Marseille’s Conservative Establishment Is Using Crude Anticommunism to Demonize Its Opposition

In Sunday’s mayoral elections, a united slate of left-wingers and Greens is set to win France’s second-largest city for the first time in decades. Faced with this challenge, the conservative establishment has radicalized, accusing the broad left of planning a "Cuban-style putsch" on the streets of Marseille.

Sunset over Marseille, France. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Left’s campaign for the Marseille mayor’s office was always going to be an uphill battle — not impossible, though more than a bit improbable, according to the pundits at least. Now, just days before the final round of France’s local elections, the leaders of a united left coalition are confident they’ll be able to kick out the right-wing political machine that’s governed France’s second city for the last twenty-five years.

“I know we’re going to win,” Olivia Fortin, one of the leading candidates for Le Printemps Marseillais, or the Marseille Spring coalition, told me over the phone as she flyered on the final weekend of campaigning. “I know our project is the right one.”

If Fortin’s prediction holds, it would mark arguably the biggest victory for France’s fragmented left in municipal elections which have already been upended by the COVID-19 crisis. After first heading to the polls on March 15, Marseille voters — like those nationwide — have had to wait more than three months before being able to cast their ballots in Sunday’s runoff. Yet the delay apparently hasn’t reduced their appetite for change.

While Marseille’s left coalition eked out a lead in the first round, polls show it ahead by an even larger margin today: 35 percent for Marseille Spring, 30 percent for the right-wing Republicans, and 20 percent for the far-right National Rally, according to the most recent survey. Officially, the vote is held by geographical “sectors” — there are eight of them, each with their own mayor and local council — but an overall score like the one forecast by polls would almost certainly hand a citywide majority to the left alliance and make its candidate Michèle Rubirola the next mayor.

The doctor and former Green party member heads an impressively broad alliance, including just about every organization that comprises France’s alphabet soup of left-wing parties. She is backed by local branches of the Socialists, Communists, Place Publique, and Génération.s, the party founded by Benoît Hamon; a large group of activists from La France Insoumise (LFI), though the local party hasn’t given its formal endorsement; and since the end of the first round, Europe Ecology – the Greens, which has withdrawn its rival list and thrown its support behind Rubirola. “We know how to work together,” Fortin told Jacobin. “This is part of something that’s been in place for some time, we’ve built up confidence, there’s a common culture.”

Cross-party alliances of this scope have been rare in major cities. Indeed, since the election of Emmanuel Macron in 2017, France has lacked a clear hegemonic force on the left; LFI, the Greens, and the Socialists have each vied for this role to varying degrees, just as the Communists continue to maintain a solid base on the municipal level. However, Marseille’s coalition has been facilitated by a very particular situation on the ground. The hardscrabble port city is known for its strong local identity and diversity, but it’s also been plagued with above-average unemployment and poverty as well as waning confidence in city government.

Growing Frustrations

Popular frustration with right-wing mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin (a member of the Republicans) had already been brewing for years. He recently celebrated his eightieth birthday and is finally set to step down from office after more than two decades in power. But such sentiments began to boil over after the fatal collapse of two dilapidated apartment buildings in November 2018 — a tragedy that, in turn, drove a push on the left to present a credible political alternative. The ties that bind together Marseille Spring’s different components have thus been more than a year in the making — and they’ve been strengthened by simple demands that distinguish the alliance from the city’s political establishment. The coalition, for instance, is calling for a broad expansion in public services.

“Our goal is to invest a lot in schools, to invest a lot in transport, to invest in the living environment . . . while our opponents propose outlandish projects like installing a swimming pool in the sea,” said Fortin, who’s running to be mayor in the city’s fourth sector — an area that has typically leaned rightward but which Marseille Spring hopes to flip. “We need to take care of the base, things that we need to use every day.”

Local democracy is another theme animating this campaign. Conscious of the general discontent with professional politicians, the coalition has prioritized the recruitment of candidates without experience in elected office. And as early as July, Marseille Spring vows to make the city’s sectoral governments hold “participatory debates” open to all residents.

“In Marseille, we have a population that comes from around the world, and that doesn’t necessarily have the right to vote, but we feel that every resident of the city should be able to participate in the democratic life of the city,” said Fortin, a production manager who organizes events for the film and entertainment industry and who has never held elected office herself. “We’re proposing that the local council of each sector organize debates with all residents who wish to participate.”

