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Marseille: One Square Mile of France

The Mistral wind is howling ruthlessly today and Marseille's Old Port creaks and groans under the weight of its moorings.

In the sharp spring light, the masts of the fishing boats chime and clank discordantly, their salt crusted hulls nudging and rubbing against one another.

'Five euros the kilo!" comes the shout from the fisherman on the quay-side as he tips his morning catch of spiny fish and eels into a tray. He tells me he's Algerian but he's lived in Marseille for almost three decades now. His French, spoken with the heavy twang of the south, is still peppered with Arabic words.

"It's a tough life but look what you get for it," he grins, jabbing his thumb towards the sea. "There's always sun here and there's always the Mediterranean - I never feel I'm so far from home!"

Immigration issue

Marseille is one of the Mediterranean's most important ports and throughout its long history, many nationalities have docked here and been assimilated into the city, turning it into a cultural melting pot.

"It's our vocation to welcome foreigners," says Jean Claude Gondard from the city's town hall, run by the ruling UMP party. "We are France's oldest city… but we are also reinventing ourselves as a modern metropolis. We have a tradition of respecting different nationalities, even when it isn't easy."

Immigration is the key election theme for the French political right in the upcoming Presidential elections - not surprisingly, Marseille was where President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to hold his first campaign rally. National Front regional councillor Stephane Ravier accuses Mr Sarkozy of stealing the far right's agenda.

Image caption Construction has gathered pace as the city prepares to become the European Capital of Culture

"Immigration has shot up under Sarkozy," he says. "Marseille is a poor city with one-in-three living under the poverty line and where unemployment is three points above the national average at 13%." He shrugs angrily. "We are importing this poverty with our immigration programme and we cannot go on like this. It's economic suicide."

But for others, Marseille's ethnic diversity is an inspiration. Next year, Marseille will become the European Capital of Culture. To make sure it looks the part, the city is undergoing a major face-lift - 160 million euros (£133m) worth to be precise.

Julie Chenot, who is spearheading the project, talks me through the myriad construction sites, including work beginning on a major new museum.

"We want to celebrate the cultural mix. So the major dimension of our project is about Marseille's overseas connections. This gives the city creativity and makes it move a lot," she explains from the high vantage point of the 17th Century Fort St Jean, which dominates Marseille's landscape. She laughs when asked if the revamp of the city is going to gentrify it and destroy the city's soul.

"There's a face-lift, yes, but the people and spirit won't change. The culture mix is the essence of Marseille and that has to stay."

Marseille has always had a bad boy image - in fact Fort St Jean and its counterpart, Fort St Michel, were built to defend the governor against the rebellious locals rather than to defend the city itself.

On board a police speed boat roaring away from the port, Majeur Philippe Brunetti, sunglasses clamped permanently on his sun-tanned head, smiles fondly at the city.

Image caption Majeur Philippe Brunetti patrols Marseille's port

"It's always been a rebellious city and it still is," he says. "And the locals sort of like to keep that image."

I ask him about the recent rise in violent crime and drug turf wars and he admits that it's getting harder for the police to deal with Kalashnikov-armed youngsters who no longer fear the uniform and who take their only guidance from the local drug dealers.

"It's a social problem," he tells me, adding defensively: "And it's in every big city, not just here. It's just that politicians and the media like to make a big show of Marseille."

Far away from the pull of Paris, Marseille enjoys being different and sees itself as a little bit apart from the rest of France.

It may be grittier and less glamorous than its glitzy Cote d'Azur neighbours like St Tropez and Cannes, but after its renovations are completed and it's become the European Capital of Culture, France's oldest city is hoping it just might begin to fish some of the lucrative tourist trade back.

After all, who would refuse a visit to the sunniest city in France?

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