Immigration is a good thing. The alternative is higher taxes, fewer public services and long-term decline – Susan Dalgety

Long-term projections suggest that UK Government debt will surpass 300 per cent of GDP in 50 years’ time

The shopkeepers of Marseille started their Bastille Day preparations early this year. Still shaken from the riots earlier this month that saw hundreds of shops looted and one man killed, they were determined to protect their livelihood.

As Friday approached, more and more windows along the Rue de La Republique were boarded up, joiners joking with shopkeepers in the early evening sunshine as they screwed down the boards. The rotissier next door to our Airbnb had survived the riots untouched. “They wanted to attack the big brands,” the owner said. “They left the local shops, at least that is how it seems.” The huge cracks in the windows of national chains such as Monoprix and McDonalds suggest he may have a point.

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Marseille is France’s oldest city. It is one of the oldest settlements in Europe, established by Greeks in 600 BC. Seen from the Mediterranean Sea, its buildings sparkling in the blazing July sun, it looks like a Provencal paradise. Even its infamous, brutalist tower blocks, home to tens of thousands of families of North African heritage, seem appealing in the bright light. The reality of life in the ‘cites’ (housing estates) is much gloomier.

Marseille is one of the oldest settlements in Europe, established by Greeks in 600 BC (Picture: Boris Horvat/AFP via Getty Images)Marseille is one of the oldest settlements in Europe, established by Greeks in 600 BC (Picture: Boris Horvat/AFP via Getty Images)
Marseille is one of the oldest settlements in Europe, established by Greeks in 600 BC (Picture: Boris Horvat/AFP via Getty Images)

Marseille is a city on the edge. On the edge of France. On the edge of the European Union. It has spent billions battling its reputation as a haven for organised crime, for corrupt politicians, for brutal killings. Its old harbour, Le Vieux Port, was completely redesigned for the 2013 European Capital of Culture, giving it a “cool twist”, according to the city’s conference bureau. The Le Panier neighbourhood – where the city began – was once home to poor migrants and gangsters. Its narrow streets are now full of ‘artisan’ shops and trendy bars. The city is second only to Paris for its number of museums. And yet, it still feels apart.

But Marseille, the outsider city, offers a glimpse of a positive future. It is a city built on migration, from the first Greek sailors who landed on the rocky shore to the Algerians who have made it their home. Increasingly, economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa travel to Marseille in search of a better life. Walk five minutes from the old port teeming with tourists, and you find yourself in a city of ‘100 neighbourhoods’ where people from across the world live cheek by jowl, their cultures melding into the spirit of Marseille. Because despite its many problems, made far worse by generations of corrupt politicians and poor governance, the city is a welcoming one, a rumbustious working-class community with none of the po-faced formality that characterises much of France.

One of its best contemporary writers, Jean Claude Izzo, who died aged only 55 in 2000, is famous for his Mediterranean Noir, but his essays on his beloved city are full of insight. He saw Marseille, not as a city of France, but as the capital of the Mediterranean. And he saw it too as a harbinger of the future, one where people freely explore the world, often settling far from home, just as the Ancient Greeks once did. As human beings have always done.

Writing in his collection of essays, Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil, he said: “As I look at the [Mediterranean] sea… there is a future for Europe, and beauty in that future. It lies in what Edouard Glissant calls ‘Mediterranean Creoleness’. Those are the stakes. The choice between the old economic, separatist, segregationist way of thinking (of the World Bank and international private capital) and a new culture, diverse, mixed, where man remains master both of his time and of his geographical and social space.”

Izzo, despite the hard-boiled prose of his crime novels, was also a romantic. Watching the recent riots unfold it is hard to imagine Marseille as a shining city on a hill, but he captured an essential truth that policymakers and the indigenous population in the rich global north have still to accept. Migration is a positive thing.

Our population is ageing. In Scotland, the number of people aged 65 and over is projected to grow by 30 per cent by 2045. Across Europe, the birth rate has fallen dramatically since the 1950s. Long-term projections published this week by the Office for Budget Responsibility suggest that UK Government debt will surpass 300 per cent of GDP in 50 years’ time. It is already at its highest level in 60 years.

As leading commentator Sonia Sodha said in response, the choices facing ageing societies like ours are stark: fewer public services, higher taxes, or higher levels of immigration. “I wonder if in a couple of decades rich countries will be more openly competing for migrants and what impact it might have on the way politicians speak about it,” she asked.

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It’s impossible to imagine Suella Braverman – the daughter of migrants – speaking positively about immigration. The Home Secretary has successfully caricatured migrants as people who come to Britain illegally on a boat. The truth is very different. Figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that net migration has nearly doubled since before Brexit. More than 600,000 people arrived last year, compared to an estimated 333,000 in 2018.

The world is – and always has been – built on immigration, from the first humans who walked from the Rift Valley in Eastern Africa to the men in my family who left Ireland in search of a living wage. For 2,600 years, Marseille has understood the power and potential of migration. Its politicians have, at times, exploited its vulnerabilities and turned a blind eye, or offered an upturned palm, to organised crime, but the people survive – flourish even – despite their leaders. This ancient city, with all its flaws, has the potential to be the centre of a new world.



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