Marseille, also spelled Marseilles, ancient Massilia, or Massalia, city, capital of Bouches-du-Rhône département, southern France, and also the administrative and commercial capital of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, one of France’s fastest growing régions. Located west of the French Riviera, Marseille is one of the major ports of the Mediterranean Sea. It is situated on the Mediterranean’s Gulf of Lion within a semicircle of limestone hills and lies 536 miles (863 kilometres) south-southeast of Paris by rail and 218 miles southeast of Lyon. Area city proper, 93 square miles (241 square kilometres); metropolitan area, 365 square miles (946 square kilometres). Pop. (1999) city, 807,071; metropolitan area, 1,349,772; (2005 est.) city, 826,700; metropolitan area, 1,384,000.
Founded more than 2,500 years ago, the port city of Marseille (English conventional spelling Marseilles) has a history of vigorous independence asserted against central authority in a variety of forms. It retained its status as a free city even after falling to Julius Caesar’s troops in the 1st century bc, and after centuries of decline it was revived and allowed great independence under the local control of the viscounts of Provence in the 10th–14th centuries. After Provence joined the Kingdom of France in the 15th century, Marseille retained a separate administration and continually engaged in spirited revolt against kings or governments that threatened its liberties. It was for this reason that in 1800, when France was divided into the present administrative départements, Marseille was only reluctantly granted its status as capital of the Bouches-du-Rhône.
Frenchmen elsewhere, convinced that the Mediterranean climes of Provence could never be fully integrated into either the French realm or the Gallic spirit, long looked upon Marseille as a sort of folkloric institution: a place of comic anecdote and dialect, with a seasoning of picturesque criminality; a place where the citizens played a peculiar form of outdoor bowling known as pétanque, concocted the glorious garlic- and saffron-flavoured fish stew known as bouillabaisse, and consumed rich, savory, absinthe-like Provençal pastis.
By whatever proportion fact may have been coloured with myth in its image, Marseille undoubtedly forms a major element in the economic and social structure of France. With Aix-en-Provence it forms the second largest urban agglomeration in France, and in association with the outport of Fos-sur-Mer, about 23 miles (37 kilometres) to the northwest, it is the country’s largest seaport. Under the Socialist mayor Gaston Defferre, whose administration, from 1953 until his death in 1986, was the longest in its history, Marseille experienced major transformation—a process that is still continuing.
Physical and human geography
The character of Marseille has been determined to a great extent by geographic location. Its natural harbour, sheltered by a semicircle of limestone hills on the Gulf of Lion and close to the estuary of the Rhône River, offered its first settlers the prospect of linking the Mediterranean seaways with northern Europe across a land that, in classical times, was made largely impassable by forests. The trading port founded by Greeks from the city of Phocaea in about 600 bc was to attract both settlers and visitors. The first of these account for a heterogeneous population and the second for services designed to cater to seamen and merchants. Marseille has the oldest chamber of commerce in France, established in 1599. It is a city of mosques and synagogues, besides many varieties of Christian churches. Its bars and brothels have been a magnet for dishonest dealings, and its waterfront still evokes the romance of a gateway to distant lands.
The city’s most enduring characteristic, however, has been its readiness to welcome change. Its architecture preserves few vestiges of the past. Some landmarks, such as the transporter bridge that crossed the Old Port (Vieux-Port) and the Panier district north of the harbour, were destroyed by the German occupation forces in 1943 and 1944, during World War II. But more change has been wrought by the Marseillais themselves. Despite the legend that attaches to them, they are an unsentimental people open to new ideas.
For centuries, Marseille’s mixed population and its inclination to political dissidence had made the city seem both foreign and marginal to French life and culture. After World War II, however, it was able to develop as a major European port and industrial centre. The city that had been the starting point for past colonial enterprises bore a large share of the aftermath of French colonialism. It proved remarkably successful in absorbing new waves of immigrants, notably the former European colonists who crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa after Algeria won its independence in 1962. The building of the industrial complex at Fos-sur-Mer also attracted many thousands of migrant workers from North Africa in the 1960s, posing further problems of housing the city’s immigrant population. Since this period, demographic growth has slowed. However, successive economic crises since the 1970s, combined with major restructuring by large industrial groups, have created persistent unemployment, particularly among immigrants. This situation has been aggravated by racial hostility toward immigrants and by their marked concentration in particular districts of the city, especially certain northern suburbs. In an attempt to resolve such problems, these areas have become priority targets for the government’s urban rehabilitation programs.
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