Deadly housing crisis enrages the people of Marseille

In today’s blog post, Leon Reichle reports and reflects on the recent collapse of residential houses in central Marseille, contextualizing it as an ugly face of urban redevelopment policies and arguing for the close attention that should be payed to the emergence of a movement of city dwellers determined to fight for housing justice.

In the city that hosts Europe’s largest urban redevelopment project (since 1995), the housing conditions of the poor have resulted in a deadly crisis. On the 5th of November Taher, Simona, Fabien, Niasse, Julien, Ouloume, Sherife and Marie have lost their lives under two crumbling buildings in the heart of Marseille. The rage about their deaths and the following mass evacuations gave birth to a movement full of interesting coalitions.

Economically, Marseille has never really recovered from the deindustrialisation and decolonisation, which the shift towards tourism economy cannot make up for. With an unemployment rate that is almost 50% higher than the national average, it is the poorest city of France, with over a quarter of the people living in poverty and many more very close to it. With its somewhat contradictory urban development, the European Cultural Capital of 2013 is also the only city in France, where the city centre has not been (fully) gentrified. At the time Marseille hosts Europe’s largest urban redevelopment project Euromediterranée since 1995, which wants to attract enterprises and create an “intelligent, connected and durable town” and is in line with the touristification of the city. How very durable this city has become under the rule of its republican mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, who has been in office for 23 years, is shown by the current housing crisis. Gaudin, who has earlier allowed himself statements in favour of the “replacing of foreign populations”, is now attacked for the policies that have left large parts of the city to decay, especially those housing the poor and several generations of migrants, by a growing counter movement.

Noailles, known for its markets and Maghreb shops and restaurants is a historic migrant and working-class district marked by the dilapidation of its houses. However recently its central market has been temporarily displaced in favour of an urban renewal program coordinated by a local society for urban renovation and a luxury hotel is under construction. In the little streets that still host informal markets, the police presence has visibly increased in the last years. Parallel to the ambitious renewal projects, the residential houses have continuously deteriorated up to a point where the state of the houses has become life-threatening.

On November 5th, two of the run down houses in Rue d’Aubagne, number 63 and 65 literally reached the breaking point. One of them, number 63, was abandoned, as it had been declared unsafe already in 2012, when the owners of flats were forced to sell to the city. “It is the same in many parts of the city, they just shut off the electricity at some points and board the houses up”, says Martha, a young teacher that used to squat in Noaille. The other building that collapsed, number 65, was still inhabited, even though residents had repeatedly reported the unsettling conditions and some of them had already left their flats, because the doors did not close anymore. A report issued in 2015 considers 40,000 buildings unsafe in Marseille, out of which only 111 have been evacuated. “It’s crazy because you see the cracks in the wall but you never think that the houses will actually collapse”, utters Martha in disbelief.

Since the collapse of the houses, over 1800 people have been evacuated and many of them are enraged.

A woman in a protest tells the news reporter “Before I didn’t protest in Marseille, because I thought, well it probably serves nothing, but now, there is a thing of – we don’t have a choice, in fact, we don’t have a choice anymore! There are people who died! My friends got evacuated! There are people who just die in their homes!” This marks an interesting turning point in Marseilles housing policies – as they are now being contested by many who have not made their voices heard up to this point. Those who have been evacuated after the crashes have been placed in hotels all over the city, partly far from their jobs and their children’s school and complain about bad conditions and a lack of information and respect, like an angry woman confirms “We are not given any news, and we are spoken to, as if we were unwanted… I have to remind them that we are not in this hotel for holidays!” Together with the friends and families of the victims, with local activists and a broad mix of Marseille’s residents they form a protest movement that has repeatedly brought thousands of people to the streets.

The Collective of the 5th of November, Noailles en colère (Noailles in anger) started organizing after the catastrophe, provides support for those evacuated and took part in the organization of demonstrations, which have been a platform for a variety of voices. Last Saturday, on the 1st of December, the protesters reached a number of 12000 people and had to face heavy police violence. Not only was the demonstration joined by members of La France Insoumise, amongst them the Eurosceptic Mélenchon; sans-papiers who protested their evictions, but also by unionists from the CGT and the Gilets-Jaunes, who had a demonstration earlier on the same day. In support of the housing protest, they uttered their solidarity: “We stand next to those that protest these injustices, to support them with our expertise”.

The deadly housing crisis in Marseille stirs horrible memories of Glendfield Tower and is not seen as an accident by many. While millions are being spent on a highly contested redevelopment program in a neighbouring district, La Plaine, no money has been spent for the safety of Noailles residents. “In La Plaine they just built a 2 meter high concrete wall around the construction site so people couldn’t protest it anymore. And at the same time there is no money for housing??” asks Charlotte, a resident.

Much of the anger in the demonstrations turns towards Gaudin, who is definitely not a very likeable face of the cities policies. At the same time, Marseille is no exception in terms of urban renewal along class and race lines, where those who profit from the makeovers are mostly defined by their economic power. A systematic process of strategic neglect up to a point where reinvestment is profitable can be observed in countless gentrifying cities. Yet the case of Marseille is extreme, because the decay is so extensive, dangerous and deadly. This is shocking not only to those immediately concerned, but to many inhabitants of Marseille. The current uproar bears the potential of growing dissent with the ways in which urban restructuring takes place. Smaller protests against the refurbishment of La Plaine are now amplified by angry masses. Whether this movement can resist the intimidation and repression, whether it is patient and determined enough to keep making itself heard, which coalitions it is ready to form and how it is reacted to, remains to be seen. In order to reach any change of direction in urban policy, it is crucial that the housing injustices are continuously made visible, scandalized and contested, as they are far from over. In Noailles, auctions are currently taking place, where the dilapidated houses are being cautiously visited, inspected by and sold to buyers who are rarely planning on inhabiting themselves. “The shittier the better”, confides one visitor of an auction, who plans to resell for the double price, to an undercover journalist.

The death of Taher, Simona, Fabien, Niasse, Julien, Ouloume, Sherife and Marie is not a tragedy caused by the rain, as the city hall likes to put it, it is part of a violent form of restructuring, that devaluates the lives of poor people and eventually displaces them from the city centre. “They have been trying to gentrify Marseille since 20 years now”, says Martha. The housing situation in Marseille is clearly at a very interesting turning point. Whether the evacuated will be able to return to the city centre, in whose interest the money promised by the state will be spent, stays subject to scrutiny.

Leon Reichle is a PhD scholar at CURA with a background in Sociology, who has just started a PhD project on tenants’ interpretations of displacement. As a friend and frequent visitor of the city of Marseille Leon is passionate about developments in the city.

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