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Strangers In Marseille

Updated Wednesday, 26th March 2008

When burning cars and race riots tore at the fabric of France, how did its most diverse city manage to escape unscathed? In the second programme in The Open University’s new broadcasting partnership with Thinking Allowed, Professor Laurie Taylor explores the unique racial geography of France’s second city.

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Marseille is France’s major port and over centuries has been defined by the waves of immigrants that have settled in the city – Tunisians, Moroccans, Algerians, Italians, Armenians, Jewish communities, and now Eastern Europeans and Indian Ocean immigrants too. It is also a stronghold of Le Pen’s National Front. When race riots took off across France in 2005, and again in 2007, Marseille was expected to explode. It did not.

French social scientists have claimed that the cause of the peace was not racial integration, or an acceptance of a 'French way of life' but exactly the opposite: a wary separateness that each ethnic community retains, coupled with a civic pride that regards Marseille as being somehow foreign from the rest of France.

In this second Open University co-production, Laurie Taylor will explore the distinctive racial geography of inner-city Marseille, where immigrant communities are situated in the heart of the city, rather than in the marginalised banlieues that fringe other urban areas of France.

From block to block different ethnic groups create a patchwork of contrasting cultures in a truly diverse city. However, a new project to gentrify the centre of Marseille and drive a Champs-Élysées-style avenue through it is threatening to uproot these communities and push ethnicity out. Laurie Taylor travels to Marseille to explore whether the culture of the city is under threat and whether separateness is really a benefit to the immigrant cultures there.

Laurie will be talking to social scientists including Gilles Ascaride, Philippe Vitale, Anne Lovell and Mohamed Tozy, who specialise in researching race and culture in Marseille. He will also visit people who live in Marseille to see how history and geography affect the day-to-day reality of life and to discover how foreigners remain strangers in France’s second city.

Laurie Taylor said: "I remember being in a bar at a seaside resort a few miles away from Marseille and wondering why the television was not showing an important football match involving Lyon. I asked someone at the next table why no-one was interested. After all, Lyon was a leading French team. 'We're not interested in France', the man told me. 'We come from Marseille'.

"It is this sense that Marseille is somehow separate from the rest of France which possibly explains why the city is so under-represented in travel books and in most analyses of how France manages its ethnic diversity - even though there are no other towns in the country that can boast such a complex historical and contemporary racial mix. I hope that my visit there will do something to throw light on its unique culture. It is an exciting prospect".

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Listen to the Marseille programme
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