Photo Gallery: The Waning of an Integration Success Story

Foto: Julian Finney/ Getty Images

The French Experiment Integration Worries Threaten to Upend Cultural Harmony in Marseille

For decades, the southern French port city of Marseille has been a model of successful integration. But with the debate over immigration now flaring up around France, the era of harmony could be coming to an end.

The mistral wind blows gently across the hillside as four old men play boule under plane trees. Behind the slaughterhouse, the Mediterranean looks calm and peaceful.

That's where the immigrants come from, says Monsieur Ghoul says, pointing at the blue waters. They come on ferries from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The white walls will probably be the first thing they see, he adds, the walls of what will be Europe's largest mosque, a beacon for the ships from North Africa -- and their passengers.

Imam Abderrahmane Ghoul, 51, stands among poppies and yarrow. He makes a gesture in the air above the Mediterranean with his strong hands, sketching the outlines of a large-scale project that, if completed, will become the Grand Mosque of Marseille. Ghoul is the president of the "Association for the Construction of the Mosque," the group spearheading the drive to realize the project.

More than anything, the project has succeeded in triggering a debate over social policy -- and one that stretches far beyond the overgrown grounds of this former slaughterhouse. In fact, this same debate is preoccupying the entire country and perhaps even all of Europe. Public debate is once again focused on how many immigrants France can tolerate and whether different religions and peoples -- the Christian French and the predominantly Muslim North Africans -- can peaceably coexist.


Photo Gallery: Crossing to Safety


French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a public debate on the issue, even giving it an official title, the "débat sur la laïcité" (the "debate on secularism"). Its stated goal is to discuss the separation of church and state. But the real issues -- Islam's status in France and Sarkozy's prospects in next year's presidential election -- are completely different.

Intergration on Hold?

Abderrahmane Ghoul is a French citizen. He arrived in Marseille in 1965 on a ferry from Algiers. As a native Algerian, he says he always felt the sting of French colonial arrogance. Still, he succeeded in making a life for himself in Marseille as a vendor, and the city became his home.

But things are different now. "The truth is that we really can't live here anymore," he says, adding that Muslims are being marginalized and vilified these days, even in Marseille. For Ghoul, the fact that the mosque project that he and his organization have been championing still hasn't materialized is emblematic of the failure of integration.

Since the mosque's groundbreaking ceremony in May 2010, nothing has happened. Not a single excavator or crane has appeared on the site. Representatives of the far-right National Front party have filed a lawsuit against the project and, in June, Ghoul will have to appear in court for the third time. Although he's convinced that the court will once again dismiss the right-wingers' claim, the project still can't move forward while the case is still pending.

A Model of Successful Integration

As home to an estimated 4-6 million Muslims, France has the largest Muslim minority of any European country. More exact figures are not available because compiling statistics on immigrants' ancestry would contradict the republican principle of egalité. Marseille, as the center of Islam in France, is home to an estimated 250,000 Muslims, out of a total population of 860,000.

Under these conditions, the Mediterranean city has become a laboratory of the modern age, a large-scale field experiment on how the social systems of North African refugees and Frenchmen can coexist. As a result, it also offers a perspective on what currently has the inhabitants of southern Europe so concerned.

Marseille is now home to a second and third generation of immigrants. Though not everyone loves the Arabs, there's no denying that they have become an integral and everyday part of the city. If they were suddenly gone, Marseille residents would find themselves missing more than just the Arab souks and colorful market stalls. Likewise, when riots consumed the suburbs of Paris, Lyon and other French cities in the fall of 2005, things stayed relatively calm in Marseille. The port city was considered an "exception," a model of successful integration.

A City on the Up-and-Up

At no point in recent years have the immigrants kept Marseille from rising to the status of a "ville à tendance," a city where people would want to live. Unemployment has dropped by almost half since 1995, when it stood at 25 percent. Real-estate prices have skyrocketed, and the Rue de la République leading from the Old Port to the train station is now a boulevard with bright Haussmannian facades -- and without the drug dealers who used to congregate there.

