Marseille, with a population of something under a million, is France’s second largest city, and, as the BBC reported last year, “it’s likely to become the first Western European metropolis where the majority of the population will be Muslim.” With a candor for which it has not always been known, the BBC acknowledged that “Marseille can appear dirty, poor and covered in graffiti,” and that, moreover, it’s riddled with crime, with whole neighborhoods living under the authority of “criminals, not the police,” who have long since given up trying to maintain law and order. But the BBC was quick to add, in what has become a familiar media formula where such cesspools are concerned, that Marseille is a “rich, vibrant, colourful city which many hope can become an example of how multiculturalism can work.”
That a city made up increasingly of no-go zones can be a model for anything is, of course, a sad joke, but, as we know, there is a widespread need nowadays to embrace and promote this kind of hooey. Never mind that things got so dicey last summer that the mayor of two districts of Marseille asked for the government to send in the army and, as the Telegraph reported, “set up roadblocks around neighbourhoods to vet inhabitants for weapons and drugs ‘like in times of war.’” The Telegraph noted that back in 2011 Marseille’s public prosecutor had warned “that parts of Marseille were like ‘the favelas of Rio.” To be sure, the Telegraph also felt obliged to flavor its report with a pinch or two of the usual hogwash about Marseille being a “vibrant Mediterranean melting pot” and so on.
Leave it to the New York Times, however, to provide the definitive snow job on the city by the sea. On October 4, the Gray Lady’s Michael Kimmerman served up a piece about Marseille – which he hailed as “the secret capital of France” – that was a masterly example of just how to make negatives sound like positives. Calling Marseille “a stubbornly glorious melting pot of seediness and sun,” Kimmerman said that this “is precisely why it’s so wonderful.” You can just see all the Times subscribers in their Upper West Side breakfast nooks looking up excitedly at their spouses, their cups of latte trembling in their hands, and saying: “Oh darling, let’s go slumming in Marseille!”
Yes, Kimmerman acknowledged the high crime levels, but was very skillful at providing bogus “perspective.” For example: “Baltimore’s homicide rate is higher.” Yes, but (1) it’s not all about homicide stats; (2) if you aren’t a gang member and stick to the right parts of Baltimore you’ll be safer than in the corresponding areas of Marseille; and (3) the Times, last time I checked, wasn’t trying to pass off Baltimore as “gloriously seedy.” Kimmerman also made the ingenious argument that people in Marseille “like to exaggerate the crime; it’s part of their contrarian nature, burnishing the city’s tough image.” Uh, OK.
But the line that Kimmerman really seemed to cotton to was the one pushed on him by one Minna Sif, a Moroccan-Corsican-French writer who proudly boasted that “Marseille resists becoming bourgeois by its nature.” Its residents don’t “regard themselves as Moroccan or Corsican first; they become Marseillais.” (Funny, there’s no mention of them thinking of themselves as French.) “Its soul is multicultural,” Sif said. The message could not have been more brilliantly tailor-made for a certain kind of perennial Times reader, for whom multiculturalism is a blanket excuse for every variety of malfeasance, however dire, and for whom nothing, in any event, could be worse than being tagged as bourgeois.
Kimmerman did give some space at the end of his piece to a waitress who, countering his rapturous rhapsodies about the city, told him that “Marseille is a nightmare” and that she and her husband “would leave in a second if the opportunity were right.” But, in a slick, barefaced effort to utterly discredit her testimony, he noted that as he departed the restaurant, he saw her chatting with customers and “roaring with laughter.”
In the comments field below Kimmerman’s article, a number of French and other European Times readers congratulated him on seeing past Marseille’s violence and disorder to its supposed charms. But at least one reader, who called himself “Optimator” and who had just been in Marseille, felt compelled to offer a corrective to Kimmerman’s account:
I was walking alone around 11:00 pm carrying a small backpack and was attacked by two men. One ran up behind me and put me in a “sleeper hold” while the other gratuitously sprayed me with pepper spray. I fought them off and fortunately they fled without any of my belongings. This was just two blocks from Vieux Port, which I assumed would be relatively safe – even at night – since it is one of the most visited sites of the city.
I have walked alone late at night in several large (and small) cities throughout the world and never encountered anything like I did in Marseille. The city was even a little edgy during the day time with thousands of tourists and locals walking about. Some beggars are aggressive and do not hesitate to get in your face, and the smell on some of the busiest streets was worse than a sports stadium bathroom.
Perhaps I was being naive. Perhaps it was bad luck. Perhaps it was typical Marseille. For those traveling to “the secret capital of France,” take precaution when walking around even near the most popular sites. It isn’t as safe as one might think given its distinct reputation for culture.
No, “Optimator,” you weren’t being naïve or unlucky: you’re just too much of a rube, obviously, to appreciate the subtle pleasures of squalor, dirt, and grunginess. Alas, you don’t possess the requisite sophistication, the raffinement, to recognize that that sports-stadium bathroom stink to which you refer in such a crudely unreflecting and critical tone is, in fact, a scent as splendid in its own way as the finest perfume. Your problem – comprenez-vous? – is that you simply haven’t attained a lofty enough plane, either socially or culturally, to understand how downright exquisite it can be to experience nostalgie de la boue – which (take notes, now) literally means “yearning for the mud,” and refers to the estimable ability of rarefied, highly cultivated souls unlike yourself to enjoy the spectacle of their inferiors’ wretched, malodorous, crime-ridden lives. Nor, needless to say, “Optimator,” have you learned to recognize that a “multicultural” twenty-first-century burg, whose innumerable imperfections and myriad perils only make it all the more thrilling for an intellectually curious and culturally inquisitive foreigner, is by definition infinitely superior to an ordinary “bourgeois” town, with its deadly dull civil order – what genuinely worldly, adventurous visitor is looking for that?
To be sure, “Optimator,” you’re far from alone in your vulgar incapacity to savor the cultural richesse that has inundated France over the last generation or two. Among the other coarse souls who’ve failed to grasp how magnificent these developments have been is longtime journalist Ivan Rioufol, a fixture at Le Figaro for nearly three decades, who’s now being prosecuted for saying on radio – silly man! – that a new poster campaign featuring images of bearded Muslim men and veiled Muslim men, under the slogan “We are the Nation,” violates France’s secular spirit. (Has the Times covered Rioufol’s prosecution? Guess.)
Then there’s actor Alain Delon, the now 79-year-old star of Is Paris Burning? (ahem) and Swann’s Way, who let it be known the other day that he (along with 24% of French voters) supports the National Front, with its strict immigration platform – an indication, presumably, that he doesn’t find sheiks chic or share Kimmerman’s notion that “no-go” is the nouvelle vague. One can only conclude that Delon, like many other Gallic gentlemen of his generation, is nostalgic not for the mud but for the France of his youth – refusing, unlike Michael Kimmerman and other, more forward-thinking types, to accept that la vielle France is melting away, like the snows of yesteryear, and giving way to a brave new multicultural nation of which Marseille is, as Kimmerman so aptly puts it, the secret capital and vibrant symbol.
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