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Violence Seizes French Port City


As President Hollande's government tries to make some impression on the Syrian problem, they're also dealing with unrest at home. The city of Marseille has been rocked by violence recently. Twenty people have died in gang shoot-outs since the beginning of the year - many of the people killed with AK-47s. The violence seems to be fueled by drugs and turf wars in the city's housing projects. This week, the French government held a crisis meeting on the situation. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us from the old port of Marseille. Eleanor, thanks for being with us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, it's great to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And describe to us what's going on there.

BEARDSLEY: There's been 20 people killed, like you said, with AK-47s. There's a huge juvenile delinquency problem here. This is the capital of chain and purse snatchings. And I've actually seen horrible surveillance video of just young kids that look to be 14 years old just beating up old people and snatching their gold chains. And somebody told me, you know, they're dealers at 16 and they're in gun battles by the age of 20.

But behind all this are social issues. You know, this is France's second-largest city, but it's France's poorest city. Fifty percent of the people here live under the poverty level. Unemployment is high. The dropout rate, you know, in schools is very high. It's an immigrant city - it's always been an immigrant city - but they keep coming. The city is divided between the rich and the poor. And so, you know, you have all these social tensions. And the killings are going on in the north of the city where you have these housing projects all over the place. And a lot of them have become no-go areas for the police. And, of course, there aren't enough police and the police are underfunded. So, these are some of the problems behind what's going on.

SIMON: I know you've been out talking to a number of the people who live in those areas where the violence is worst. What are they telling you?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it's funny because Marseille residents are distressed. I mean, like, something's got to be done; this town wasn't like this. But some people just shrug and they say, you know, we've always lived with it. Because this is a working-class town, it's a port town, it's a gritty, tough place. So, they say, you know, we'll live with it. And I've talked to Mohammed Zianni(ph). He opened a business in one of the tough neighborhoods, and this is what he says about it.

MOHAMMED ZIANNI: Right now in Marseille, it's like Chicago in 1930 - gangs, violence, drugs. And you can find the Kalashnikov for 500 euros. It's crazy.

SIMON: How do they get AK-47s and other weaponry into Marseille, the port?

BEARDSLEY: Well, someone told me today they're flowing in from the former Yugoslavia. That's where most of them are coming from, and from Russia. And so I think they're coming in through land even, not by sea.

SIMON: Eleanor, what's it like to be there?

BEARDSLEY: Right now, I'm looking at the yachts in the harbor. It's also a working port. The mountains, the Mediterranean arid mountains, rise up behind it; the capital of European culture for 2013. So it's a very cultural city with beautiful buildings and, you know, opera. And they're going to have the biggest pedestrian area in Europe in 2013. But then you have this ugly underbelly, this dark side of lawlessness, going on behind all this. So, it's really kind of a complicated, divided place.

SIMON: French central government says they're going to deploy a couple hundred more police officers to Marseille. What kind of difference might that make according to the feeling there?

BEARDSLEY: Some people said, you know, what are a couple of drops of water in the ocean? They say it'll do nothing. And we've talked to some policemen and they say, you know, kids drive without licenses, they ride their motorcycles without helmets. These are small crimes but one policeman told me, he said, you know what? We need to have zero tolerance 'cause these small delinquencies are leading to the bigger crimes. There's not enough police to crack down on what's happening here. And so they're happy that the government is at least addressing the problem.

SIMON: Eleanor, how important a story is this, urgent an issue is this, in France? President Hollande, Socialist, came to office with an economic agenda. Is this an issue that's on the front burner?

BEARDSLEY: Oh, yes. It absolutely was given the government's top attention because they had a huge crisis meeting on it this week. A Socialist senator called for the army to be sent into Marseille, and that just shocked people because that would be not something that a Socialist would usually say. So, it's absolutely been a very big news story.

SIMON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Marseille. Thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, Scott.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.