Le grand bazar
For two hundred years the words used to describe the centre of Marseille, in particular the triangle between the Gare St Charles, the Old Port and the Canebière have been strongly oriental – bazar, souk, caravanserai. Implicitly they underline the importance of the trade, the exoticism of the goods and of the populations who bought the goods or lived there. But since the early 20th century these words have also had a perjorative connotation, implying a dangerous mix of races and deeply suspicious dealing.
These districts (Grand-Carmes, Belsunce, Noailles, Opéra) have been the gateway into Marseille for thousands of immigrants, both in transit and those wanting to settle there. First of all over-loaded with Italians, between the wars the districts sheltered newly arrived Kabyles and Armenians, all living for the most part in wretched conditions. Commerce had always been an important activity among these immigrants, so in the centre of Marseille they each opened their little shops (hairdressers, grocers) until there were so many the marseillais shop-keepers began to complain loudly and bitterly. The rest of the population were workers, at best stacked up in insalubrious furnished rooms. After the Algerian war came the great wave of Algerian immigrants – people needing to find work. In 1975 the Algerian population of Marseille was estimated at 35,000. This new population created a consumer market with specific habits, strengthening the commerical links already well-established between Marseille and North Africa. But the growth and rise of the consumer society meant that huge shopping centres opened one after the other around the edges of Marseille, attracting crowds of customers. The shops in the town centre lost their allure, became shabby, then were bought up by others. In 1982 the 1st arrondissment had nearly 500 small shops owned by Algerians, supplied by local wholesalers, often Sephardic Jews or Armenians. The shops sold to the labouring classes in the town centre, but also to North Africans passing through on their way to the ferry, to North African traders who came to stock up and also to intermediaries who regularly went back and forth to the "country". Demand rose and, in the 1980's this commerce, utterly dependent on the ships plying back and forth from Marseille to Algiers but also on the growing traffic from the airport at Marignane, provided some with the opportunity to make a fortune and climb up the rungs of society, which also meant to better schools. Somehow these businesses often had an unofficial side-line, associated with drug dealing and prostitution. An African commerce developed also in the same districts.
This grand bazar, a phrase its detractors use deliberately to confuse legal activities with dealing, was not to everyone's taste. The problem of the uncontrolled "savage market of the town centre" weighed increasingly on the town council, where the Front National had made gains since the European elections of 1984. The protests came firstly from the Chamber of Commerce. In 1985 there was a proposition to move North African businesses from the town centre to Arenc or La Joliette. The people concerned, organised, made sure the attempt to shift them failed. But the issue of "winning back the town centre" in the phrase of the former RPR minister Joseph Comiti, remained. In 1986, with the municipal elections approaching, the operation "Marseille, a clean city" was launched: a police station was set up and the "savage market" was chased away, the streets were cleaned. A 20 million franc programme began, aiming to rehabilitate Belsunce by renovating its buildings. The North Africans would not be forced out, however. In 1996 the town centre had 107,000 people living in an area of 420 hectares, of whom 19,500 were foreign, 15,700 were North Africans: 14.6% of the population. 70% of the town's foreigners were concentrated in the districts neighbouring the Canebière and 80% of its North Africans. Even though it did not correspond with the norms of traditional economy, the "hypermarket of North Africa", the "colonial counter", as it was known, helped to revive the failing local economy.
Véronique Manry, « Belsunce 2001, chronique d’un cosmopolitisme annoncé ? » in Méditerranéennes, n°13, printemps 2002
Alain Tarrius, « Naissance d’une colonie : un comptoir commercial à Marseille » in Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, vol 11, n°1, 1995.
Maurice Lemoine « Le centre, le souk et l’hypermarché » in Jean-Claude Baillon, Marseille, histoires de famille, Autrement, Série monde, hors série n°36, février 1989, p. 126-139.
Michel Peraldi (dir), Cabas et containers. Activités marchandes informelles et réseaux migrants transfrontaliers, Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 2001
Emile Temime, Marseille transit, les passagers de Belsunce, Paris, Autrement, 1997
Brigitte Bertoncello Sylvie Bredeloup, Colporteurs africains à Marseille. Un siècle d’aventures, Paris, Autrement, 2004.