For the first time in twenty-six centuries, Marseille has chosen a woman to guide the city’s future. In July 2020, with the pandemic largely under control in France’s third-largest city, voters went to the polls for the municipal election’s runoff round, electing Marseille Printemps—Marseille Spring—a leftist coalition led by Michèle Rubirola, a sixty-three-year-old local physician and ecologist who was relatively unknown beyond her circle of green activists. Throughout France, the Greens rode a wave of support in municipal elections, taking Lyon, Strasbourg, and Bordeaux and running strong in most regions.
The win in Marseille is particularly notable because of the coalition Rubirola forged; and because she replaces a conservative, Jean-Claude Gaudin, who presided over an increasingly corrupt government while in office for twenty-five years. If the green left is to keep gaining European hearts and minds, its experience governing in cities like Marseille will merit close attention.
Rubirola ran against Martine Vassal, Gaudin’s chosen successor. The ancient city would have had its first woman mayor one way or another; what makes that fact all the more consequential is the number of women, starting with Rubirola herself, who commanded center stage during the city’s tumultuous political year. A lifetime resident of the city from a family of left militants, a former basketball player for the city’s major sports club, and a respected family doctor in a middle-class and working-class sector of the city, Rubirola bet on forming a broad, citywide coalition on the left, a development that stunned both French political pundits and the Marseille political establishment. Through negotiations, both Communists and Socialists, longtime opponents in Marseille, eventually joined Rubirola’s Marseille Spring. She received critical help in achieving this historic fusion from Benoît Payan, the head of the Socialist opposition in city council.
In France, mayors are elected by a majority of the popularly elected city council, not by direct popular vote. After two rounds of voting, Marseille Spring’s list of candidates had an edge over the opposition, but not a clear path to victory. That path would be forged through the city’s northern neighborhoods, where Samia Ghali, a veteran political leader and city council member, could cast the deciding vote. The leading elected official of North African Arab descent in Marseille, Ghali has long represented two arrondissements where large public housing estates perch on steep hills overlooking the commercial harbor. A former stalwart of the Socialist Party, Ghali has more recently stood as an independent voice, even forming her own party. In the end, her vote in the city council was essential to Rubirola’s victory, allowing her to extract an influential position as second adjoint in the Rubirola administration.
To the South, across the Old Port and its gleaming yacht haven, the city’s population is far more affluent and traditionally conservative. But analysis from the Jean Jaures Foundation shows that the influence of educated newcomers, local artists, intellectuals, and activists in this area was decisive to the left’s victory.
Olivia Fortin, a Parisian entrepreneur who recently burst onto Marseille’s political scene, embodied this win. Fortin, forty-three, came to Marseille three years ago with the company she owns, Organik, an events agency with glitzy Hollywood connections. No outsider to Marseille, however, her family of origin, the Rastoins, has deep roots in the city’s grand bourgeoisie. A woman of the left with upper-class cred, Fortin spent her first two years in Marseille getting to know locals from all walks of life. She organized endless gatherings at her home in Endoume, a charming neighborhood that sits on the rocks along the ocean’s edge. As her network expanded and her knowledge of local politics deepened, she organized Mad Mars, a traveling political discussion forum.
Mad Mars grew so successful in drawing crowds eager for political discussion that by the time the municipal elections neared, Fortin managed to ride its gains and her own newfound political skills to win a city council in the chic sixth and eighth arrondissements of the city. In what had once been a bastion of the old guard of Marseille politics, she defeated Martine Vassal herself. Le Monde deemed it the most stunning aspect of the political turnover in Marseille leadership.
With its call to deepen public discourse and action, Mad Mars appealed to the city’s artistic and activist population. It offered a constructive way to channel the anger that gripped the city after November 5, 2018, when two slum buildings collapsed on the Rue Aubagne in the old central city neighborhood of Noailles, killing eight people. A tragic example of the corruption and lax enforcement that marked the Gaudin regime, the collapse on Rue Aubagne led to scores of building condemnations and a resulting surge in homelessness.
Yet even with anger and discontent mounting against the city’s sclerotic leadership, the left turn in the municipal elections was hardly assured; Marseille’s large conservative population and historically disunited left meant Rubirola’s success in forging the Marseille Spring coalition was a true upset.
Rather, Marseille Spring and Mad Mars are the result of intense deliberation among leaders of the Marseille left over the course of years before the municipal elections. Their ecologically grounded idea is that in addition to coalitions of the left parties, there must be a renewed mobilization of civil society, including dedicated and granular efforts to reach the politically alienated. To this end, Rubirola promises to expand bus service, especially to the underserved housing estates of the city’s northside where the sense of exclusion runs deeper than anywhere else.
Rubirola and her allies face daunting tasks. Over 200,000 people, a quarter of the city’s population live in relative poverty, especially in the old central city neighborhoods of Belsunce and Belle de Mai and in the far-flung public housing estates. The schools and public transportation are in poor condition. The new mayor will have to bargain with adversaries on the right, especially Vassal, who was re-elected head of the metropolitan government, which controls a large share of the regional purse strings. The coronavirus also threatens to put all their plans on hold.
Yet the city’s new women of power bring a more thoughtful and inclusive approach to politics and to governing, challenging Marseille’s longstanding macho political reputation. Since the Second World War, the city’s mayors have played “old boy” politics, staying cozy with underworld bosses and generous with their patronage to the municipal union. Drawing a sharp contrast, in her first speech as mayor, Rubirola said:
As many of you know, [in the campaign] I preferred to confront ideas, rather than opposing people. And in this chamber, as outside it, I will continue to do the same. That is why I would like future debates to stay respectful, and finally deal with deep problems, [such as] cronyism and nepotism, which have had their day. This is a project for a greener, fairer, and more democratic city.
The transformation is already beginning. On August 31, 2020, the new Rubirola administration made world headlines by accepting 250 refugees who had been picked up by the Banksy-funded rescue ship the Louise Michel. Transferred from boat to boat, the refugees had been turned away from numerous Mediterranean ports. While calling for a fairer city, Rubirola and her Marseille allies are not afraid to act on their beliefs.
William Kornblum is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He has been a member of Dissent’s editorial board since 1973. His most recent book (with Stephan Tonnelat) is The International Express, New Yorkers on the #7 Train (Columbia, 2017). He is currently at work on a book about Marseille.