Is Marseille the San Francisco of France?


Both began as important port cities with ideal natural harbors. (Marseille continues as France’s most important port while Oakland has replaced San Francisco as the busiest commercial port in the Bay Area.)

Because of their geography, from both cities you enjoy water views every day.  To get around by car with all this water about, in San Francisco you ride bridges across the bay or take BART under the bay and in Marseille you and your car go under the Vieux Port in a tunnel.

The population sizes are very close:  Marseille has about 839,000 in the city (as of 2006) vs. 808,000 for San Francisco (estimated for 2008). (However, the greater San Francisco Bay Area has 7.2 million people considerably larger than Marseille’s agglomeration of 1.6 million.)

Strikingly, Marseille and San Francisco are cities of immigrants. The majority of San Franciscans are a minority, comprised of Asians (33.1%), Hispanics of any race (14%), and African Americans (7.3%).  While no official statistics on race are maintained in France because of the French belief that everyone is equally French – so there is no reason to count! – Marseille is dramatically diverse.  Since the 20th century, waves of immigrants have included Italians, Armenians, North African Arabs from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Comorians, Corsicans, Africans from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Mali, and people from the Reunion Islands. Other significant immigrants groups include Sephardic Jews and pieds-noirs – French nationals who returned to France from the French colonies.  The Arabs clearly form the largest group, perhaps exceeding the Chinese influence on San Francisco.

This diversity probably is why both cities are known for their tolerance and open-mindedness. 

While it’s impossible to measure, both have an air of edgy creativity. If you should study the murals and graffiti in the Mission district of San Francisco compared to the famous graffiti in Marseille, I think you would see similar design themes.

And the hills! San Francisco has its seven hills; Marseille has numerous densely populated hills with steps that rival Telegraph Hill. Apart from its direct view of the Mediterranean, Marseille has close by mountains on its other sides and les calanques, fingers of small fjords amid arid limestone mountains . These calanques are terrific for hiking and swimming and are a short city bus ride away, comparable to San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, also a bus ride away from the hard streets of the city.

You can get equally wet by diving into the ocean at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and the sea at the Plage des Catalans in Marseille. Full disclosure: you will not get equally cold!

Mount Tamalpais from San Francisco or le Massif de Marseilleveyre?

Mount Tamalpais from San Francisco or le Massif de Marseilleveyre?


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3 Responses to “Is Marseille the San Francisco of France?”

  1. david Says:

    Très intéressante comparaison, par contre les corses et les réunionais sont français… il est difficile de parler d’immigration dans leur cas.

  2. Mathias Will Says:

    I think it is always interesting to compare two cities, but my impression is, that the american culture is also very different from the culture in france – I think there is therefore a certain limitation for this comparison.

    • david Says:

      Il y a bien sûr des différences importantes entre nos deux cultures mais l’intérêt quand on voyage c’est aussi de créer des ponts entre les pays. De plus, il y a un point commun entre la culture américaine et marseillaise (je ne dis pas française) c’est la notion de communautarisme.

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