JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz.
Drug and gang violence in France's second largest city, Marseille, has gotten so out of control that one local politician called for the army to be sent in to restore order. The proposal shocked the French and President Francois Hollande. Now, the French government is making the city a top priority. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to Marseille for this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Reporter Karim Baila spent two months in Marseille filming this documentary for French television.
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KARIM BAILA: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Baila says he wanted to understand what was at the root of the violence stalking his native city. Since the beginning of the year, 20 people have been slain in drug- and gang-related shootouts, many of them cut down by Kalashnikovs. Baila focused on the city's huge juvenile delinquency problem. Marseille is also the purse- and chain-snatching capital of France. Some 840 gold chains have been ripped from their wearers' necks since the month of June.
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LYDEN: This closed-circuit TV camera footage shows two young guys attacking a female bus driver. Baila believes the problem starts in the isolated housing projects in the north of the city.
BAILA: (Through translator) There is poverty, discrimination and segregation where we've put people in these high-rise ghettos. And they're so overcome by unemployment and misery that a parallel economy has taken over. Drugs and gangs now rule, and they've become no-go zones for the police.
BEARDSLEY: Baila says drug running from one of the high-rise complexes can bring in anywhere from 40 to $100,000 a day. The gangs move marijuana, cocaine, heroine and ecstasy. The dealers operate with impunity; their idol is Al Pacino in the film "Scarface." And by the age of 30, they're either in prison or dead.
Saida Hidri runs a support group for mothers living in the high-rises. We take a dirty, graffiti-tagged elevator to her apartment on the 15th floor. Hidri says unemployment in this neighborhood is nearly 50 percent.
SAIDA HIDRI: (Through translator) The kids drop out of school to work, but there are no jobs. So they fall into the drug gangs where they can earn good money. But later, if they want to leave, they'll be killed because they know the network. They're prisoners, and so are their families. That's why we live in fear.
BEARDSLEY: But there's a whole other side of Marseille, one that is brimming with culture and beauty. Marseille is France's oldest city, founded some 2,500 years ago by Phoenician sailors. Along the old port, people sit in cafes. The sun glitters off the sailboat masts in the harbor. Marseille exudes southern charm in a boules game played under the plane trees. It was chosen as the European capital of culture for 2013 and is undergoing beautification projects for the millions of expected tourists.
But for Senator Samia Ghali, who was born and raised in the Marseille's projects, that's just the problem. There are two Marseilles, she says, and the line that divides them has become a chasm.
SENATOR SAMIA GHALI: (Through translator) The situation is worse and worse and becoming extremely violent. That's why I called for the army to come in. I wanted people to wake up to what's been happening here.
BEARDSLEY: Gahli's cry was heard loud and clear, and Marseille is now on the front burner for the French government and the media. Marseille police officer Kamel Bessaa takes me on a ride through the north end of the city. He tells a horror story about each housing project. Bessaa says the government's promise to bring in more cops is a good start because police here are underfunded and overwhelmed.
KAMEL BESSAA: (Through translator) What we need is zero tolerance. We need to follow the broken windowpane policy. If you don't fix it immediately, they'll soon break the whole window, and then destroy the house. That's what's going on here.
BEARDSLEY: Bessaa has a second job. He mentors teenagers as part of an association that operates out of an old garage that has been transformed into a rec room with a TV, couches and computers. The kids who gather here after school and on weekends clearly bond with Bessaa and the other older volunteers. Said Fassoil, who was raised by a single mother from the Comoros Islands, says this center probably saved him.
SAID FASSOIL: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: I had no one at home to help me with my homework, he says, but I could come here to get help. And they took us on outings, and we had activities, instead of hanging around and getting in trouble. An army recruiter came into the center last year, and Fassoil says he's proud to be starting a career in the French military. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.