It's tempting to say, and probably true, that no rule made by Paris goes unbent in the city of Marseille. The capital of Provence has a well-deserved reputation as a rough and unruly place, a port that attracts all kinds of contraband and all kinds of people, some of them contraband too. Over the centuries, they've mostly come by sea—mingling, scheming, brawling, coupling, feasting, and drinking with unashamed and unapologetic flamboyance. The city has served as a refuge for people fleeing persecution, pestilence, and poverty. Recently its sizable immigrant influx has been largely of Muslim origin, and today when you gaze from one of Marseille's many beaches across the Mediterranean toward the unseen North African coast, you can almost imagine a human deluge on its way as the spreading unrest in the Arab world pushes more refugees and job seekers toward the shores of Europe.
If you listen to far-right politicians, you'll think this immigrant wave means, inevitably, an onslaught of Islamic puritanism that will challenge European ways and force every woman to dress like a Taliban bride. But then you realize that many of the men and women jostling around you on the Marseille sand are from African and Arab backgrounds, and that the young women are wearing bikinis, not burkas. Thanks to a remarkably efficient public transport system, you can get to Marseille's beaches from any part of town in less than 45 minutes.
And so for several months of the year, rich and poor, white and black, African and Arab, Muslim, Christian, and Jew, all find their own space on the sand, strip off most of their clothes, and settle down to socialize—and be socialized— under the Provençal sun. Ask them where they're from and you won't hear Algeria or Morocco, the Comoros islands or even France. Almost always they'll simply say, Marseille.
As more European countries become nations of immigrants, Marseille may be a vision of the future, even a model of multiculturalism. Not that its equilibrium is easy to maintain. In particular, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East periodically send ripples of fear through this French city. "During the war in Iraq in 1991, I said to myself, Things are going to explode in Marseille—because of the images that were coming into Muslims' living rooms through their satellite dishes," says Michèle Teboul, president of the Provence chapter of CRIF, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France. "We said, If this doesn't explode now, it's never going to explode." And it didn't: Local Muslim leaders managed to calm things down by working with other religious figures. Similarly in November 2005, when riot-fueled flames erupted in just about every other French city's immigrant-filled housing projects, Muslim Marseille stayed cool.
Some locals believe, with reason, that the Marseille miracle of social peace has a lot to do with its beaches, which serve as its great melting pot. Farouk Youssoufa, 25, courted his 20-year-old wife, Mina, at the Plage de Corbière, and they now frequent the Plage du Prado. Youssoufa was born on a French island in the Comoros archipelago between Tanzania and Madagascar, and his skin is as black as anyone's in Africa. Mina is the fair-complexioned, French-born daughter of Algerian immigrants. "The new generation is much more of a mixture," says Youssoufa, who works with boys and girls of almost every conceivable skin tone and ethnic background at a cultural center in one of the rougher northern neighborhoods of Marseille. On the beach, especially, "there are a lot of different communities that mix, that mingle," Youssoufa tells me one blistering hot afternoon in May. "Voilà: With time we've learned to live together."
But "voilà," a recurrent tic in Marseille conversation, doesn't quite tell the whole story. The neutral turf of sun and sand reaches only so far into city life. While other municipal rituals also unite people (a fanatical support for the Marseille soccer team, for instance), once the game's over and the sun sets on the beach, prejudices can surface. There's plenty of racism to be found in Marseille, says Mina, including among its Muslim Montagues and Capulets. "When we are in places where there are a lot of people, it's not such a problem. But when we go in the neighborhoods where the Arabs are, when the two of us pass by we're looked at a lot, and sometimes they insult me." She sucks in her breath and shakes her head.
Such a story raises the question of whether Marseille is really an example of cosmopolitan harmony—or a society on the brink of unrest. The uncomfortable answer is that it's both.