Dimanche en France
First broadcast date
The Vieux Port of Marseille and the Cours Belsunce filmed in 1959.
The images shot are supposed to echo Albert Londres writings in 1927: 'crossing point, multiracial forum, district of all the traffics...'
Urbanism and cities
- Society and way of life / Migrations
- France - South East - Marseille
The district of Belsunce
The district of Belsunce owes its name to a bishop of Marseille who showed great courage during the plague of 1720. To the south it's bounded by the Canebiere, to the west the Cours de Belsunce while the northern limits are the Boulevard d'Athenes and the Boulevard Charles Nedelec. So from the Porte d'Aix to the Canebiere, passing through the Gare Saint Charles, Belsunce contains all of Marseille's emblematic areas.
Driving boulevards through built-up areas began in the 1830's, giving the town its present shape: these spacious promedade boulevards, turning their back on the sea, lined with trees and pleasant houses were rapidly taken up by the local bourgeoisie. The "Cours", the name given to the principle artery crossing the district, was originally a middle-class street, but it quickly took on a commercial character as merchants from northern Europe and the Mediterrannean countries set up their shops here. During the course of the 19th century the district became increasingly working class as the bourgeoisie and classes in between preferred to live south of the Canebiere. While appreciated by the Marseillais as a place for strolling and pleasure, Belsunce became a working class neighbourhood, a character it still has today. People went there to find work, to walk about, to enjoy themselves. At the top of the Cours Belsunce, the Alcazar, opened in 1857, became Marseille's most famous music hall. In 2004 it was converted into a library.
From the 1860's to the Second World War the Alcazar, which could hold 2,000 people, became famous for launching performers at the start of their career, Yves Montand, Tino Rossi or Maurice Chevalier. This legendary place is also associated with the heyday of operetta, particularly by Vincent Scotto and its audience got a reputation for being demanding. But there had to be more than entertainment, and any area wedged between the main station and the port is going to be a toehold where new arrivals catch their breath. In the 19th century Belsunce became a place of transit. The waves of immigrants which made such an impact on the town have left their trace on its narrow streets and behind its delapidated facades.The district is densely populated: Italians since the end of the 19th century, then Armenian refugees during and just after the First World War, and also Greeks, Russians, Serbs and Algerians.
This tradition of hospitality continued in the second half of the 20th century, much of the great wave of North African immigrants settling in Belsunce before moving en masse to the city's northern districts. By the end of the 20th century Africans and Asians were also part of this population. To see this cosmopolitan mix is enough to understand the area's notoriety, emphasised by the journalist Albert Londres in Marseille Porte du Sud in 1927. Rapidly the shabby, insalubrious aspect, the furnished rooms and shelters (semi-slum-like, made from existing buildings) which served as temporary lodging for immigrants who often did not speak French and lived in great poverty, gave rise to xenophobic speeches about the health risks linked to this population. The nature of the activities for which the area became known: shop-keeping and trades but also drug dealing and prostitution, awoke the fears of the rest of Marseille, worried about security and miscenegation, habitually distrusting the wanderer and the stateless person, who, since the end of the 19th century had been considered as a counter model for nationalists of every political shade. The exotic but derogatory terms used to decribe the commercial activity of the district: "caravanserai", "souk" "bazaar" became common place. Belsunce, the image of Marseille's cosmopolitan character, fascinating and worrying, is today an integral part of the town's working class identity, as the words of the song "Belsunce Breakdown" suggest, used in the film Comme un aimant (2000 – The Magnet) and written by Akhenaton, the charismatic leader of the rap group IAM.
Marseille au XIXe siècle, rêves et triomphes, Musées de Marseille, Musées nationaux, Marseille, Lafont, 1991.
Marcel Roncayolo, Les grammaires d’une ville. Essai sur la genèse des structures urbaines à Marseille, Paris, EHESS, 1996.
Emile Temime, Marseille transit : les passagers de Belsunce, Paris, Autrement, 1997.
Barsotti Claude, Le Music-Hall marseillais de 1815 à 1950, Arles, Mesclum, 1984.