Hollande rejects calls to deploy army to Marseille


FRENCH PRESIDENT François Hollande has rejected calls for the army to be sent in to tackle armed criminals in Marseille after a spate of gangland shootings pushed crime to the top of the political agenda.

The Mediterranean port city has been struck by a wave of shootings linked to escalating turf wars between drug-trafficking gangs.

On Wednesday, a 25-year-old suspected trafficker was shot dead with an assault weapon as he travelled in the passenger seat of a car in the northern suburbs – the 14th gun-related death in the city since the beginning of the year. Another 25-year-old was shot dead last month in the south of the city.

Marseille is preparing to become European capital of culture next year, but the killings have set back its public relations efforts and focused attention on its large drugs trade.

With the opposition portraying the ruling Socialist Party as weak on crime, and last month’s riots in northern France fresh in the memory, the gangland violence in France’s second-biggest city has also piled pressure on Mr Hollande’s government.

Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he would convene a meeting with senior ministers, including the interior, justice and finance ministers, next week to discuss Marseille’s problems.

A district mayor urged the government to take drastic steps, appealing for the army to be sent in.

“It no longer makes any difference to send in a police car to stop the dealers. When 10 of them are arrested, 10 others take up the torch. It’s like fighting an anthill,” said Samia Ghali, a senator and district mayor who represents two badly-affected neighbourhoods.

“Faced with the weapons of war being used by these networks, only the army can intervene,” she told local newspaper La Provence, adding that the army should set up barricades around areas known as trafficking hubs.

That idea was swiftly rejected by Mr Hollande, who said the army’s role was not “to control the neighbourhoods of the Republic.”

The city, a hub on the drug trafficking route between Spain and the rest of Europe, has seen drug-related violence rise sharply in the past five years with the proliferation of cheap assault weapons. “It is out of the question for the army to respond to these tragedies and crimes. There is no internal enemy,” said interior minister Manuel Valls.

He promised a “comprehensive, in-depth and particularly strong” response to the shootings, including wider CCTV coverage and a stronger police presence.

Mr Valls has outlined plans to concentrate police resources on “priority security zones”, neighbourhoods identified as the country’s most dangerous.

Jean-Claude Gaudin, the mayor of Marseille and a member of the opposition UMP party, accused senior ministers of getting “over-excited” in their bleak portrayal of the city, but said a firm security response was needed.

“If the prime minister . . . is really interested, I ask him to designate the whole city as a ‘priority security zone’,” Mr Gaudin said.

He added that Marseille’s residents were exasperated with the bad publicity caused by the gangland violence, and said the city had made huge progress in housing and education.

On the suggestion that the army should intervene, Mr Gaudin said: “It’s a grotesque solution that could lead to a civil war.”