If you listen to far-right politicians, you'll think this immigrant wave means, inevitably, an onslaught of Islamic puritanism that will challenge European ways and force every woman to dress like a Taliban bride. But then you realize that many of the men and women jostling around you on the Marseille sand are from African and Arab backgrounds, and that the young women are wearing bikinis, not burkas. Thanks to a remarkably efficient public transport system, you can get to Marseille's beaches from any part of town in less than 45 minutes.
And so for several months of the year, rich and poor, white and black, African and Arab, Muslim, Christian, and Jew, all find their own space on the sand, strip off most of their clothes, and settle down to socialize—and be socialized— under the Provençal sun. Ask them where they're from and you won't hear Algeria or Morocco, the Comoros islands or even France. Almost always they'll simply say, Marseille.
As more European countries become nations of immigrants, Marseille may be a vision of the future, even a model of multiculturalism. Not that its equilibrium is easy to maintain. In particular, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East periodically send ripples of fear through this French city. "During the war in Iraq in 1991, I said to myself, Things are going to explode in Marseille—because of the images that were coming into Muslims' living rooms through their satellite dishes," says Michèle Teboul, president of the Provence chapter of CRIF, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France. "We said, If this doesn't explode now, it's never going to explode." And it didn't: Local Muslim leaders managed to calm things down by working with other religious figures. Similarly in November 2005, when riot-fueled flames erupted in just about every other French city's immigrant-filled housing projects, Muslim Marseille stayed cool.