Marseille, France – “Our society is in a state of emergency,” Hugo Cadet, a lawyer, says in a brasserie in the Old Port in Marseille.
He and Hassen Hammou, the founder of an association called Trop Jeune Pour Mourir (Too Young to Die), are discussing some of the underlying social and judicial issues behind rising violence in Marseille.
So far this year, the city has seen 45 drug-related murders, one of the worst yearly rates on record.
Civilian deaths – such as that of 24-year-old Socayna, who was killed in September by a stray bullet in her bedroom – underscore the urgency of solving the problem that extends beyond those directly involved.
She was the third innocent civilian killed in similar incidents this year.
Cadet has served on numerous criminal cases with young people on trial, and Hammou’s organisation offers the city’s families and young people help with administrative procedures, job searches and general support.
“It’s [a question of] saving the living … saving them so that they don’t return to trafficking, saving them so that they don’t die from trafficking, and saving them so that they can start to have a normal life,” Hammou says.
The killings generally fall under “reglements du compte” (the settling of scores), between rival gangs.
But the perpetrators and victims are getting younger and younger. Experts are continuing to examine the societal conditions that foster this environment, and numerous groups are acting to help.
Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit is trying to sue the state for human rights violations.
In the 1960s and 70s, traditional structures evolved from largely family-run, Corsican mobs to more individualistic operations, as Marseille shifted away from industrialisation.
“It’s [when people thought] ‘I can be the master of my own world’, and that’s when things started to get worse,” said Mathieu Croizet, the lawyer building a case against the French state.
Cités – large apartment complexes – were constructed in the northern districts of the city (quartiers nord).
“I think that the two successive mayors [before Benoit Payan, the current mayor] … voluntarily built an unbalanced city between a north, where ‘undesirable’ people were sent, and richer areas with the aristocracy and bourgeoisie,” Cadet said.
He said Jean-Claude Gaudin, the mayor of Marseille between 1995 and 2020, played a key role.
“We cut them off from the city centre, we avoided developing public transport, we closed the swimming pools,” Cadet added.
Amine Kessaci founded the organisation Conscience when he was 16, four years ago, after his brother was killed.
He grew up in Frais Vallon in the 14th arrondissement of the city.
The association provides a support network both emotionally – giving immediate support to families who have lost someone to drug violence – and administratively, helping young people with homework and eventually finding jobs.
“It’s the cités, they have been so abandoned … education, housing, transport, wellbeing, ecology, everything is today a question of priority in the northern districts,” Kessaci said.
Before Nicolas Sarkozy became president of France in 2007, the cités of Marseille benefitted from “police à proximité”, community policing. The absence of this has changed how the police and youth population see and interact with each other.
“Days should be organised between the police and young people so that they can talk to each other again,” Cadet suggested. “Because the problem is very simple, it is that since community policing was abolished, the role of the police is only repressive.”
Are prisons effective in dealing with convictions in Marseille?
“Go and spend a day in the court hearings in Marseille, and you’ll see the heaviness of the sentences handed down,” Cadet said.
“What I learned in law school and in the context of this profession is that sentencing has two objectives: punishment and reintegration.”
But the positive impact of these prison sentences is not always clear.
“The problem is that the prison universe today is the reproduction of the cité,” Hammou said.
“The guys who know each other before they even enter are waiting for them upon arrival … this complicit community who already know each other on the outside find themselves on the inside… What good do you want to get out of it?”
“Prison is the school of crime” is an apt saying, according to Cadet, who notes, “I think that today someone who arrives in prison – he is more likely to take a path of delinquency than ultimately to deviate from it.”
Why is France facing a lawsuit over Marseille, and what do shark attacks have to do with anything?
The neglect of these neighbourhoods – and lack of state protection – might actually constitute a violation of human rights.
Mathieu Croizet and Amine Kessaci are building a case against the state in a special emergency procedure called référé liberté.
The idea came to Croizet when he remembered the measure being used to spur action to curb shark attacks in Réunion.
First, a judge must confirm that there is a state of emergency, and violation of human rights. If this is accepted, the case can go to court quickly, where the judge might establish temporary measures to curb the violence.
The Marseille case focuses on four violations – the right to security, the right to life, the right to equality, and a case of discrimination.
But one of the first attempts to pass it through was denied. Croizet thinks this was because of the right to equality and the case against discrimination clauses.
“To bring back equality and to stop discrimination, that would be a drastic change in French society as a whole … so we decided … to limit the demands on right to security and right to have a normal life,” he explained.
Another argument – although this won’t be included in the initial presentation – is that there’s a violation of France’s Charter for the Environment, which ensures that everyone has the right to live a healthy life in a healthy environment.
Since violence induces stress, more serious health conditions could emerge.
Croizet argued that some communities suffer from “violence pollution”, constituting a violation of their rights.
The case is expected to relaunch in November.