Marseille , France

From Hope to Fraternity: Marseille Espérance

Ville de Marseille

August 23, 2012

Mayoral leadership brings together religious communities to create a forum for dialogue and community mediation

documentThe port city of Marseille in the south of France has a long history of migration. Its Jewish community is the third-largest in Europe and approximately one third of its population is of North African origin. Some demographers predict that Marseille will be the first city on the European continent with a Muslim majority.

Yet, the most ethnically diverse city in France has also been the most successful in staying free of the outbreaks of social unrest and ethnic violence that have troubled the banlieue of Paris and other cities.

Marseille is a city of immigrants.

The diverse realities of modern French society are not easily addressed through official channels. Information on religion or ethnicity is generally not collected in France on the principle of laïcité, or secularism, which prohibits the recognition of religion or ethnicity in political life and the collection of ethnic or religious data by the state.

Breaking with tradition, in 1990 the Mayor’s Office established Marseille Espérance, to acknowledge the importance of community identities in the public sphere and open lines of intercultural dialogue. The first of its kind in Europe, the forum’s unique formula (“peaceful and open secularism”), allowed the mayor to bring together the city’s religious leaders (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists) with the aim of encouraging harmony and understanding amongst all Marseille citizens, regardless of their origins, culture or religion. The organization’s message of a cosmopolitan and fraternal Marseille was further consolidated under new mayor Jean Claude Gaudin after 1995 and actively promoted to media.

Members of Marseille Espérance meet regularly with the Mayor to address the social needs in the city. An example of the forum’s success is the unanimous backing given by Marseille Espérance to the ‘grand mosque’ project of Marseille. Proactive mayoral leadership, backed by all of the religious leaders of Marseille Espérance, accelerated a century-old search for a suitable site. Today the mosque’s construction is underway. Marseille Espérance is also available to act ‘on demand’ to potential threats to the peaceful coexistence of city residents and has a successful track record of mediating issues of community conflict.

Marseille Espérance’s narrative of inclusion, cohesion and coexistence around the unifying figure of the mayor has been widely distributed through the media and local networks. Local media has responded enthusiastically with a large increase in the number of articles written on Muslim civil society organizations.


To commemorate Marseille’s 2600th anniversary in 2000, Marseille Espérance initiated the ‘Tree of Hope” sculpture project. 350,000 city residents “signed up” to the message of tolerance, hospitality and sharing symbolized by the project and the values of Marseille Espérance; their names are engraved at the base of the tree. A replica of the tree has been presented to its twin city, Shanghai, and its partner city of Algiers.

Other innovative projects sponsored by Marseilles Esperance include the “cubic metre of infinity,” an interfaith prayer room and place of introspection at the Paoli-Calmettes Hospital, widely regarded as unique in Europe, and the Marseille Espérance Prize, endowed by the city of Marseille, and awarded each year at the Marseille Documentary Film Festival.

In 2004 the Fondazione Laboratorio Mediterraneo awarded Marseille Espérance its Mediterranean Peace Prize for its work in facilitating inter-cultural dialogue and understanding. The Marseilles model has also been adapted by the City of Brussels and in Barcelona.

Submitted by: Joseph Downing, European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. (edited and condensed for publication by editors)

Making it Work for You:

  • Community consultation and participatory decision-making result in stronger, sustainable solutions.
  • Use as many channels and platforms as you can to meet your goals or increase your visibility: media, the arts, the Mayor’s office, local institutions and public space.
  • Tell a good story! Together with meaningful action, do not under-estimate the symbolic power of language and leadership to promote your success.

For this Good Idea contact:

Marseille Espérance , Hôtel de Ville
13233 Marseille cedex20
(33-4) 91 14 66 04,
Fax : (33-4) 91 14 66 07

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