Marseille: Grit and grandeur

31 Oct 2018 by BusinessTraveller
Panorama of Old port of Marseille

France’s most cosmopolitan city is enjoying a renaissance when it comes to business opportunities, writes Dominic Bliss

Does anything fray Marseille tempers quicker than the mention of bouillabaisse? Except for the exploits of Olympique de Marseille football club, nothing gets locals squabbling more than the correct ingredients, preparation and consumption of this famous fish soup.

Essentially it’s a seafood stew with onions, white wine, tomatoes, fennel, garlic mayonnaise and croutons. First you boil it (bouillir) rapidly and furiously, then you lower (abaisser) the heat for the remainder of the cooking process.

Some chefs include potatoes, while others see this as crass as ordering your steak well done. Some add lobster, mussels and langoustine, but others would douse you in boiling oil just for suggesting such a thing. As American food writer Waverley Root said in his book The Food of France: “A man who would put lobsters in bouillabaisse would poison wells. A man who would leave it out would starve his children.”

Waiters bicker endlessly over whether bouillabaisse should be served as two courses, with the soup first, or all together with the soup poured regularly on top of the fish to keep it hot. Each restaurant in France’s second city swears blind that their version of this seafood soup is the only authentic one.

Like bouillabaisse, Marseille itself is a distinct mix of ingredients. Ever since Ancient Greek times, this Mediterranean port city has welcomed a hotch-potch of races, religions, cultures and trades. Today it’s arguably France’s most cosmopolitan city. Walk down the street and you’ll see all manner of ethnicities and nationalities rubbing shoulders. In the bustling streets you’ll hear Arabic and Italian spoken just as much as French. Ethnic white French are a minority here. As Emmanuel Macron said while campaigning here for his the presidency: “I see Armenians, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, Senegalese. But what do I see? I see citizens of Marseille, I see citizens of France.”

That was a future president wooing votes, however. Not all citizens of the republic share his optimism for Marseille’s cultural mix. There was a time when French people would recoil in horror if you told them you were planning a visit here. Such was the city’s reputation for crime and racial tension, they’d assume you were mad even just to set foot in the place.

Much of this infamy was down to the notorious French Connection (the Corsican-run heroin scene in the 1960s), and the eponymous Hollywood movie based on it. “Skag city” is how the hero of that film (Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle) describes Marseille. Other crime-orientated films and TV series set here, such as Taxi, The Bourne Identity, The Transporter and Marseille, have reinforced the city’s bad reputation. The latter starred Gérard Depardieu as a corrupt, cocaine-addicted city mayor. (Which surely can’t please the incumbent Jean-Claude Gaudin too much.)

But this stigma is changing fast. Granted, there are still plenty of problems in the Quartiers Nord (the deprived northern quarters). However, the central parts of the city are enjoying a renaissance.


Redevelopment projects

It all started in the run-up to Marseille’s candidature as European Capital of Culture, back in 2013. Given a budget of over E100 million, the city completely redeveloped the Vieux Port, built new museums MuCEM, Musée Regards de Provence and the Villa Méditerranée, and renovated many of the existing museums. The Marseille-Provence Chamber of Commerce and Industry calculated that this year-long jamboree generated around E500 million in economic benefits.

Five years on and there’s an even bolder redevelopment project flexing its muscles. Called Euroméditerranée, this is Marseille’s central business district, stretching for 480 hectares across a neighbourhood north of the Vieux Port called La Joliette. According to developers, who launched the project back in 1995, it has paved the way for 5,300 new companies, 37,000 new jobs, a million square metres of office space, and 200,000 square metres of retail space. They claim, rather boldly, that it’s the most ambitious urban regeneration programme in Europe, with seven major industry sectors: property and construction, environmental, banking and insurance, health, international logistics, IT and tourism. “The ambition is to create a Mediterranean coastal city that is long-lasting, innovative, and with an international outlook,” the developers suggest.

Laure-Agnès Caradec is the project’s president. “In the last 20 years, Euroméditerranée has changed the image of Marseille. It’s a real accelerator of growth in the metropolis. At a time when growth across France is being led by big cities, this project is an obvious boon. What’s important now is to carry on with the dynamic work we’ve started.”

She says their key ambition is to build a “city within a city, where everyone can – regardless of their age, income or skillset – work, play, learn, live and move around”.

Business opportunities

Of the myriad construction projects, many are complete and many are still ongoing. No one would deny it’s an impressive part of town, with office buildings, shopping centres, schools, colleges, libraries, hotels, apartment blocks and public spaces popping up everywhere. As you approach from the north of the city via the A55 autoroute, you’ll see two skyscrapers dominating the skyline: the Zaha Hadid-designed CMA CGM Tower is home to the huge shipping firm of the same name, while the Jean Nouvel-designed La Marseillaise is a 31-storey office block. The other standout landmark is a Hollywood-style sign on the Grand Littoral hillside.

When it comes to injecting business opportunities into the region, there’s a project even bigger in size and ambition than Euroméditerranée. Amalgamating more than 3,000 sq km of western Provence, and 1.83 million people, it’s called the Métropole Aix-Marseille Provence.

Digital advantage

Maxime Tissot, director of Marseille’s tourism office, claims this merger will result in a 7.5 per cent increase in business across the region, especially among smaller enterprises. “A better synergy and cohesion is what we want,” he told Business Traveller.

