Police in Marseille's northern estates
Police in Marseille's northern estates Reuters

The Socialist government of France has coughed up 3 billion euros (about $4 billion) to alleviate huge social problems in the crime-infested southern coastal city of Marseille, dubbed the "Chicago of the South," for its spiraling drug-related gang violence. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the money will be invested in transportation infrastructure, urban renovation, education, security and jobs for underprivileged youth. The program will also include the hiring of some 80 more police officers. “The state has kept its word,” Ayrault boasted. "France needs Marseille. Marseille is the symbol of youth, the symbol of openness [to] the world. Marseille has the means to become, within 15 years, a great Euro-Mediterranean metropolis."

Marseille, a teeming city of some 1.5 million inhabitants, ranks as France's second-largest city, located only about 110 miles west of the famed and glittering Riviera. But the situation in Marseille, particularly in its grim immigrant suburbs in the northern part of the city, has become so grave, some fed-up residents have even asked for the army to occupy its neighborhoods to restore order. In August, in response to a spate of drug-related murders, Paris deployed 130 extra riot police and 24 investigators to the blighted city. The following month, Marseille recorded its 15th gun victim of the year, the son of the sporting director of the Olympique de Marseille football team.

Marseille not only suffers from high crime, drug trafficking and political corruption, but remains burdened by high unemployment (as much as 40 percent of youths in the worst estates are jobless) and high rates of poverty (more than one-fifth of residents live below the poverty line).

Of course, this investment in Marseille plays heavily into local and national politics. Patrick Mennucci, the Socialist candidate for Marseille mayor in next spring's election, praised the largesse by the state as "the greatest effort ever made for a French city." The city has been ruled for 18 years by Jean-Claude Gaudin, of the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, whom the Socialists want to unseat (with help from Paris). "This visit [by Ayrault] is nothing but an electoral tour designed to support the Socialist candidate [Mennucci]," Gaudin sniffed.

Douglas Yates, a professor of political science at the American Graduate School in Paris as well as The American University of Paris, told International Business Times, that the huge investment in Marseille undoubtedly represents an electoral gambit, to win votes from the poor, troubled, northern neighborhoods of Marseille in next May's municipal elections. “That having been said, there is a real need to invest in more urban infrastructure,” he added. “The Socialists have been courting racial minorities with promises of aid and projects, in this case a tramway and regional transport, which would connect northern ghettos and outer rings to the economic hub, enabling them to escape marginalization and high rates of unemployment.”

But, Yates noted, the Socialists have not been able to deliver on these promises, and many of these racial communities have actually gravitated to the neo-Gaullists, supporting the UMP and mayor Gaudin. “Now that the Socialist Party controls the national budget, however, it can channel funds from Paris to Marseilles,” he noted. “But the primaries saw a white candidate, Patrick Mennucci beat Samua Ghali, an ethnic minority candidate, and so now all the Socialists have to offer these communities is the promise of money.” According to a report from Ansa Mediterranean (ANSAmed), a part of the Italian news agency Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata, Ghali, the daughter of Algerian immigrant parents, who grew up in the tough, deprived northern suburbs of the city, was one of the voices calling for the French army to patrol the rough streets of her constituency.

Marseille's bleak northern region is isolated from the wealthier southern coastal areas – and scarred by violence wrought by powerful drug gangs who control a vast underground economy. Of greater alarm to police, many gangsters are using AK-47s to execute their targets. According to French police data, in 2012, fully one-third of all homicides recorded in the country took place in Marseille.

One of this year's murder victims was 19-year-old Nabil Badreddine who was shot to death near the tower block where he lived. "They shot him twice in the back. After they'd shot him they poured petrol all over him and set the car on fire," his mother Baya Seddik told BBC. "Because he had been so badly burnt they tested my DNA -- and that's how they found out it was him.”

Like Seddik and Badreddine, many of the murder victims (and their killers) are descended from the hundreds of thousands of Algerian immigrants who fled to France (and in particular Marseille) in the 1960s. French authorities constructed huge, grim impersonal tower-block estates that ring major cities to house this sudden influx of immigrants from North Africa. As in Marseille, many of these poor Arab neighborhoods stood far apart from the rest of their respective cities, turning them into isolated ghettoes.

"The city's geography has a lot to do with its problems," sociologist Laurent Mucchielli at the University of Aix-Marseille, told BBC. "The poorer classes traditionally live in the northern districts … meaning that social barriers have been constructed between north and south." Such isolation and social segregation breeds hopelessness, anger, criminal violence and poor educational performance. "Perhaps some of my pupils have the sense that they live in a ghetto because they live alone with their mother? Perhaps she has no driving license and they can't get around town so easily,” speculated a teacher in northern Marseille. "We try to make the children aware of their surroundings and make sure they have access to a cultural education."

The face of drug crime and violence in Marseille has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when the port served as a key hub for the so-called "French Connection," whereby mostly Sicilian and Corsican organized mobsters smuggled opium from Turkey, processed it into heroin in Sicily and Marseille, and then shipped the drugs in massive quantities to markets in Western Europe and the United States. According to a report in The Guardian, cannabis and cocaine have replaced heroin as the principal drug of the traffickers' choice in Marseille. But it is the low level of dealing, principally in poor immigrant estates, that has sparked the bloodshed in the city in recent years.

Yates warns, however, that while the government's investments in Marseille will certainly be helpful, it is unlikely to make a dent in drug-trafficking in the poor suburbs. “Since these are structural problems, exacerbated by economic malaise and immigrant-population sociology, little can be done to put the vendettas and gangland-style cycles of violence to an end,” he explained. “Unlike New York, where the population grew older and violent crimes went down, the immigrant population of Marseille is young, and added to this demographics is the [violent and volatile] Mediterranean culture, flush with cheap available arms, and a sense of profound racial injustice.”