In recent years, the city has also invested heavily in culture, renovating its art nouveau opera house as a guest venue for small theater productions. In fact, Marseille has been designated the "European Capital of Culture" for 2013.

Since the turn of the millennium and the introduction of the new TGV high-speed rail connection, the trip from Paris to Marseille has taken only three hours. Haughty Parisians suddenly discovered Marseille, which was no longer seen as a hotbed for organized crime and cronyism. Instead, they found it colorful, lively and authentic. In fact, the once primarily African Panier quarter above the Old Port now bears an uncanny resemblance to Montmartre, even down to the small streetcar traversing its narrow streets.

"Marseille is simply becoming more and more beautiful," says Jean-Claude Gaudin, who has been the city's conservative mayor for the last 16 years. The silver-haired 71-year-old is standing on a green carpet in front of a picture-postcard setting, with the Cathédrale de la Major to his right and a snow-white cruise ship to his left.

Gaudin has just completed a dedication ceremony for a 1,000-meter (3,280-foot) tunnel connecting the new port with the Old Port, or Vieux-Port. The giant construction site bears the auspicious name "Euroméditerranée." Covering a total area of 480 hectares (1,056 acres) and boasting €7 billion ($10 billion) in investment volume, the tunnel is the largest urban-development project in southern Europe.

A Dream Destination for Africans Escaping Turmoil

Gaudin is proud of his city, of the tunnel and the restored museums. And he has always been proud of how different religious communities have been able to live together in harmony, which he has encouraged as mayor since the 1990s.

In 1990, fears of the repercussions of the first Intifada in Israel prompted city officials to launch an initiative called "Marseille Espérance" ("Marseille Hope"). Since then, the spiritual leaders of the various religious groups have worked together to avoid conflict. For example, when anti-Semitic slogans were sprayed onto a synagogue's walls, an imam publicly expressed his regrets to the Jewish community. And when a bus fire killed four Muslims, a rabbi sent his condolences.

All of this has made Marseille into a dream destination for refugees from North Africa and especially for those from the Maghreb region. But the latter are precisely the people who European politicians have been insisting pose a threat to Europe. This is especially the case in the wake of the turmoil in the Arab world, which is making more and more of them determined to cross over the Mediterranean to Europe.

France 's Refugee Capital

When the city awakes early in the morning, men dressed in green jumpsuits spray the sidewalks, and the lobster tanks are set up in front of the brasseries. Already at this early hour, the battle over the travertine steps in front of the prefecture has begun. This is where the illegal immigrants -- referred to in France as "sans-papiers" ("without papers") -- spend the night, hoping to get their hands on one of the 10 residence permits issued each day by the Departement Bouches-du-Rhône.

For weeks now, the line of people waiting for permits has extended for almost 100 meters, all the way to the driving school around the corner. The immigration office opens at 8:15 a.m. Marseille is believed to have more refugees than other French cities, even more than Nice and far more than Paris or Lyon. They cross the border from Italy by train  or arrive by sea from North Africa on speedboats known as "go-fasts," which usually carry drugs and a few illegal immigrants.

On this morning, the fight for the first few spots in front of the narrow glass doors begins at 6 a.m. Two burly police officers stand guard over the waiting immigrants. Ounkunle Ayoola, a 25-year-old from Lagos, Nigeria, has been here for three days, fighting to get his permit. He has finally secured one of the first slots, only to discover that the prefecture will not be processing any more asylum applications today. He says he'll try again tomorrow. Marseille is so pretty, Ayoola says, so pretty and warm.

Melded Identities

Adila Zeghar, 26, was born in Tunisia, grew up in France and is now a French citizen. The petite woman is sitting in a café at the Old Port, not far from the prefecture. When she was two, her parents sent her to Marseille to live with her grandparents. They are proud of her today, and Zeghar says she is thankful, thankful to be living in this city, where dinghies and yachts rock back and forth in the harbor and where people can sit outside on terraces all year long -- and thankful to be a Frenchwoman.