Red-baiting, a “French Tradition”

As polling suggests that the right-wing establishment’s grip on the city is slipping away, the tone of its campaign has grown increasingly vicious. Last week, the Republicans’ mayoral candidate and former odds-on favorite Martine Vassal published an article on her official campaign site warning that Marseille Spring would bring “chaos and decline to our city,” accompanied by videos of recent demonstrations against police brutality showing flames and black-clad antifascists. Then, in an interview with the local daily La Provence, Vassal declared “the ultra-left” was “preparing a Cuban or Venezuelan-style putsch.”

“It’s this idea, après nous, le chaos — if we’re not in charge, then things can’t work,” said Fortin. “It’s a national thing, a French tradition.”

It’s also steeped in anticommunism, and as Fortin pointed out, incumbent right-wing mayors in Toulouse and Nancy have borrowed from the same playbook. The former, Jean-Luc Moudenc, has warned that his city’s “model of “calm local democracy is in danger” because of “particularly dangerous far-left forces.” In the latter case, the local branch of the Republicans posted a meme on Twitter that incorporated a photo of moderate Socialist Party challenger Matthew Klein into the Soviet Union’s “four heads of Marxism” iconography — his profile following those of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Fortin said the rhetoric recalls warnings of “Soviet tanks” filling the streets of Paris ahead of Socialist François Mitterrand’s victory in the 1981 presidential election.

At the same time, she acknowledged the attacks have been especially aggressive in Marseille. Martine Vassal has also claimed Marseille Spring will bring legalized heroin consumption rooms to the city and transform the city into a “hub for migrants” while posters have gone up downtown aiming to link Rubirola to Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Vassal herself has repeatedly aimed to paint the latter as a sort of puppet master behind the unity coalition, labeling the candidates as “friends of Mélenchon” and even challenging him to a debate (which he refused, encouraging her to consider one of the actual candidates instead).

As Marseille’s only left-wing representative in the National Assembly, the leader of La France Insoumise has indeed endorsed Marseille Spring, and LFI’s Sophie Camard heads the coalition’s list in one of the city’s sectors. But after tense debates over how the local chapter of LFI should position itself — and faced with the recent mudslinging from Vassal — Mélenchon has actually maintained something of a distance from the campaign.

“I think she’s losing her good sense, she’s panicking, and so she’s going on and on, but I don’t think Marseillais believe it anymore,” Fortin said of Vassal’s rhetoric. “It’s so over the top, she’s going so far.”

Order Versus Chaos?

The race has also been shaken by a corruption scandal tied to proxy voting. (Like in the United Kingdom, France allows electors to vote on behalf of someone else if that person can’t make it to the polls on election day.) But earlier in June, reports alleged the Vassal camp hasn’t respected the tight rules around the process, which require voters wishing to authorize another person to vote in their place to sign a request in advance and in person before public officials.

One report found Vassal’s supporters were encouraging voters in two of the city’s eight sectors to sign up for what they called “simplified” proxy voting, offering to “take care” of the applications themselves. Another found that during the first round in March, workers at one city polling station were alarmed to count fifty-one proxy votes from a single retirement home, noting that voters didn’t know the people they were officially representing. The average age of the residents in question was ninety and included people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Prosecutors have since opened an investigation.

“On a general level, I’m horrified to see our city is once again the laughingstock of France, and of the world . . . yet again it’s an opportunity for Marseille to live up to its image — ‘Oh, the Marseillais, they cheat in elections,’” Fortin lamented. “All of this is very scandalous, of course, but now what we’re aiming for is the total sanctity of the vote on June 28. We’re extremely vigilant about the proxy voting. Every day, we’re checking in with the proxy voting office to make sure that nothing dishonest is taking place.”

For supporters of Marseille Spring, it’s only reinforced their conviction that the city badly needs to move on from the Gaudin era, along with the clientelism and inequality his reign has come to represent. Fortin, for her part, said she was inspired to run to stop the “brain drain” of skilled workers out of the city — and to offer more opportunities to Marseille’s youth. She regularly visits schools to talk about her work and was struck by the rampant disparities that manifest themselves during middle school internships — a three-to-five-day-long requirement for students across France.

“In Marseille, what happens is either you’re born into a family that allows you to have dreams and to project yourself in a successful career, or you’re stuck at home and you do your internship next to your tower block without seeing anything else,” Fortin said. “This means we’re cutting ourselves off from half the talents of the city.”

Fortin hopes to address that problem if elected. “In our first term, we’ll be able to recreate the conditions of confidence in our territory, and we’ll be more attractive for talent from around the world,” she explained. “We need to have talent in Marseille.”

Such common-sense appeals to tackling inequality give some indication of why the conservative fearmongering has appeared to flop so badly. Indeed, one of the great ironies of all the Right’s “order versus chaos” rhetoric in this race is that the order represented by Martine Vassal has proven so ineffective. And according to the polls, it isn’t very popular either.