Poverty pulls Marseilles into deadly gang war

Police officers work on the area where a man was found shot dead in a car in Marseille, southern France, April 11, 2012. Getty

Marseilles, France Built on the sunny Mediterranean coast in 600 BC, Marseille is France's oldest city, and its second largest. It is also the poorest, with a quarter of the population living below the poverty line.

In some parts of the city, youth unemployment is as high as 50 percent, and youth crime is soaring.

"Right now in Marseille, it's like Chicago in 1930 - gangs, violence, drugs," says businessman Mohamed Ziani, who grew up in the poor northern part of the city and has watched it change.

Drugs are dealt openly in many of the housing projects dotted around the sprawling city. Military-grade guns are cheap - raising rivalries to a deadly level. So far this year, 20 people have been killed in a brutal turf war over Marseille's lucrative drug trade.

Local senator Samia Ghali, who grew up in the projects, caused nationwide controversy recently when she called for the army to be drafted in. What bothered people the most, she tells CBS News, isn't that people are dying - it's that she dared to talk about it.

But she forced the French government to take notice. A new police department was created for the region and 200 extra officers were brought in.

Like many others, however, Ziani says that's not enough.

"We need more police, especially in this area," he says. "We need police, we need money. And we need jobs, too, because when you don't have a job, what's the future for you?

Local officials say the future which seems proscribed for many of the boys in Marseille's projects is: dealer at 16, dead in a gun battle at 20.

As he drives by the housing projects, police officer Kamel Bassaa points to bunches of flowers on several street corners - tributes to the young lives lost.

"Every street, every place here has a story to tell, a story of violence, often stupid, unnecessary violence," he says.

The projects are like their own mini-cities and they don't welcome outsiders. You only get in if you know someone there. Some of the projects are off-limits even to the police.

The residents make their own rules, and there are always a few young people hanging around, acting as lookouts. As two teenagers whizz by on a scooter, Bassaa recognizes them - they're patrolling the area to warn the dealers of police.

Elsewhere in Marseille, scooters are used to make a fast getaway, as violent crime is now spreading to the tourist areas.

Chain-snatching is Marseille's latest growth industry, as the price of gold skyrockets. An average 30 people were attacked every day this summer, sometimes beaten, for their gold chains.

Bassaa says the local kids are hooked on American gangster movies and like to emulate their heroes. For American-style violence, he'd like to see an American-style solution.

"It's time to say 'stop' - We need zero tolerance, like in New York. And more police on the street," the officer tells CBS News.

When he's not out on his beat, Bassaa runs a voluntary organization trying to keep the kids off the streets and out of jail.

Voluntary groups like his have sprung up across the city.

Saida Hidri lives in one of the projects high above the city and works with people from immigrant communities. From her balcony, she can see the blue Mediterranean sparkling below. But there's no public transport up here, so many of the inhabitants never get down to the water.

There are few jobs for anyone with an address in the projects. Saida has watched many of her young neighbors drop out of school and fall into crime as a way of making easy money - sometimes $300 to $500 a day.

"They think they can build their lives with the money from crime," she says. "But then when they try to quit the gang, it's too late. They know the network, they know the people so they're trapped. Those who want to leave, they're killed. And it's not just that person - their families are targets too. It's dangerous - everyone here lives in fear."

Hoping to give some a way out, the Second Chance School, 2eC, takes on young people who dropped out of education.

Cynthia Martinez, 18, from the troubled 15th district of the city, left school at 16 because she didn't like the teachers and there were too many students in her class, where she says there was more fighting than learning.

"Here, it's much nicer," she says of the Second Chance School. "The teachers are here for us, and they work to our level. I can ask them anything and they help me understand."

Now she's catching up on missed lessons and training to be a sports teacher, to work as a personal trainer, or with children or handicapped people.

Mohamed Ziani approves of that approach. He set up his business, an employment agency, in the poor northern part of the city because he feels a duty to show others they too can break the vicious circle of unemployment and crime.

"This area is not just about the violence, it's not just about drugs, it's not just the projects," he stresses. "You have people who open businesses, you have people who get up early in the morning to go to the factory. The majority works."

This story was filed by CBS Radio News correspondent Elaine Cobbe.

  • Elaine Cobbe

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