Zeghar went to school here, got a university degree and found her first job, a full-time position as a graphic designer. She says she didn't experience any racism but adds that "maybe it's because I'm a girl." Zeghar is wearing skinny jeans and a blazer, and her hair is uncovered. She is a practicing Muslim, doesn't drink alcohol and says that "one of these days" she will go to pray five times a day, as is required in Islam. She can't imagine marrying a non-Muslim man -- and she can't ever imagine returning to Tunisia.

For Zeghar, Tunisia is merely "the country where I was born" and where much of her family still lives. Like so many others, one of her cousins would like to come to Marseille. Though she is concerned about the growing fear of Islam and the possibility that Muslims will be marginalized, she still hasn't tried to dissuade him. She says that the discussion that has been held in France for months over national identity and the banning of headscarves have hit home among Muslims, "even though there are so many of us here," especially in Marseille.

For Zeghar, Marseille is a place where it is perfectly normal to have a Jewish best friend, a Senegalese neighbor and an Armenian baker. It's also a place where there are 95 organizations advocating on behalf of the various minority groups, such as the "Amis de Cameroun" (Friends of Cameroon) and the "Marseillais ivoriens" (Marseille Ivorians). But since Sarkozy came into office, Zeghar says that the fragile coexistence has started coming apart at the seams and that even the opposition has started voicing its worries about whether immigrants are successfully integrating.

The model has worked for a long time, says Pastor Frédéric Keller, who is organizing the annual meeting of the Espérance religious leaders. In fact, in a remark that sounds almost threatening, he adds that there is no alternative. He says that a city like Marseille must be able to integrate the various communities into society at large if it wants to prevent its much-touted social harmony from vanishing.

Keller feels that it is irresponsible of Sarkozy to deliberately sow fear among the population. He says that France only knows two extremes: republican hypocrisy or agitation. At the moment, the National Front is polling at about 30 percent in Marseille, and some of those voting for the far-right party are even immigrants who have become naturalized French citizens.

The Integrating Power of Sport

In Marseille, there might be only one place where people can happily coexist outside the confines of religion and ancestry: the stands of the Vélodrome Stadium during a match played by Olympique Marseille, or "OM," the city's premier-league professional soccer team.

In fact, everyone agrees that the football club is the city's real "integration machine," uniting blacks, whites and "beur," a terms used to describe the French-born children of immigrants from the Maghreb. In 1998, when Zinedine Zidane, the midfielder of Algerian descent who was born in Marseille, shot the two goals that secured the World Cup for France, a reporter asked him whether he felt more like a Frenchman or an Algerian. "I am first of all from La Castellane and Marseille," he responded, referring first to a suburb in the northern part of the city.

Zidane always wanted to play for OM, but he never got the chance. In 2010, the club was the champion of the Ligue 1, the premier league in France. When things are going well for OM, the entire city is in a good mood.

For 20-year-old Salim Laassami, the club is "chez moi," his home. When he as eight, his family moved to Marseille from a small Algerian village. "From the very beginning, all I ever did was play soccer," Laassami says. He plays full back now for OM, though he spends most of his time on the reserve bench. Before being recruited by OM, he played for five smaller regional clubs. It was proof positive that integration could also be achieved on the football field. Zinedine Zidane was his role model, he says, just as he is now a role model for others, including his youngest brother. Laassami still lives with his family in a neighborhood next to La Castellane.

Colorful articles of clothing hang out to dry on balconies and the turquoise color of the sea shimmers in the distance. But, otherwise, the suburb where Zinedine Zidane grew up looks bland and monochromatic in the morning sun. Four boys are playing football on a tennis court. One is wearing a blue Olympique Marseille jersey that is several sizes too big for him. It bears the number 10 on the back, the same number as Zidane's.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan