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The Growing Pains of Marseille’s New Left-Wing Government

Last June, France’s second city voted for the “Marseille Spring,” a left-wing coalition that put an end to two decades of conservative rule. But difficult pandemic conditions — and now the abrupt exit of mayor Michèle Rubirola — have raised questions over its ability to put ordinary citizens in charge of City Hall.

Marseille City Hall (Hôtel de ville) in Marseille, France. (Howard Russell / Flickr)

It was one of the Left’s most encouraging victories in summer 2020’s French municipal elections: in Marseille, the country’s second-largest city, a broad coalition of parties managed to defy the odds and kick out a right-wing establishment that had held power for over two decades.

Swept into office after railing against corruption, clientelism, and neglect of the city’s working-class majority, the alliance known as Printemps Marseillais, or “Marseille Spring,” promised an ambitious shake-up at city hall. The new government was led by Mayor Michèle Rubirola, a sixty-four-year-old medical doctor and member of the Greens (EELV), whose base also included the Socialists (PS), Communists (PCF), and parts of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. Her administration vowed to boost investment in public services and anchor its decision-making in communities long alienated by local politics.

Seven months later, it’s proven a difficult task.

The job was never going to be easy — and it’s been made all the more challenging by a health crisis and economic downturn without precedent. Local officials, meanwhile, insist they’re just getting started and promise bigger reforms are on the horizon.

Nevertheless, some on the outside are getting antsy — and even more so after the unexpected departure of Rubirola, who resigned from her post as mayor last month. Triggering shock, then a wave of speculation about backroom dealings, it struck many as precisely the sort of political maneuver Printemps Marsellais said it would avoid.

Le Switch

Media have dubbed it “le switch.” Six days after resigning as mayor in mid-December, citing health reasons and an inability to handle the job’s grueling responsibilities, Rubirola swapped posts with her deputy mayor, Benoît Payan. The forty-two-year-old Socialist was already well-known: he led the left-wing opposition in city council to the previous mayor and was widely expected to run in last year’s election, but stood down in the name of preserving the Marseille Spring coalition — a move for which he was widely applauded.

“Everyone knows Payan has wanted to be mayor of Marseille for quite some time,” says Mohamed Bensaada, a resident of the city’s lower-income northern neighborhoods and an activist with the Syndicat des Quartiers Populaires de Marseille, a group that supports local struggles over housing, labor, and education issues. “With the Socialist Party label, he never would have been able to.”

Several outlets have reported that Rubirola never intended to remain in office for the duration of her six-year term — and rumors abound that there was an agreement from the beginning to cede her place to Payan. While Payan, Rubirola, and others in Marseille Spring have publicly denied there was any such preexisting deal, the events have managed to suck up much of the goodwill that accompanied the group’s arrival in city hall — and fueled a sense of disappointment and betrayal among some of the coalition’s voters.

“A switch like this six months after the elections, it’s not very inspiring,” says Bensaada, who ran against the coalition on the ballot line of La France Insoumise in the city’s 13th and 14th arrondissements, but recently penned an article, entitled “Prove Me Wrong,” wishing success to the new mayor. “Above all for the people who believed very sincerely in the idea that Rubirola was bringing in a sort of fresh, citizen-like approach.”

The Marseille harbor. Andy Wright / flickr

Despite the poor optics, Bensaada doesn’t think the move necessarily signals a substantive change in policy. In fact, Payan himself hails broadly from the left wing of the Socialist Party — backing, for instance, its ill-fated 2017 presidential candidate Benoît Hamon at a time when many fellow Socialists jumped ship to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party or chose not to campaign for Hamon at all. Payan also steered the local party into the Marseille Spring alliance in the first place.

Théo Challande, a deputy mayor from the Greens whose portfolio includes the two subjects of local democracy and antidiscrimination, tells Jacobin he understands the sense of anger and disappointment Rubirola’s departure provoked. But he notes Rubirola still serves as deputy and the rest of the team remains in office.

