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The Collapse on 65 Rue d’Aubagne in Marseille: A Case of State Violence and Housing Injustice

Marseille provides a stark example to draw links between the experience of the built environment and alienation. Gilles Ascaride and Salvatore Condro, analysing the effects on the urban conditions of the city-centre of Marseille on people’s psyche, cite Abdelmalek Sayad’s work to argue that 'the syndrome of the double absence, neither here nor there, is hereby coupled by a double amnesia: forgotten there, invisible here, at least to the conditions of dignity and respect that they expect.' [1] Having considered the historical mechanisms regulating housing attribution, it is clear that little to no agency is given to city-centre dwellers from North African undesirable social groups.


As the foremost incarnation of the social issues that afflict the city-centre, these dwellers are directly pointed at as the perpetrators of these issues, and then-mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin’s contempt in an infamous speech in 2001 reflects that starkly. Gaudin stated, 'my politics may not please left-wing nostalgic people, who allowed the city-centre to rot for years. But it pleases Marseillais. The popular Marseille is not a North African Marseille. It is not a Commorrian Marseille. The city-centre was invaded by foreigners and Marseillais left. But I refurbish, I fight slum landlords, I encourage dwellers who pay taxes to come back.' [2] Gaudin invented a narrative as it could convey the idea of a city that does not exist. His political agenda, around the reconquest of the city-centre, through a series of refurbishment, was still in place when the collapse rue d’Aubagne happened. The same people he cites and mythologies died in that building, among them taxpayers, non-taxpayers, 'indigenous' Marseillais, foreigners, all living in a building whose refurbishment and securitization was long overdue, precisely due to the contempt from the people in charge for the lives of city-centre dwellers. In many ways, the architectural appearance and location of the building they lived in defined the extent of their right in and to the city. The ‘trois-fenêtres’ [3] building typology, insofar as it is symptomatic of decay, represents a social issue. These dwellers are entirely dehumanised publicly, and writing for the local newspaper Le Ravi, writer Valérie Manteau notes that 'Marseille has a long tradition of violence against its population.' [4] This highlights the underlying violence of the everyday in Marseille, where people are blamed for their own unwanted living conditions, and where inequalities are managed rather than addressed. Figure 1, which is a photograph I took of the building n°75 as I was walking down rue d’Aubagne, shows some of this decayed housing which is a recurrent sight on any walk around the city-centre. More importantly, it highlights the management of decay and of housing, and the latter is left to become informal, which becomes an opportunity for slum landlords.


The mechanisms behind urban decay are complex, but its social effects are tangible, and I find it important to inquire into spatial injustice in Marseille. Throughout the course of this research, I was able to familiarise myself with the work of Abdelmalek Sayad. I believe that his work, as an Algerian immigrant focusing on the complexity of the immigrant condition is incredibly valuable in an analysis of spatial injustice and alienation. This is especially true in the case of Marseille, where ethnicization and simplifications are used to vilify immigrants and create a false narrative that will essentially define their lives. Acknowledging the variety of different histories of immigration in Marseille is incredibly important as a result. Complexifying what we know to be immigrant social groups and rectifying historically mythologised ideas which affect people’s lives and heighten the racism they face enables resistance to the hegemony that is imposed on them.


Abdelmalek Sayad, whose work focused precisely on complexifying the historiography around Algerian immigration, studied the three different waves of Algerian emigration to France and acknowledged specificities to each, while systematically considering the material conditions of people’s lives in Algeria before they left. In their article ‘The organic ethnologist of Algerian migration’ [5], sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, who worked with Sayad, and Loïc Wacquant, recognise the value of Sayad’s work for the history of migration and argue that 'Sayad elaborated these propositions because he was more than a scholar of migration: he was the phenomenon itself.' [6] Emmanuelle Saada wrote that 'in France, Sayad’s sociology has been essential not only to the study of Algerian immigration, but to the understanding of migration as a 'fait social total,' a total social fact, which reveals the anthropological and political foundations of contemporary societies.' [7] By acknowledging the complexity of immigration, and the migrant condition, Sayad makes it indissociable from its deeply political nature, and political management, which is important in order to study the phenomenon as it is managed in France.


Figure 1: author's photograph, 75 rue d'Aubagne, Marseille, June 2023. This building, in the same block as the collapsed buildings, on the top of rue d’Aubagne, is symptomatic of the numerous decayed buildings in the neighbourhood.

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Fig. 1: Photograph of 63-65 rue d’Aubagne taken by author in June 2023. On the foreground, to the right, a commemorative board pays tribute to the 8 inhabitants who were killed in the collapse of their building on n°65.

[1] Ascaride, Condro, Les isolés du centre-ville, 15.

[2] Mattina, Clientélismes urbains, 263.

[3] The trois-fenêtres, ‘three-window’ is the prevalent architectural housing typology in the city-centre of Marseille. It refers to its three floors, with usually three windows on each floor on the front façade. Its decayed state in many neighbourhoods such as Noailles has become one of the foremost representations of urban decay in the city-centre of Marseille.


[4] Valérie Manteau, 'Marseille a une longue tradition de violence contre sa population.' Le Ravi, November 2021. (accessed August 5, 2023). 

[5] Pierre Bourdieu, Loïc Wacquant, 'The organic ethnologist of Algerian migration' Ethnography 1, no. 2 (December 2000), 173-182.


[6] Bourdieu, Wacquant, 'The organic ethnologist' 173.


[7] Emmanuelle Saada, 'Abdelmalek Sayad and the Double Absence: Toward a Total Sociology of Immigration' French Politics, Culture & Society 18, no. 1 (Spring 2000), 28-47.

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