Marseille, the highly diverse port city in the South of France and the second-largest city of the country, is often portrayed as a multicultural Garden of Eden, a cosmopolitan melting pot where all people irrespective of creed or color live together mostly peacefully.
When the youth riots in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities took hold of the nation in 2005, Marseille held its breath — to then exhale slowly when Marseillaise youths did not join the uprisings. To many, this was a sign that the city, where it is estimated that every fifth person is born abroad and about every third person is Muslim, was doing something right in fostering social cohesion among a diverse population.
Had these riots occurred in the 1980s or 1990s, though, Marseille youth likely would have participated. At that time, Marseille was in an urban crisis facing a shrinking population, high unemployment and a high crime rate. The city then engaged in an active attempt to reinvent itself socially and economically and adopted a mix of urban and social policies: starting to invest in deprived areas in the city center and the north that are mostly inhabited by migrants; trying new approaches to build relationships between the police and inhabitants of disenfranchised areas; engaging in interfaith projects run by the mayor; starting mentor projects to increase youth employment; voting Muslim political representatives into office; and engaging in an overall branding of Marseille as a cosmopolitan city, celebrating the diversity with cultural festivities.
However, make no mistake: economic and social contrasts, youth unemployment, segregation, and interethnic and religious suspicions still abound in Marseille. It is also a city where not everyone likes the road of cosmopolitanism: the Front National, the French far-right political party of Marine Le Pen, received more than 40 percent of the vote in one Marseille election last year. It is an illusion to think that there can ever be a city without social friction, but this should not stop cities from trying to become a Garden of Eden.