“We need to look ahead and what’s happening today,” Challande says. “We need to look at what’s in front of us and build a new response based on what we’ve built, on the unity of the Left, which is absolutely essential, and which remains essential.”

Ultimately, he acknowledges, they’ll be judged by their actions.

Work To Be Done

Kévin Vacher, a thirty-year-old housing activist and researcher in sociology, says his concerns go well beyond the swap at the top. Vacher is a member of the November 5 Collective, named for the date of the collapse of two buildings in the central neighborhood of Noailles in 2018. The tragedy, which left eight people dead, shone a light on the dilapidated state of housing downtown. It also sparked mass protests that forced local authorities to commit to relocating thousands of residents deemed to be living in dangerous conditions.

“About half the election was done before the campaign started,” Vacher says in an interview at his apartment on the rue d’Aubagne, just down the street from the now empty lot where the collapsed buildings once stood. “It was the work done by social movements to put the local right-wing government into crisis and to delegitimize [former mayor Jean-Claude] Gaudin.”

On the issue of housing, Vacher says the new government should be doing more right now. For one, he says it needs to better enforce the city’s Housing Relocation Charter, the plan approved under the previous mayor, with the help of housing groups, to evacuate people in unsafe buildings. According to the November 5 Collective, some of those evacuated have been moved into apartments that don’t meet basic health and safety standards.

In addition to respecting the existing rules, Vacher’s group has proposed a slate of emergency measures, including the immediate relocation of five hundred evacuees currently living in hotels and fifteen hundred living in provisional housing. He says the city has plenty of unoccupied housing stock (around two thousand to ten thousand empty apartments that are livable, he says) that could be seized to do just that.

But Vacher says activists have struggled to obtain the proper high-level meeting with the mayor’s office to address the issue. While his group hasn’t been stonewalled entirely, he says things have moved at a glacial pace, with meetings yielding little progress.

He says that that approach to grassroots pressure highlights one of the coalition’s fundamental flaws.

“Marseille Spring is a contradictory thing,” Vacher says. “It’s a compromise that takes up certain goals of social movements, including the citizen imaginary, the citizen label, but it takes them up for its own purposes, because it doesn’t come from them.”

Making Progress

Théo Challande says there’s no shortage of advances so far, pointing to his own portfolio of antidiscrimination and LGBT rights: alongside regional authorities, the city has committed to providing emergency housing for homeless LGBT youth; it’s planning to roll out a LGBT center to offer a permanent physical space for activist groups; and it’s working to develop annual Gay Pride festivities. Modest as they seem, they mark real changes in a city that has historically lacked much of a visible gay culture — or at least, one that reflects the size of its population.

“It’s complicated to build public policies,” says Challande, as he outlines the work of lining up support and funding from regional governments. “It’s not so simple.”

Mathilde Chaboche, the new deputy mayor for urbanism, also defended the new administration’s early record. While the city’s most recent annual budget was developed largely by the outgoing right-wing majority, Printemps Marseillais moved to tack on an additional €50 million in spending: an extra €30 million to improve schools (covering issues as simple as the installation of heating and the provision of toilet paper) and €20 million to address housing issues (covering upgrades to both public and privately owned housing stock.)

Chaboche also says much of the new majority’s work has involved what she calls “putting things in order”: developing plans to better deploy the city’s fourteen thousand public employees and instilling a broader culture shift. Early on in her tenure, for instance, she recalls being asked to sign off on illegal construction projects.

Sunset over Marseille, France. (Wikimedia Commons)

“At the beginning, city officials would come to me with files, with requests, and say, ‘Okay, they’re asking me to do something illegal,’ what are your orders?” Chaboche says. “At the start, I was sort of dumbfounded, I thought, ‘What kind of order am I supposed to give to something illegal?’ Obviously, I’m going to tell you, ‘We won’t do it, we’re going to say no.’

“‘But if it’s important people?’ [the officials asked]. If it’s important people, [I said] another thing to keep in mind going forward that there aren’t ‘important people’ and ‘unimportant people,’” recalls Chaboche. “I’m not making haphazard decisions on the basis of people’s importance.”

