Long unloved and unwanted, the ultimate ‘outsider’ city poses France the most important question it faces in the 21st century

Mehdi Remadnia was number one. Cut down by 15 bullets on 7 February, out on the western edge of Marseille, the 34-year-old became the first casualty of the city’s drug wars in 2017. Known as the “Bear of Font Vert” (Font Vert being the cité, or housing estate, where he lived and ran a major drug network), Remadnia had only been released from prison last May. It had made him fatalistic. A social worker, Mohammed, recalled meeting him after he got out. “I hadn’t seen him for a long time. So I said to him: ‘You’re not still up to no good’? And he just said: ‘I’m a gangster now.’” Remadnia was also a father of three. His mother had died when he was nine. He’d started designing clothes in prison. Was he a decent guy, deep down? “I’m not sure you can be nice if you’re involved in things like that. He had blood on his hands.”

We’re in the social centre at La Busserine, an estate across the road from Font Vert. This is the heart of the quartiers nords, the deprived, crime-ridden northern districts that have given Marseille its reputation as France’s outsider city. Black, white and Arab teenagers are shimmying to bubblegum pop in the playground outside this forlorn converted boys’ school, as the mistral wind whips up dust-devils from the nearby roadworks. A life of so-called néobanditisme [gangsterism] like Remadnia’s is an enticing prospect here, where 28% live on less than €630 a month. It’s difficult, says Mohammed, to find a job if you have the wrong address or the wrong kind of name. Such as anything Arabic. He cites a fully qualified engineer friend unable to get an interview: “If he put Jean-Michel on his CV, it’d be a different story.”

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