“The problem is it’s difficult to encourage people to be metropolitan. Most people think of themselves being from Marseille, or Aix or Auban; not being from the metropolis as a whole.”

Tissot suggests Marseille’s transport links need to improve. Although high-speed TGV trains currently link Marseille Saint-Charles station to Paris in three hours, 20 minutes, the airline services from Marseille Provence Airport are fairly limited if you need to fly beyond Europe. Currently the only intercontinental flights are to Montreal, North Africa, Réunion Island and Madagascar.

“We want to break the stranglehold that Nice and Paris airports have,” Tissot says. “We’re encouraging Emirates to come here. And we’d like to get direct flights to the USA and China.”

There is one international link, however, where Marseille punches well above its weight. Tissot explains how the fibre-optic cables that link the USA to southern Europe snake along the Atlantic seabed, and arrive at Marseille. “So our city gets its digital information a few micro-seconds before other cities,” he adds. Apparently this makes a sizeable difference, allowing Marseille businesses, especially those in IT and digital services, to steal a march on rivals.

Locals can’t agree whether the Métropole Aix-Marseille Provence is a blessing or a curse. Some say it’s great for Marseille since a link with the very posh Aix-en-Provence softens the former’s insalubrious image. Conversely, residents of Aix complain that Marseille’s reputation debases them by association. There have been suggestions that huge amounts of public money have been wasted on fruitless projects.

But all along this beautiful stretch of Mediterranean coastline, business seems to be flourishing. The marketers behind the Métropole pinpoint six key industries, mostly centred in Marseille itself. Aeronautics is one of the most important, thanks to Marseille Provence Airport where Airbus Helicopters, Daher and Bonnans have bases. There are plenty of health and biotechnology companies, focused around what’s known as the Marseille Immunopole cluster. Important firms include Innate Pharma, HalioDX, Eurofins Biotech Germande and Provepharm. There’s a troop of green energy companies, too, including DualSun and Onet Technologies, plus a sizeable presence in the maritime industry, thanks to the city’s enormous industrial port – the largest in France.

Start-up companies

But like all cities on the make, the industries that Marseille is most excited about are the creative ones. The Métropole cites fashion brand American Vintage (launched by Marseille entrepreneur Michael Azoulay), jeans designer Kaporal and clothing brand Sessùn. The city is also doing its best to attract start-up companies in media and IT. Already there is Jaguar Network, Wiko, Gobi Studio, Oxatis, Devisubox, Vigimilia and Destino Mundo.

There’s also a big push for tech start-up companies to move to the area, spearheaded by a government-funded scheme called Aix-Marseille French Tech. It highlights the fact that, in terms of data centres, the region is France’s second most important after Paris. It points out that Aix-Marseille University, in Marseille itself, has 77,000 students, making it the largest in the French-speaking world; and that half the region’s population is under 35 years old. The plans are to “grow start-ups from the idea stage to the tech champion stage”.

But Marseille still has its crime problems and gritty image. You can pump as much money as you want into a city, but it’s still difficult for it to shake off its notoriety. Perhaps it shouldn’t even try. Perhaps the gritty image is all part of its attraction.

Jonathan Meades is a British writer and film-maker who relocated to Marseille eight years ago. As an outsider, he is better placed than most to summarise this great city.

“It’s a most congenial place to inhabit,” he says. “Friendly in a way that Paris has never been, and laid back in a way that London has never been. It’s also rather bolshie. It is to France what Liverpool is to England. You might get a kicking on a Friday night, but they will embrace you and apologise after.”   

Marseille’s movie industry

A short distance inland from Marseille’s industrial port, up on a hill called Grand Littoral, 14-metre-high white letters spell out the city’s name – like Hollywood, just a bit more low-key. This huge sign was a gift and publicity stunt from Netflix when it launched its 2016 TV series Marseille, starring Gérard Depardieu. If you needed a symbol of this town’s place in the movie industry, this is it.

In many ways, Marseille is France’s answer to Hollywood. Like Los Angeles’ movie district, it has the weather (300 days of sunshine a year), and it spoils directors with its variety of terrain. Within a few square miles you can find gritty city streets, chic neighbourhoods, beaches, forests and the Calanques mountains as a backdrop. This explains why, over the years, hundreds of film and TV studios, production companies and their associated industries, have flourished across the city.

One of the first major film factories was Studios Pagnol, established in 1932, where French writer Marcel Pagnol adapted many of his books to great acclaim. Following this, the movie industry blossomed in the post-Second World War period. And the cameras haven’t stopped rolling since.

The list of movies and TV series filmed or set in France’s second city is long and occasionally illustrious. The French Connection (1971) is perhaps the most famous. Over the years, other great dramas have appeared, including The Marseille Contract (1974), French Connection II (1975), Betty Blue (1986), the Taxi franchise, Baise-Moi (2000), The Bourne Identity (2002), The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), the Transporter franchise, A Prophet (2009) and The Connection (2014).

But if you want to experience modern-day Marseille in all its glory, then head for the Netflix series of the same name. The opening scene might be a symbol for this town’s combination of grit and glamour as the lead character, Gérard Depardieu’s Mayor Robert Taro, struts into a packed Olympique de Marseille football stadium minutes after consuming a prodigious line of cocaine. “Putain, ce que j’aime cette ville!” he says to himself. (“I f***ing love this city!”)

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