About the city


Reviving the legacy of Mediterranean hospitality

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    Since the city elected a left-wing coalition in 2020 after decades of conservative administration, municipal officials and civil society have been working together more closely.

  • 2

    Marseille has committed to an open harbour policy, with officials referring to the city’s history as capital of the Mediterranean: “When someone is drowning, we do not ask for papers, we take them out of the water.”

What is unique about Marseille?

Open harbour again after years of stagnation: Marseille, as one of the Mediterranean’s historical port cities, has a longstanding history of migration. However, over the last few decades the local government has done little to promote inclusive policies for migrants. Instead, numerous civic initiatives have helped the migrant population to find accommodation, offered basic support and launched campaigns for migrants' rights. The election of Mayor Rubirola, head of a left-wing coalition led by Europe Ecology (Green Party), in 2020 changed the course of local politics, positioning Marseille as a Solidarity City by declaring its harbour open and engaging in international city networks.

What are the key factors?

Long-standing activism meets a new administration: Collaboration between public authorities and civil society in Marseille is quite recent, despite the long-term experience of civil society initiatives and NGOs in providing services that welcome newcomers in the city. 2020 marked a turning point in local politics. The new municipal administration committed to reframing migration and inclusion policies, an approach that local media described as the “Marseille Spring”.

What are the greatest achievements so far?

City officials speak out in favour of the unconditional intake of refugees: The commitment to an open harbour policy and the mayor’s public interventions advocating the unconditional in-take of refugees are the most visible changes introduced by the new city government. The less antagonistic relationship between the city and civil society has allowed for more participation by both in national and international Solidarity City initiatives.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

Marseille has made an effort to underscore its position as a welcoming city at both national and international levels. The new administration has joined networks with other cities, for example, the ANVITA (Association Nationale des Villes et Territoires Accueillants / National Welcoming Cities and Territories Association) and the Solidarity Community Network in support of SOS Mediterranée. In June of 2021, Marseille also joined the “From Sea to the City” alliance.

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Download the full city report

The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches. Report from 2021, updated in 2023.

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Political context of France

Migration policy in France

French migration policy is centrally coordinated, more specifically by the Directorate General for Foreigners in France (DGEF), which cooperates with the Interior Ministry on immigration, asylum, integration and nationality law. Although regulations are centrally imposed, cooperation with local territories has intensified since 2015 in response to the so-called “migration crisis”.

Historical background

French immigration policy has historically been influenced by its colonial past. An 1899 law originally ensured French nationality to all foreigners born in France who had reached the age of majority. In 1993, this was reversed, meaning that nationality is no longer automatically granted. 1945 saw the introduction of the residence card, which has facilitated family reunification and “integration paths” since the 1950s. In 1956, policies were developed relating to economic migration, in particular regarding foreign workers and their access to housing. Between 1981 and 1985 the Mitterrand government allowed the regularisation of 130,000 “irregular” foreigners, and in doing so relaxed some previous measures. By the mid-1980s, the so-called Pasqua laws (“Lois Pasqua”) had once again limited entry requirements and facilitated deportations. In 1990, Prime Minister Rocard declared: “[...] I think that we cannot harbour all the misery in the world, and that France must remain what it is, a land of political asylum [...], but nothing more.” Since the 2000s, French policy has increasingly aligned itself with European policy, tightening entry requirements for immigrants.

The right of asylum, a fundamental value of both the 1946 and 1958 constitutions, has progressively aligned itself with the EU’s 2009 asylum package.

According to the INSEE, in 2018 there were 6.5 million immigrants living in France, while the number of French people “of foreign origin” amounted to 7.7 million.

Between 2008 and 2019, the number of asylum seekers in France steadily increased, before dipping in 2020. In 2019, 132,614 applications (including those of unaccompanied minors and repeat applications) were submitted to Ofpra (the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons) – an increase of 7.3% compared to 2018. In 2019 36,512 people were granted protection by France (an increase of 9.5% compared with 33,330 in 2018).

Key developments of recent years

France suspended the Schengen Agreement, and reintroduced border controls with Italy as early as the 2011 Arab Spring. During the 2015 “refugee crisis”, France dismantled the Calais jungle camp and established the Reception and Orientation Centres (CAO), with approximately 12,000 places available, intending to accommodate newly arrived migrants for a maximum period of 3 months. These structures belong to, or are rented by the state, and are intended to temporarily welcome migrants and “encourage them to reflect on their migratory project”. In 2015, following the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Hollande government declared a state of emergency and reintroduced border controls.

In line with the EU approach, the past 5 years have seen a number of significant developments in French migration and asylum policy. Firstly, it has become policy to examine asylum applications outside French territory. Later, border controls were also tightened, with documented cases of the refoulement of unaccompanied minors, and recurrent, if not systematic, violations of fundamental rights, including “de facto” detention. Thirdly, many asylum seekers are without accommodation and camps are regularly dismantled in big cities or in the north of France (e.g. Calais, Grande-Synthe). Reception capacity has also been restricted, with only about 51% of asylum seekers declared eligible for practical reception assistance being accommodated. In addition, a high number of status holders leave reception centres with nowhere to go. In the first half of 2020, only 1,755 people exited the reception system with accommodation to go to. Many of the rest end up homeless or living in informal settlements.

Progressive campaigns and their achievements

In September 2015, Interior Minister Cazeneuve sent a letter to mayors across France, inviting them to a meeting in order to “implement the reception proposals under the best conditions”. The meeting marked the start of a decentralised reception process.

At the national level

On 18th December 2020, a “national plan for the reception of asylum seekers and the integration of refugees for 2021-2023” was published. The plan envisages the potential to adapt reception policy to new migration contexts as well as to specific regional contexts, including a better distribution of asylum seekers across national territory.

At the level of civil society, collaborative networks have opposed state policies of non-reception and developed alternative proposals through dialogue with the country’s municipalities.

The creation of the Estates-General on Migration in 2018: “The Estates-General on Migration is a process in which hundreds of collectives and local or national associations active on the ground are involved alongside foreigners. All over France, these actors work together, organise public events to denounce current policy, and to propose radical changes in migration policy.”

The “Sans Papiers” (undocumented migrants) movement organised several marches, the highpoint of which was the march on the Elysée palace in October 2020.

At the local authority level

Created in 2018 by nine founding cities, the Association Nationale des Villes et Territoires Accueillants (ANVITA) (National Association of Welcoming Cities and Territories) brings together territory bodies, community groups and elected representatives. Members work together to implement an unconditional welcome policy for “exiled” people and to promote hospitality on French territory. Currently, there are almost fifty members in the Association. One of its main demands involves full access to public services and equal rights for all residents.