism, to Algerians after independence from France, "Marseillais" have always been forced to live together, giving rise to a multiculturalism that seems more harmonious, at least on the surface, than in other French cities.

And yet it is in this region where the anti-immigrant, far-right National Front (FN) party finds one of its strongest bases. Last month the party managed to break through a national barrier, sending two party members to the French Senate, both of them from the South of France. It marks a key victory for a party that seems increasingly mainstream. 

But it has caused worry in this Mediterranean enclave that the careful balance of “cohabitation” that has defined Marseille living will tip.

Across Europe, political parties sharing the FN's positions have gained ground, promising to kick out immigrants and say “no” to the free flow of people that is a cornerstone of the European Union. And these groups are tapping into the growing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that are testing the limits of European tolerance.

“They talk about who is French and who is not, even for people who were born here,” says Norya Amezza, as she walks through the city’s main North African market in the center of Marseille. “They create divisions."

Ms. Amezza, a cheerful tour guide who was born in Algeria but raised in France since she was a year old, works with the volunteer organization Provence Greeters. “Marseille until now has been relatively peaceful. But with what is happening in Syria or with Palestine and Israel, you can have the beginnings of a problem even here.”

Far right ascendant

To understand why a region that is promoted as the epitome of French multiculturalism is drawn to the FN, head to troubled northern Marseille, a mixed area of middle class French families and newly arrived immigrants, mostly of Muslim descent. On a recent day, the groups mingle easily, at the bus stops and local bakeries that dot the community.

But this is the city's 7th sector – one of the eight subsections of Marseille, each with its own municipal government – that voted in a FN mayor in this year's elections, one of the more shocking political stories of the year.

Resident Louis Fornerone, who is of Italian descent, explains why he was drawn to the party after voting for years for the center-right UMP. “The National Front is winning here because of immigration, it's that simple," he says, blaming immigrants for increased crime and being a drain on social spending.

These are old laments, especially with Marseille’s historic ties to Algeria, a former French colony. What has changed, say Muslims here, is that the FN is no longer considered fringe, but a viable political option for French who once would have been hushed about voting for the party.

The FN isn't only capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment, which can often appear anti-Muslim because the two groups usually coincide in France. It’s also public disgust with mainstream parties on the right and left. Surprisingly, even many Muslims voted for the FN – not unlike Mexicans in the US who have become zealous anti-immigration advocates. Though Muslims largely voted for President François Hollande, a Socialist, in 2012, many felt deceived by his government's weak economic performance and legalization of gay marriage, which the FN condemns.

“I still can’t understand how the National Front pierced the (7th sector) where there are so many Muslims,” says Ali Timizar, a long-time leader of the Algerian community in Marseille. “It shows that neither the right nor the left has responded to the citizens of these neighborhoods.”

The mayor of the sector, Stephane Ravier, who is also one of the two new FN senators of France, says that his victory does not mean an institutionalization of of discrimination or intolerance in Marseille. “That is a fear,” he told the Monitor. “But that has been stoked by adversaries.” His message is that immigrants living in France should adopt and live by French values.

A broad appeal

But others say his victory could signify divisions. The 7th sector “should be a model of multicultural France but instead it elects the FN's Stephane Ravier as mayor,” says James Shields, an expert on France’s far right at Aston University in the United Kingdom. “It now faces a six-year period of FN local government challenging any multicultural narrative that might have gained ground in Marseille.”

Just like Britain's populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the FN appeals to both sides of the political spectrum, from well-heeled conservatives to former leftists in post-industrial France, says Sylvain Crepon, an expert on the party. That's the main reason both are such a threat to the mainstream political establishment. A recent poll showed its leader Marine Le Pen would easily win a presidential election if one were held today.

Upon Mr. Ravier’s senate victory, he expressed his party’s upbeat mood to the local media: "Now there is only one more door to push open, that of the [national government in] Elysee," he said.

But for the minority communities of Marseille, the future looks dimmer. Hamza Bensatem, a young high school student of Algerian descent, staged a protest of young students in Marseille after the FN won the most votes in European parliamentary elections in May.

“The party makes me afraid,” he says. And with all the tensions in the Middle East, especially the Islamic State, he says, he fears worse is ahead. "Each time there is a beheading, it's another vote for the FN."

Tomorrow: How Islamophobia is alienating Marseille's Muslims.

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