Anxiety builds in melting pot city of Marseille as French elections approach

In the far right’s stronghold of southern France, the left seek to rally in Marseille

An anti-far-right demonstration in Marseille, southeastern France. Photograph: Jérémy Paoloni/AFP via Getty Images

After French president Emmanuel Macron called snap parliamentary elections earlier this month, a feminist bookshop in the southern city of Marseille put up anti-fascist posters, encouraging people to vote.

On Monday a projectile was thrown through one of the small shop’s front windows, which is now held together by colourful tape. The incident is one example of the rising tension in the multicultural seaside city, as France prepares to go to the polls in an election where Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) is expected to become the largest group in parliament.

Following a heavy defeat to RN in the European elections earlier this month, Macron opted to dissolve the National Assembly and hold parliamentary elections, in the hope of stopping the momentum of the far right. Polls show Le Pen’s radical anti-immigration party will win the most seats, but likely fall short of securing an outright majority in parliament.

Emily Berto, who runs Le Petit Pantagruel bookshop, which was targeted in what she believes was a politically motivated attack, said she is “terrified” of the far right winning power in France. “I don’t believe now they are a normal party like they want us to believe,” she said.

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While the south of France is generally seen as a stronghold of Le Pen’s RN, in Marseille the left has performed well electorally in recent years. This is in part because Jean-Luc Melenchon’s radical left France Unbowed has built up a solid support base by encouraging greater numbers of the North African migrant population to vote.

The parliamentary elections will take place over two rounds on June 30th and July 7th. The race is shaping up to be a contest between RN and the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties that includes France Unbowed and quickly united under one banner when the election was called, to keep the far right out of power.

Francois Thomazeau (63) a former journalist turned crime novelist who lives in Marseille, said Macron had not banked on the left uniting when he called the election, and now his centrist coalition was at risk of suffering big losses. “He’s in deep sh*t,” he said.

As a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, Marseille has always had a large migrant population, particularly of North Africans. The far right has traditionally capitalised on opposition from working-class voters to large levels of immigration. “Ever since I was a kid there’s always been a very strong anti-Arab or anti-African feeling … The reason why people voted for Brexit and the reason why people vote for the National Front is pretty similar,” said Thomazeau.

People are anxious about the coming vote. “You [usually] don’t talk politics in the bakery, but now you do,” said the author. “You have all these fears, of immigration, fears of the far right, of La France Insoumise [France Unbowed], the hatred of Macron. What kind of soup you are going to make with that I’m not sure.”

“I’m very worried about the elections”, said Pierre Baux (61), as he walks through the centre of Marseille on Thursday. “I think we are in a catastrophic situation. I think if National Rally get power, the government, France will be in big trouble,” he said, adding that the policies of RN are “racist” but with “make-up” on.

One woman working in a shop selling soap by the port, who did not wish to be named, said crime, immigration and the cost of living are the biggest issues for her in the election. “I admit I’m not very political,” she said. “For a change, why not National Rally?”

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times