Multicultural Marseille opens window into France's religious tensions

The challenges that France must address as it moves forward from last week's terrorist attacks, including the Charlie Hebdo office, have long been on display in Marseille. The Monitor's Paris bureau chief reported on growing Islamophobia and anti-semitism there last fall.

Claude Paris/AP
Thousands of people attend a demonstration at the Old Port of Marseille on Saturday in solidarity with the victims of last week's terrorist attacks in and around Paris.

“I have the feeling that I was born in a bad time for Muslims.” – resident of Marseille, Hamsa Bensatem

“The risk [against Jews] is not theoretical, it is unfortunately real.” – Grand Rabbi of Paris, Haim Korsia

“[The National Front] creates divisions. … with what is happening in Syria or with Palestine and Israel, you can have the beginnings of a problem, even here.” – resident of Marseille, Norya Amezza

These were the words spoken to The Christian Science Monitor last fall, as we embarked on a three-part series on new threats faced by multicultural France. They were spoken with chilling foresight, preceding last week's terrorist attacks in and around Paris that have since mobilized the globe.

The hundreds of thousands of French residents who came out into the streets of Paris on Sunday were an overpowering display of unity Sunday in the face of a week of terror widely referred to as France’s 9/11. The sight of 50 world leaders marching arm-in-arm with French President François Hollande down a Parisian boulevard sent a message of resoluteness: we will not be cowed.

But the attacks, the response, and how the nation moves forward come at a moment of social fragility in France and across Europe. The terrorist attack at the hands of jihadist radicals, punishing the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for lampooning Islam, threatens to bring a fresh wave of discrimination against Muslims, who were already feeling unfairly singled out. A yearlong stream of news about the self-described Islamic State wreaking havoc in the Middle East has only worsened sentiments, leading to a growing conflation of Islam and terrorism.

Jews have felt just as under threat in France. The Gaza conflict last summer led to hateful riots and some of the worst displays of anti-Semitism seen in recent history. Jews called it a watershed moment, a worrying display of public radicalization that desperately needed a moderate answer. They feared worse was to come. When a jihadist gunman with ties to the Charlie Hebdo attackers killed four hostages at a kosher grocery store in Paris on Friday, their fears were proven right.

And in the midst of all of this, populist parties are poised to find new fertile ground. The National Front in France does not voice an overtly anti-Muslim message, but that’s the message it sends. One person was notably missing at the rally on Sunday in Paris: Marine Le Pen, head of the FN. Her absence was a small sign of the deep political division and turbulence that lies ahead.

We chose to look at Marseille for our three-part series because, as a gateway to the Arab world, the city has long been France’s multicultural capital. The diverse racial, religious, and socio-economic groups who carve out their lives there are a microcosm of French and European society at a time of social and political tumult and geopolitical conflict in the Middle East.

Marseille has much to teach Europe about integration and tolerance, but it’s also vulnerable. As Hagay Sobol, a local Jewish leader in Marseille, put it in October: "The model of cohabitation in Marseille, that is ancient and that has until now worked, is starting to break down with radicalization.”

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