French police deployed elite forces to an impoverished Marseille housing estate on Monday after masked gunmen armed with automatic rifles opened fire on officers, just as the prime minister was due to visit to hail "excellent" progress in combating the city's high rates of violent crime.
The Castellane estate, which is notorious as a drug-trafficking hub, was on lockdown on Monday morning with a police helicopter buzzing overhead, as the specialist intervention team GIPN prepared to move in. Marseille police chief Pierre-Marie Bourniquel had earlier come under automatic gunfire as security forces responded to reports of clashes between at least two groups of "five to ten people," Le Figaro reported.
The police chief was forced to dive to the floor of his vehicle when fired on by the men, who were reported wielding Kalashnikovs. The car was not hit and no injuries were reported.
Security forces launched an operation inside the estate on Monday afternoon, recovering seven Kalashnikovs and around 45 pounds of hashish.
As children were evacuated from a school and nursery and La Castellane's 7000 residents were told to stay inside, the GIPN specialist intervention team and other officers entered the estate, its perimeter secured by large numbers of police. Several apartments were raided, while a police source told AFP that two shotguns, 400 high caliber cartridges and a bullet proof vest were found in a parked car.
The outbreak of violence, which appeared to be gang-related, came just as Prime Minister Manuel Valls was due to present promising crime figures in the city. In a speech later on Monday, Valls accused media of focusing on bad news in Marseille, rather than the positive crime figures.
No arrests have yet been made and the identity of the shooters remained unknown as the prime minister continued his tour of the city on Tuesday, drawing boos from protesting teachers at a high school. He said he would return to Marseille in April to sign a regional public investment plan worth 800 million euros ($904m), adding that it signaled the beginning of an urban renewal that was "long overdue" in the city.
Marseille has become known in recent years for frequent drug-related murders and gun attacks. In 2012 Samia Ghali, a Socialist Party senator and mayor of the district that covers La Castellane, Samia Ghali, asked for army troops to be deployed in the city to combat soaring drug violence. Valls then boosted police resources in his role as minister of the interior.
In an interview published by local newspaper La Provence this morning Valls said that armed robberies had dropped down by 30 per cent in the city over the last two years, while violent crime had decreased by 20 per cent.
Just a few hours after the interview came out, rifle shots were heard in La Castellane. There were few details as to how the clashes erupted and police and city authorities declined to comment when contacted by VICE News. However, reports in local media, citing police sources, suggested that a territorial dispute between drug gangs was to blame.
Laurent Mucchielli, a researcher with France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the head of the Regional Observatory of Delinquency and Social Contexts (ORDCS), told VICE News that La Castellane, known as the home of soccer star Zinedine Zidane, was a "vast and poor neighborhood."
"This is an isolated district, withdrawn, which is explained by the architecture of the buildings themselves. This is an area where drug trafficking is very substantial, despite police interventions."
Mucchielli said that Marseille was not fundamentally different from other French cities, though poverty was present in its central areas whereas in Paris or Lyon, it had been displaced to the outskirts, or banlieus. Unemployment in Marseille is higher than the national average, reaching 12,7 per cent in the last three months of 2014. A harbor, it is also a key gateway for drugs such as Moroccan marijuana.
Follow Etienne Rouillon on Twitter @rouillonetienne
Additional reporting by Mélodie Bouchaud @meloboucho