Marseille, European Capital of Culture, hopes to shed crime image
France's port city of Marseille hopes its year as the European Capital of Culture, starting on Saturday, will help change the image of the city around the world.
The Mediterranean city, which has a reputation even within France as a hotbed of crime and drugs which is plagued by strikes, will kick off a year of festivities on Saturday with a parade, fireworks and the opening of several new exhibitions.
Organisers are hoping 300,000 people will take part and that the event will herald a cultural renaissance in France's second-largest metropolitan area.
"Marseille needs a bit of romance, to bring it out of everything that's been said about it in recent times," said Fanny Broyelle, one of the organisers of the opening ceremonies.
Ahead of the launch, Marseille has had a major facelift. The famous Old Port has been remodelled, many museums have been renovated and new facilities have opened under a 660 million euro public-private investment programme.
On Saturday, French President Francois Hollande and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso will be in town, to mark the completion of works on a major new facility, the seaside Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, which will open in June near the port.
A key port in the "French Connection" drug-smuggling route since the 1960s, in recent years Marseille has seen a rise in deadly shootings, often with automatic rifles and mainly in the city's impoverished outer districts.
The violence has reached such levels that a local official last year called for the military to be sent in and the government formed an inter-ministerial task force to tackle the crime wave.
The region is poor, with unemployment at 12.1 percent. With poverty and social exclusion at the root of much of the crime, many in Marseille are hoping the capital of culture year will act as an economic springboard.
Marseille's Chamber of Commerce says it expects a billion euros in extra cash to flow into the city this year, while tourist officials are forecasting 2-3 million extra visitors and a 20 percent jump in tourism jobs.
"I'm thrilled we're doing all this. The city has pulled out all the stops,” said Georges Antoun, owner of the 100-room New Hotel of Marseille on the Old Port.
However, some remain cautious and wonder whether any benefits will trickle down to small businesses and poorer districts.
For some, the battle was already won when Marseille was awarded the 2013 Capital of Culture designation, a European Union tradition since 1985, along with the Slovak city of Kosice.
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