It is 7:00 in the morning and the cafes are already jammed with single men. Over the blaring whine of cinema jukeboxes, they chant loudly or sit alone quietly reading Arab-language newspapers. Nearby, the North African merchants are rolling up their shutters.
Street hawkers too, have begun laying out their rugs, transistor radios, or sometimes only a single pair of paltry shoes. Hardly a woman is to be seen.
The cafes and street corners are vital to Marseille's estimated 90,000 North African immigrants. Aside from meeting with friends to talk, and gathering family news, casing out new jobs is part of their everyday survival. The women, who have a greater influence on the men's decisionmaking than the men would ever admit, gather at the public Hamman, or Turkish bath, to discuss among themselves.
The police here call this hillside maze of narrow streets in Marseille's 18th and 19th Century Belsunce quarter "La Cage," which some critics claim illustrates their attitude toward the immigrants.For the some 900,000 local inhabitants of this rough Mediterranean city, it is simply the "Casbah."
In close proximity of Marseille's St. Charles railway station and the port, this bustling quarter also serves as an assembly point for most of the country's other North Africans.
"Immigrants are always shuffling through here on their way to Africa to see their families or they come down even for weekends to visit friends and other contacts," says the Rev. Jean Audusseau, a Roman Catholic lay priest working in Belsunce.
Although the problem of France's more than 4 million mainly North African, Portuguese, and Spanish immigrants has not emerged as a major single issue in France's two-round presidential election April 26 and May 10, many French resentfully regard it as closely tied to the country's No. 1 obsession: unemployment.
This has led to a disconcerting rise of racist outbursts, particularly among the Communists who are demanding a halt to immigration. They have also accused the government of seeking to unload undesired immigrants on communist municipalities. Egged on by the official Communist Party leadership, many municipalities have launched a vicious campaign to force out foreigners by threats, false accusations, and physical measures.
Growing public animosity among both the left and the right has also pressured the government to tighten regulations.
Last year, the government announced that it would deport all foreigners whose legal status is irregular, notably those unable to renew their residence or work permits.Another official effort to reduce the ranks of France's 1.4 million foreign workers is to offer a 10,000 franc ($2,000) golden handshake. But immigrants have been reluctant to accept this as it would bar them from returning to France.
"It is absolutely intolerable that the government and all the major political parties should continue talking about the special status of immigrants," said Fr. Audusseau. "The immigrant is restricted in everything he does. It is 'apartheid a la Franaise.'"
In France any Algerian born here after Jan. 1, 1963 (following Algerian independence) cannot be expelled. But an Algerian born in Algeria, yet raised in France, now can be deported. Even more complicated, however, is the case of a child born either in France or Algeria before 1963. He is only considered French if his parents had the foresight to request French nationality while Algeria was still part of France.
"This has created mixed situations of families with deportable and non-deportable children," said one Marseille social worker. Unlike the tens of thousands of Italian, Spanish, and Armenians who came to Marseille since World War I, the North African immigrants arrived for economic reasons when France needed new labor to feed its post World War II industrial boom. It was always assumed that they would one day return. But today their numbers have only been slightly reduced and most regard France as "their" home.
"It is only in recent years that we have begun to realize the need to treat immigrants like human beings," said Bernard Millard, director of Marseille's "Maison d'Etrangers" which not only seeks to help foreigners cope with administrative problems, but also encourages both cultural and social contacts with the French.
"The people of Marseille must understand that they are involved whether they like it or not. It is not a matter of moaning about what should have been done , but what can be done today," he added.