letter from Marseille



The most recent mental image I had of Marseille was during the French strikes in autumn, as dozens of finger-thin silver frigates long ago put out at sea hovered in the Mediterranean while the Marseillais dock-workers refused to offload them. Last time I was there, I did not notice so much the mounting North African presence, in the news constantly as politicians inveigh against Arab immigrants from the Maghreb and the question of what to “do” about the children of poor immigrants immiserated in Paris’s banliues, and Muslim women insisting that they have the right to dress as they wish, be it with niqab or hijab, against the oppressively universalist secularism of French society.

This time I saw the North African presence everywhere: the skin tone of the people on the streets, the streets lined with halal butcher shops and Moroccan couscous restaurants, and the signs and posters calling for maseerat – Arabic for demonstrations – alongside identical signs in French. Signs of support for the Spanish demonstrations were on the walls too. Men and women who have been in France for 20 or 30 years shift seamlessly back-and-forth between Arabic and French, sometimes speaking in a mélange of the two. Poverty correlating with color, as it does in wealthy Western countries, the street kids are all conspicuously of the ancestry of one or another of the former French colonies: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, as they play cat-and-mouse games with the police pacing around the port.

There are a lot of police. Perhaps it’s the threat of terrorism: they are also French military walking along with the police. The military are bedecked in camouflage fatigues and carry assault rifles on city streets, doing their duty of keeping people scared, if not necessarily safe.

But what struck me most were the bookstores. Never mind that one-sixth of each shop was devoted to philosophy, or that Lewis Mumford’s unavailable-in-English The City in History is circulating in a beautiful French translation. I had asked my friend upon arrival if he could locate a good left-wing bookstore, but in Marseille, the good bookstores are all leftist: no wandering off to a communist book-seller in some nook of the city to find out what leftist French people are reading and writing: Yves Lacoste on post-colonialism, Alberto Toscano on fanaticism, and dozens of pamphlet-sized books by Eric Hazan, Alain Gresh, or Rashid Khalidi. Pierre Clastres’s Society against the State is, surreally, available in bookstores here, and a relatively-unknown – outside of the academy – Timothy Mitchell essay on carbon democracy was actually put out as a book here.

The issue of post-colonialism can never be far from the surface, and nowhere more than when the far shores of the Mediterranean are practically within eyeshot, vast white ferries slide into their berths in Marseille’s port, and the news is full of French politicians debating whether there should be full amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants from North Africa filling the schools and altering the future of France’s demography – and others suggest that they should go “back where they came from,” as the heritage of French empire is relentlessly scrubbed out of the contemporary imaginary and its control over the past, a nauseating juxtaposition when the French armed forces are once again running amok in Cote D’Ivoire and “liberating” Libya. Colonialism is not over until it’s over.

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