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Migrant Lives

How A 50-Year-Old Housing Project Has Remained All-White

In the multiethnic French city of Marseille, the La Rouvière complex has its own unwritten bylaws.

Marseille's La Rouviere residence
Marseille's La Rouviere residence
Sylvia Zappi

MARSEILLE — Welcome to La Rouvière, a city within a city. Some 8,800 people live in the 2,204 housing units in the seven massive buildings of 20 stories each. When it was built in 1962 overlooking the Bay of Marseille, in Marseille's ninth district, La Rouvière was meant to house French and other European repatriates from Algeria — so-called "Pied- Noir" — returning after the end of colonial rule.

Today, it has been transformed into a kind of village fortress, where self-segregation has become the rule, and the rejection of would-be applicants who are black or of North African origin is an unwritten rule.

At first glance, the buildings look like many large housing projects. With their orange and white colors, rusted railings and small dirty windows, the buildings give off a shabby impression. Yet on closer look, we notice not a single piece of trash on the ground or graffiti on the walls. The gardens are well-kept and the lobbies are kept shiny. We meet plenty of aging residents, and it doesn't take long to detect some "Pied-Noir" accents. But not everyone.

"You feel good in La Rouvière. People are polite and there is no crime," says Jacqueline Tournier. This former postal worker arrived with her husband in 1993. The couple had seen the residence as it was being built and dreamed of settling here. At the time, the four rooms with balcony cost them 550,000 francs (115,000 euros today). But it was mainly for the "lifestyle" they wanted to come. "This is not like the northern districts," she says.

From La Rouvière, there is a breathtaking view of the bay, the apartments are spacious, and the pine park with its pond gives the place a somewhat bourgeois appearance. But above all, everything has been designed to function as a closed community. A shopping mall with about 70 stores, a tennis club and a common area offering a range of sports and cultural activities — everything is available without having to leave the residence. The children run no risk of having to mix with others. La Rouvière has a daycare center and two schools (kindergarten and primary). For retirees, a shuttle bus runs between the buildings.

All this is to ensure an environment that is not only pleasant but safe. There is a guarded gate that is closed at night and surveillance cameras throughout the property. "Following the incursion of some youngsters, we hired a nightly surveillance company. Here, you can not just drive straight in with a van, and the police are permitted to search private property," says Richard Tournier, a retired cement engineer.

Social sorting

There are 47 guards, almost one per entry, plus two gardeners and two maintenance workers. "We feel safe. We are not worried," says Pascale Nivoley, a teacher who has lived here for 17 years.

Particular attention is paid to the profiles of would-be newcomers. The prices in this southern district of Marseille are competitve, 1,800 euros per square meter. But entry is not guaranteed to anyone. "Newcomers always belong to the same social class. High wage levels keep the place from becoming like the northern districts," says Christian Cavailles, president of the union council.

It is a kind of social sorting process that was established by the returning "Pied-Noir" owners in the early days in order to maintain the seclusion of whites. This was in large part the driving motivation for building La Rouvière, which at the time was called "Great Marseille." Dozens of families returning from Algiers and Oran invested in land and constructed the community. Many of them remained, and have now lived here for three generations. Gradually, other people from the middle class settled, but the rules have remained the same. "The presence of returnees guaranteed that it remained quiet as immigrants knew they were not welcome. That's still the case and it is a very good thing," says Jean-Paul Boussant, president of the resident association.

Residents are constantly reminded of the terms for renting out their apartments. "There are unwritten rules for those who rent. And in fact, there are no blacks and few North Africans," says Patrick Marquis, a resident since 1997. "This is harmful because it generates an attitude of exclusion."

Longtime resident Richard Tournier cites "rumors about the presence of North Africans." Another homeowner says that the union council asked to be notified of "any signs of radicalization in the residence."

The fear of an immigrant invasion is reflected in La Rouvière's election results. In December's regional elections, the right-wing party National Front topped 40%.

Gilles Sindt doesn't want things to change. "We want to stay a homogeneous residence, a counter-example of cultural diversity," he says. "We are still in France, with families who share the same values and the same culture. We do not want Muslim proselytism."

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