Crime in Marseille

Marseille is situated on the southern coast of France, 110 miles west of the famed and glittering Riviera. It is the oldest French city, dating back to 600BC, and is home to approximately 850,000 residents, the second largest city in France.

We recommend you don’t go near this dangerous and corruptly run city.

It is a city of contrasts, with the richer, mostly white areas south of the city Centre and the poorer northern districts from the center ofthe city, where 40% of people live below the poverty line. Many call Marseille the poorest city in France. Those with money live in the suburbs, whilst the northern districts are cramped with high rise blocks, mostly occupied by immigrants and disenfranchised youth, sometimes referred to as ghettos.

Crime is rife in the city, with high murder rates and drug related crimes, and it’s only getting worse: Marseille is experiencing growing social problems. Areas in the northern districts have become ‘no-go’ areas for the police and the locals run their own road blocks to monitor who enters and dish out their own form of discipline and punishment. Gang warfare is the norm and the drug cartels operate with relative impunity and openly carry Kalashnikovs, which have become the weapon of choice.

As Marseille is a large port city, this has meant that it has become a magnet for immigration. There is no way of knowing how many Arabs/Muslims live in any individual city, because registration by religion or ethnic origin is forbidden by law, however the latest research in Marseille suggests that around one third of ‘Marseilles’ are now Muslim. Back in 2006, it was reported that 70,000 city residents were considered to be of Maghrebian origin, mostly Algerian. The second largest group in Marseille in terms of single nationalities were from the Comoros, amounting to some 45,000 people. This has increased tremendously as migrants flee the troubles of their African and Middle Eastern countries. This group does not assimilate well with native Marseilles.

Crime rates are over 5 times higher than any other city in France, especially the murder rate, which sees young men shot in the head and burned, called ‘barbecuing’ as part of gang or drug related crimes. Muggings are violent and usually involve numerous people, who carry weapons. Approaching on scooters is a preferred tactic. As youth unemployment is reported to be as high as 40%, crimes of robbery and assault to obtain easily sold valuables are common. 

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Marseille also has a continuing war with the Corsican separatist group FLNC, and they have carried out bomb attacks on many hotels in Marseille.

If you must visit Marseille, use common sense and don’t put yourself at risk by entering areas known for high crime rates (like the third arrondissement –the poorest arrondissement in France– where over 50% live beneath the poverty line). Don’t travel alone at night. If you have an air of confidence about you and you look at home with your surroundings, you are less likely to be attacked.

Check out our expert tips about how to avoid crime on the French Riviera.

Behind the Crime that Gave Marseille its Drug Trafficking Reputation

Marseille has a long history of criminal activity involving the mafia, but there is one crime in particular that gave this city its reputation as a drug-trafficking capital: the ‘French Connection’. It’s an amazing story that begins with stolen Nazi money and ends with corruption in 1970’s New York.

In the 1930s, Corsican mafia leader Paul Carbone realised that there was money to be made on the streets of America by selling heroin. He began transporting poppy seeds from Turkey to France – via Marseille – and then on towards Canada and, eventually, the US. This route (soon dubbed the ‘French Connection’) used Marseille as a thoroughfare because it was one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean, meaning shipments were more difficult to detect.

A man called Auguste Ricord worked with Carbone to finance the operation. It is believed that the money Ricord provided was obtained during his time with the French Gestapo, a branch of the Nazi party, in the years that made up World War II. US authorities were aware of the French Connection as early as 1937, having discovered a number of Marseille-based labs that were turning morphine paste into heroine. However, the CIA allegedly protected the Corsican gang because of the help they provided in preventing French communists from taking control of Marseille’s Old Port at the end of World War II. This turned out to be a big mistake for the Americans.

The French Connection gradually began to ship greater and greater quantities of drugs to America throughout the 1950’s and ’60s. It is estimated that, by 1960, as much as 5,000 pounds of heroin (2,300 kg) was coming onto American streets through the route every year. French authorities were allegedly reluctant to arrest one of the gang’s major ringleaders as he had been a part of the French Resistance during World War II.