She says that the fact the request made it all the way to her desk — instead of being immediately met with a rejection — speaks volumes in itself. “It’s like there was a sort of intermediary validation,” Chaboche says. “But this can’t exist. The first job of a public official is to apply the law.”

When asked whether this way of doing business was a legacy of the Gaudin era, Chaboche declined to respond directly. “This seemed to be a way of functioning that came from somewhere,” she says with a laugh.

Since taking office, Chaboche has rejected a handful of real estate development projects her predecessors supported, something she hopes will lay the foundation for more equitable policies of her own making.

“It made people angry because I think they understood there’s a new way of doing things — and it’s true, Marseille was sort of the Wild West of real estate promoters until now,” she says. “I’m putting more rigor into it. It changes the environment a bit, and at the same time, I think it’s making things more equal — everyone’s treated the same.”

In any case, next year’s budget will likely provide deeper insights into how Marseille Spring intends to govern. But it will also reveal how it plans to operate under financial constraints: while the coalition has promised to invest heavily in education and housing, it’s also likely to face significant budgetary restrictions, thanks to decades of mismanagement and misallocated resources. Marseille is already one of the most heavily indebted cities in France, and a new audit ordered by Printemps Marseillais could reveal the city’s finances are in even worse shape than anticipated.

Democratic Renewal

Activist Mohammed Bensaada acknowledges the new majority’s spending plans could be complicated by circumstances outside their control. But as he points out, the new team didn’t just promise a change in policies; Marseille Spring promised a fundamentally different relationship with city residents, vowing to bring them into the heart of the political process. That pledge to upend local politics as usual — along with the underlying left unity — helps explain why the coalition drew so much attention from across the country.

“They didn’t get elected on saying ‘yes, we’ll build this tramway’ or ‘we’ll put this building up there,’ they got elected on a promise — this promise was to reestablish a healthier functioning of our municipal democracy which has been hollowed out for decades,” Bensaada says. “If this promise is held up, then we’ll maybe remember this switch [of mayors] as a footnote. But, if in addition to this little sleight of hand, nothing happens, then it’s going to be more difficult.”

In other words, the question is whether Marseille Spring will make good on its promise of grassroots-led democratic renewal or settle instead for a sort of technocratic left-liberalism, operating without much working-class involvement.

“Oftentimes, expertise and the simplest, most pertinent solutions are developed by citizens,” Bensaada continues. “It comes down to political will. Either you say, ‘We’re elected and we know everything,’ like Macron’s team, the start-up nation, or you’re elected but you have a certain humility and you’re in dialogue with citizens.”

Bensaada says the new government should strengthen its links with Marseille’s low-income northern neighborhoods by improving dialogue with housing activists, labor unions, and community groups, and listen to their proposals for improving the city. In addition to higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and a lack of public transportation, these areas suffer from a general sense of political disillusionment. As Bensaada points out, election turnout was especially low in the city’s two northernmost wards, neither of which elected a majority of city council members from Printemps Marseillais.

Nevertheless, Bensaada says an encouraging sign has been the city’s response to the initiative known as L’Après M, a budding community center rooted in worker struggle.

Braving months of protest from trade unionists, McDonald’s France succeeded in closing a popular restaurant in the northern neighborhood of Saint-Barthélémy in December 2019. But a few months later, during the first lockdown, activists occupied the empty McDonald’s and converted it into a food bank. Now, an array of community groups, which include former employees, aim to turn the site into a cooperative that offers locally produced food.

To the delight of L’Après M supporters, the city of Marseille has reportedly entered negotiations with McDonald’s to buy up the restaurant (which the company still technically owns) and take a stake in the co-op. In mid-January, Mayor Benoît Payan even paid a visit to the site, posing for photos and offering a powerful symbol of support to a project that’s still effectively being run by squatters.

“It’s exactly what they need to do,” Bensaada says.