A year after fatal building collapse, something is still rotten in Marseille

Protesters will march in Noailles on Saturday to demand action on dilapidated properties

Hundreds of residents of the Noailles neighbourhood in central Marseille gathered in front of the gaping hole known as the missing tooth to observe eight minutes of silence at 9.05 on Tuesday morning.

Exactly one year before, Cherif, Fabien, Julien, Marie-Emmanuelle, Niasse, Ouloume, Simona and Taher died when numbers 63 and 65 rue d’Aubagne collapsed on top of them.

Marseille is remembering the eight victims all week. Posters of their faces line the street where they died. The town hall, which many blame for the disaster, flew flags at half-mast on Tuesday. On Saturday afternoon, protesters will march for the third time. More than 10,000 people participated in two previous demonstrations, last November and in February.

Anger has focused on Jean-Claude Gaudin, the conservative mayor of Marseilles for the past quarter-century. For years, Gaudin allowed old buildings to deteriorate, in the hope that property developers would move in to renovate and gentrify them. Slum landlords neglected the properties and grew fat on rent paid by the poor with the government housing allowance.

Crumbling

The eight deaths could have been avoided. Reynald Filipputti, an expert hired by occupants of the rue d'Aubagne in 2014, told investigating magistrates he notified the municipality five years ago that the foundations of numbers 65 and 67 were crumbling and the timbers of number 65 were rotten.

Filipputti sent a second letter three years later, warning that “the cracks in the structure continue to develop” and “now constitute a real, immediate danger to persons and property”. He never received a response to his letters.

There has been institutional violence, class contempt, and a city that sold out a long time ago to property developers

One of the collapsed buildings belonged to the municipality. Adjacent buildings that were deemed in danger of falling were also demolished, leaving a huge gap between numbers 61 and 69.

A sort of panic set in. In subsequent months, the city ordered the evacuation of 359 unsafe buildings that had housed at least 4,000 people. Only 63 dislodged families have found permanent housing. The others have been placed in hotels or temporary housing, or have been left to their own devices.

“Despite the urgency, there has been no response commensurate with the problem, but institutional violence, class contempt, and a city that sold out a long time ago to property developers,” said a statement issued on November 1st by about 40 associations dealing with the housing crisis.

Drug traffickers

Philippe Pujol, an award-winning journalist from Marseille, has just published The Fall of the Monster: Marseille Year Zero. He describes a city plagued by drug traffickers and ghettoisation, and says the collapsed buildings in the Rue d'Aubagne were "the terrible symptom of a rotten political regime in a city eaten away by incompetence and corruption".

Half the fatalities had Arab or African first names. Kaouther Ben Mohamed, a former teacher of special education, founded a group called Marseille en Colère (Angry Marseille).

We're the victims of a building next door that was not maintained, of a system that left housing to rot

"I was sorry to see that the black and dark-skinned historical inhabitants, the undocumented and those with relatives under the debris, had no voice," Ben Mohamed told France Télévision. She organised a team of lawyers to help those who have been expelled from their homes, and accompanies them to appointments with officials.

The experience is a nightmare even for more privileged inhabitants who had moved to the neighbourhood for its central location and low prices.

“We went out on Monday morning and never came home. We’re the victims of a building next door that was not maintained, of a system that left housing to rot,” Emilie, a schoolteacher, told France Info radio.

Sea views

Emilie and her partner had purchased a fifth-floor apartment with a balcony and sea views two years earlier. The city demolished their home on the day of the collapse. Emilie’s employer gives her a day off each week to deal with the bureaucracy. She fought for months to have their property loan put on hold, and to obtain compensation from their insurance company for the furniture that was destroyed. The government is now demanding the couple pay property tax on their apartment which no longer exists.

Depending on the criteria, there are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 unsafe housing units in France.

In a recent report, Guillaume Vuilletet, a deputy in the National Assembly from president Emmanuel Macron's LREM party, pleaded for a clear definition of what constitutes unfit housing. He listed 21 different procedures for filing a complaint, and so many actors, from public organisations to prefectures, local governments, regional agencies and tribunals, that all shirked responsibility, "creating a form of inertia".

In September, the minister for urban affairs and the national agency for housing information launched a toll-free number for people living in unacceptable conditions. It has received 2,000 calls, more than 60 per day, Le Figaro reported. The highest number came from the Bouches-du-Rhône department where Marseille is located. The second-largest number were registered in Paris.