The US government tried to get Turkey to reduce the amount of opium being exported, but eventually they knew they had to bring down the mob themselves. The US authorities (with help from international allies) clamped down on the trafficking activity and, throughout the early 1970’s, seized boatloads of drugs and arrested hundreds of people. At the same time, many members of the mafia involved were killed due to in-fighting with other gangs. By the mid ’70s, the French Connection was washed up.

The French Connection brought a huge amount of drugs into the US – and many New York police officers used the scheme to get rich themselves. In fact, the NYPD involvement is still at the centre of one of history’s most infamous, unsolved corruption scandals: in 1962, a large shipment of drugs – containing over 400 pounds of heroin and cocaine said to be valued at $73 million – was seized from the French Connection gang. In 1972 it was discovered that the drugs, which were being kept in a New York City police vault, had been replaced with flour and cornstarch and, over the ten-year period, sold on the streets of America. Four New York City police officers were implicated, one of which was later killed.

One of the French Connection mobsters – eventually sent down fora total of 455 years for his crimes – is currently languishing in an American jail; Anthony Casso is perhaps the only person in the world that will ever know who was really responsible for leaking the drugs onto the streets.

The French connection is the stuff of legends – and prime material Hollywood. In 1971, William Friedkin (who famously went on to direct The Exorcist (1973)) made a movie called ‘The French Connection’, starring Gene Hackman. But the French were already using Marseille as a notorious backdrop long before this. Films like Jacques Deray’s Borsalino (1970), starring two of France’s most popular actors at the time, showed rival gangsters and warring mafia families. Locals in Marseille had known for a long time that the city was home to nefarious mafia behaviour, but it was the Oscar-winning success of ‘The French Connection’ that really brought this idea to an international audience.

Marseille’s infamy continues to this day, with Netflix’s grandiose Marseille series and Cédric Jimenez’s 2014 version of the drug bust starring Jean Dujardin, called La French. It appears as if this is one aspect of Marseille’s history that it will never shake.

A Local’s Perspective and Tips

I’m an English guy who’s been living in Marseille since July 2014 and am offering an update on the crime and safety situation from a local perspective. Myself and every resident I speak with here has first hand experience of crime, with the most common being snatch thefts, pickpocket, theft from cars, theft of bicycles / motorbikes. I’ve had a bag snatched, I saw the thief take it and I chased him. This is the first time anything like this has happened to me, I’m almost fifty years old and have lived in some dodgy areas of major UK cities with the worst that happened being a bike stolen from the entrance hall of some flats where I lived.

Certain parts of Marseille are a lot more dangerous than others. The forest of CCTV cameras recently installed may have made areas like the Vieux Port and Panier safer but based on my experiences and what I’ve heard from long term residents, here are some points to bear in mind:

  • Snatch thefts of jewellery, especially neck chains occur on the tram and the metro. Also thefts of watches, so if anyone asks you the time, you don’t know. Why would they ask you the time when they almost certainly have a mobile phone?
  • Pickpockets operate all over the city but especially on the metro. St Charles station is nowadays crawling with security guards and soldiers. Be very wary of people bumping into you, groups of young people kicking a football around which happens to cross your path…and as the young man goes to get the ball he somehow bumps into you while his accomplice is reaching for the mobile they saw earlier on outlined in your trouser pocket.
  • I nowadays use various concealed wallets when I’m out and about in the city centre, because I’ve lost count of the number of attempts at theft that have been made. I have a shoulder bag that can carry a smartphone, wallet, set of keys and can be concealed under clothing. Local people I know never carry a bag with them in the evening.
  • I suggest leaving your nice designer watch, gold jewellery and smartphone behind and when you’re on the street, use one of the free maps available from the tourist information.
  • The area bordered by Allee Gambetta, Rue de la Grande Armee and la Canebiere should be avoided as should the side streets running down from St Charles station. There’s nothing of any interest around there in any case. One exception might be the vegetarian restaurant Grain du Sable on rue Baignoir, open lunchtimes.
  • The area running from Cours Belsunce, around Rue Colbert up to Port d’Aix is extremely dangerous and notorious for snatch thefts. An ambulance crew, collecting a patient recently had their smartphones and the works phone stolen from the front of the ambulance while they were getting the patient in to the back. This was where I had a bag snatched in broad daylight. So if you’re thinking of strolling up to the Arc de Triomphe and having a picnic on the grass under the trees – don’t. This area is also the end of the motorway A7 and there are reports of motorists being robbed who’ve come off the motorway and stopped the car to check directions.
  • Every day I see at least two or three cars with the rear window smashed in. If you bring a car with plates from outside the city, especially foreign ones, it’s just a matter of when, not if, it will get broken into.
  • The beaches are also notorious for thefts. Plage Prophete, Catalans and Prado have free cloakrooms from June to September and you are well advised to use them.
  • As a visitor, you may well end up around Cours Julien, which is a lively area with some great cafes, bars and several excellent venues for live music. Unfortunately it’s also become a magnet for druggies, street drinkers and aggressive beggars and care should be taken in this neighbourhood.
  • Some music venues you might find your way to are the Docks de Sud which is a superclub holding techno, drum and bass all nighters and Nomad Café. Both are in the beginnings of the quartiers nords, the nearest metro station is Bougainville although Docks de Sud is on the tram network. You should organise transport back to wherever you’re staying (unless you’re planning on an all nighter) this is definitely not a neighbourhood to wander around in after dark.
  • Bougainville is also pretty sleazy day or night with drug dealers openly operating under the noses of the security guards.
  • There are lots of free festivals, open air cinema in the summer and again, be careful with bags, belongings in these situations.
  • Another venue, not very easy to access, is the Friche Belle de Mai, a former factory with a spectacular rooftop bar which opens on Fridays and Saturday nights during the summer, it hosts some of the best club and live music nights the city has to offer. It’s in a poor neighbourhood, some consider dangerous, although I’ve never experienced problems around there or felt unsafe. Nearby is a repertory cinema, the Gyptis, which has films in their original language.
  • Don’t be put off coming here, I love the city and I’m very happy here, but it is dangerous, violent and crime infested and is somewhere you need to be on your guard to a much greater extent than in other places. Much of the serious crime is gang and drug related and is most unlikely to affect a visitor unless you take a bus out to one of the housing projects in the notorious quartiers nord and look for trouble. These are like the favelas of Latin America, entire housing projects or estates controlled by criminal gangs which the police can only enter when there are several vanloads of them, armed with assault rifles and body armour. If you’re curious, Google the ‘Hotel du Nord project’ which offers homestays in the North of the city and guided walks. Some efforts are being made to improve the lives and chances of people in these areas but to a large extent whole sections of society are disenfranchised.
  • Talking of the Police, there are news reports in France at the time of writing of robbers posing as fake Police, using a blue flashing light on their car, pulling over drivers to then demand wallets, mobile phones, and other valuables. These thefts are occurring on motorways during the early hours, between 2 and 6 am and are reported to be taking place in Provence Alpes Cote d’Azur and Languedoc Roussillon. There was a spate of these thefts a while ago between Paris and Normandy, it seems the perpetrators have moved South. Something to be careful of if you’re driving.
  • All I can say is these are my views based upon lived experience of twelve months in Marseille. I hope it’s helpful.

Learn More

Check out our expert tips about how to avoid crime on the French Riviera.

Here is a detailed crime analysis, broken down by city:

  • Corsica: The highest murder rate in Western Europe.
  • Nice: Rife with pickpocketers and petty theives.
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