Stepping into the Panier brings a certain feeling of déjà-vu and it’s easy to identify where I had all seen it before. It’s Napoli.
Napoli, like Marseille, was founded by the ancient Greek as bases from which to continue their delicate web of relations, always on verge of war, that saw Sparta opposed to Athens. Marseille, or Massalia as it was called, was born here, 600 years before the advent of Christ. This rocky spur, these roads, have been inhabited since then: they saw Hannibal’s invincibile armada inching towards Rome, they saw Julius Caesar and the civil war, they saw Arab raids and, more recently, the ghettoization of Provence’s Jews and their ultimate deportation to the German death camps by what an inscription defines “The so-called government of France”.
Panier, today, is at a crossroads. For long it was the epicenter of the drug trade, the famous French Connection that linked Marseille with Beirut, the Panier with the famiglie in Palermo. Now, police attention, violence and immigration have shifted the trade to the banlieues. It is still the first port of call for the newly arrived in town, but it’s becoming tamer and tamer, the ethnic épiceries almost having to battle for space against the new bistrot and soap shops.
I visit Panier a long time after the end of the season, on a rainy day. Few shops are open and even fewer locals are about, preferring the warmth of bakeries and bars well stocked with Pernod and playing cards. It feels like traveling back to the times when the whole neighbourhood was out fishing – or smuggling – and only kids and women were left back.
Small squares open up unexpectedly, offering a spectacle so typically French that you’d almost expect Russell Crowe to appear out of nowhere, babbling something about a very good year he’s had.
Some other scenes, such as this Peugeot stopped bang in the middle of the world, Suprême NTM rap blasting out of the stereo, are as typically French. Just from another film.
Old businesses resist, catering for the Maghreb community, the Corse and all possible variations on the theme. Marseille is one of the least segregated communities in the whole of France, one of the few places that didn’t go up in flames during the 2005 riots. That’s because everyone, here, is Marseillaise (and a hardcore fan of Olympique Marseille, obviously).
But, at the same time, new or upmarket establishment are sprouting up, living on an increasing trickle of tourists fascinated by the quartier. Is the Panier gentrifying? Possibly. Will it become a Notting-Hill-by-the-Med? Quite certainly no, thanks God.
So, what’s the Panier becoming like? It’s hard to tell. But I hope it’ll remain as it is now: scruffy but beautiful, artsy but rough.
One thing is certain, though: it’ll always be the neighbourhood by the big Cathedral. Because the more friends you have “high up above’, the better.