Marseille breaks down: Why is France's second city crumbling?

Marseille breaks down: Why is France's second city crumbling?

Samira ran across a crack in the kitchen in an 18th-century low-rise apartment in central Marseille. "I'm worried that my building is slowly in the caves," he said. "I'm afraid we're going to be buried alive."

The stone stairway to the other damp flats was sloping and powerful, and residents felt it was moving as they used to. The crack in one wall was so deep, the daylight was imbibing. Her father had regularly said that the upstairs teenager on the upper floor would not step on the increasingly uneven kitchen floor he feared would sink. Samira's bathroom ceiling was moldy and damp. After dark, the rats made so much noise in his kitchen that it sounded like a burglary to him.

France's second city, Marseille, is facing its worst crisis in decades as downtown residents fear that historic buildings that have become slums may collapse and fall. Grief and rage spread in the heart of the city following the death of eight people in November when two buildings collapsed near a picturesque old harbor.

Citizen protest groups are asking how the city, which has spent millions over the last decade on beachfront museum projects and attracting visitors to cruise ships, could be abandoned by residents and architecture for its fatal neglect. In 2015, a government report warned that 40,000 broken and unsafe homes were a threat to the health or security of 100,000 people, many in downtown but little was done by campaigners.

Hundreds of Marseille families have been evacuated from apartments that have proved dangerous in recent months. Around 1,000 people - many people on low incomes - are still sleeping in hotels waiting for accommodation.

Samira's humble building was one of those recently evacuated - firefighters told her to grab drugs and a bag of children's clothes and escape. Residents spent several weeks in a hotel before a private owner and town hall expert declared the building safe to move back to. But families fear that renovation will not be enough. "I don't feel safe," said Yassin, 30. "When I hear a neighbor walking upstairs, I pray that my ceiling won't make it."

The crisis highlighted Marseille's unique makeup. With a population of around 850,000, it is smaller than Barcelona and Naples, and a diverse society is considered a symbol of modern France. However, after the decline of industry, much of its population is still living in poverty.

Most other Western European cities have pushed their poorest to the suburbs, but central Marseille still has diverse, low-income and working-class areas. The city's rich residents and bourgeoisie have historically retreated to the coast, peripheral areas or remote villages.

And yet, downtown Marseille has few social apartments and lots of shoddy properties run by slum landlords, while real estate speculation is on the rise.

Housing campaigns have warned against a policy of intentional neglect. They fear that local governments could use the decaying buildings crisis to evacuate and resettle poorer people in the fallen areas of North Marseille, freeing the city center from profitable real estate transactions.

"Marseille has the last remaining working-class center in France, perhaps even in Europe," said Carole Lenoble, a local architect who works to preserve the center's social mix.

“But real estate pressure is strong. A luxury hotel was built 100 meters from the collapsed buildings in November. This real estate pressure is accompanied by a lack of will to build social housing. This crisis must not be used as an excuse to speed up the process of pushing poorer people out of the center. More social housing needs to be built. "

After the collapse of two buildings on the rue d'Aubagne in the Noailles district near Marseille's picturesque Old Port on 5 November, it took days to find the victims. These included a Comorian mother who dropped her off from school that morning, but never painted her as a painter, and Tunisian and Algerian people who had lived in a bustling central area known for their food markets.

Tenants had warned for weeks that walls were moving and cracks had formed. Less than three weeks earlier, an expert considered the first floor of one building as dangerous and the building was evacuated, but residents were told it was safe to go back.

Anissa Harbaoui, 30, who runs the after-school club, knew Simona, a graduate of Italian economics, who had died in the collapse. "He told me he was worried that his building would collapse," Harbaoui said. "But I always said, 'This could not happen here, it is the second largest city in France. "And now the feeling is that this city has left people killed in their homes."

As a result of the disaster, Harbaoui, a member of the Nov. 5 collective housing college, now lives in a hotel after evicting his own dangerous building. "One day I closed my door and part of the ceiling fell," she said. He had lived in two other dangerous buildings, where cracks and sliding stairs were common. "I think you are used to living in Marseille like that," she said.

"It has destroyed and devastated our neighborhood," said Gaye Félicité of Nouailles Restaurant in Ivoire. "People are sad and scared," said tailor Sarr Elhadjé on the collapse.

Angry street protests are directed against Jean-Claude Gaudin, the 24-year-old mayor of Marseille. "The deliberate political choice not to maintain buildings and build social housing has led to people dying," said former social worker socialist Nasséra Benmarnia.

But Gaudin, who said he would not step back, argued that the town hall's approach to housing could not be mistaken. "My team and I have an ambitious plan to renovate old and unfit homes," he said after the building collapsed.

Confidence in politicians has fallen after investigative journalists in Marseille revealed that some politicians themselves rented dirty and dangerous apartments at high prices.

"This may be a turning point, people are now realizing how serious the housing crisis is," said Patrick Lacoste of Marseille campaign group A City Center for All.

"The social diversity of the center needs to be protected," said Lucas Olivieri, a 29-year-old accountant who is waiting to move to his apartment near the collapse. His 94-year-old grandfather, who lived upstairs on him, was once a dock in the Marseille harbor.

Residents and shop owners are living in uncertainty. "I cut a client's hair when officials came to my store saying, 'You have to leave because the building across the road may fall down. "" Said Peace Uzoech, who now works in a temporary store.

The mother of six children, Julia Serres, was evacuated in a derelict apartment that has since been deemed safe by the city authorities. But he was afraid of the stairwell and the decayed interior still looked dangerous. He was struggling to pay for a hotel room, afraid to go home. "We are not animals, we pay our rent, we just want justice," he said. "I'm so scared. I don't want to die, I don't want my kids to die."

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