Interview “I’m still amenable to the argument that the EU can be helpful in averting wars”

French publisher Marie Hermann is the Goethe-Institut Marseille’s partner in the Freiraum project. Besides fiction, her newly founded publishing house Hors d’atteinte mostly puts out books about feminism, populism and urban development. In this interview she discusses the background to her Freiraum question, touching on the unsettling symbolic politics of Marseille’s new skyline, the undeniable crisis of democracy and Europe as a great big utopia.
Interview by Uwe Rada

Profil Photo of Marie Herman Photo: Adam Burakowski © Goethe-Institut Ms Hermann, the question you raise about Marseille is how to keep the city’s various social strata in contact with one another. Gentrification looms large here. Why is that?
Marie Hermann: Even if this connection is often hushed up, changes in urban structures in general and gentrification in particular have a powerful impact on the ways in which residents coexist with one another. I’m very concerned about this global phenomenon anyway, but the very fact of living in Marseille forces you to face up to these issues.
Which changes do you mean?
Marseille’s history is quite unusual for France. It has a strong and enduring tradition of resistance to centralism and the central power in Paris. The city also has a very bad reputation on account of the port. It’s dirty, so they say, the people are lazy. Furthermore, the history of the city has been profoundly marked by migration flows within the Mediterranean region: Marseille has been an important crossroads and place of transit for a long time. But several social strata still live together in the centre – which is now true of only a few other big cities in Western Europe.
Marseille was European Capital of Culture in 2013. MuCEM, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, was built as a lighthouse project. But the situation in the poorer parts of the city was supposed to be improved too. Have things improved – or have they been squeezed out instead?
When Marseille became European Cultural Capital, the authorities undertook a wide range of efforts to burnish the city’s image. Among other things, the Rue de la République was renovated, the effect of which was nearly that of a gentrification offensive. But even more unsettling is the Euroméditerranée project launched in 1995. They’re planning to build a whole new district. This intent – candidly announced by the powers that be – to build a city within the city calls to mind the experiment of the sorcerer’s apprentice: What happens in a neoliberal city in which the various social classes no longer have any contact with one another?
You run a publishing house in Marseille. Are you an activist as well?
These are the issues I’m really concerned about as a publisher. And of course I’m delighted when I see that the changes in the city are far less clear-cut than the authorities had in mind. Nonetheless, I agree with the wonderful French publisher François Maspero that a publisher of political or subversive writings is not necessarily an activist. That would mean getting involved as a private person above and beyond my professional activity.
What induced you to take part in the Freiraum project?
The freedom that Freiraum offers quite appealed to me. The project you develop can turn out to be a book, an exhibition, a conference, even an association. I myself belong to a generation that was presented with the European Union as a gigantic utopia. Though I understand Europe has become a very complicated issue for many, I’m still amenable to the argument that such a union can be helpful in averting wars. So I’m glad the partnerships Freiraum is creating will strengthen cultural cohesion in Europe.
What concretely triggered your question?
When we started thinking about a project, the third tower of Marseille’s “Skyline” had just been finalized. The third tower is called “La Marseillaise”, as in the French national anthem. To us, this tower is a symbol of local politics in current-day Marseille.
In what way?
They bring in this famous architect, Jean Nouvel, to boost the city’s tourist potential. They formulate national ambitions, as we see in the very name of the tower. They are creating an “autarchic” site, far from the city centre, with offices, kindergartens and two hanging gardens. And once again they’re embarking on yet another public-private partnership that’s mainly in the interest of the latter, the private sector. So we started doing some research about the towers and the Euroméditerranée project, which led to a question that causes us great concern: Will different walks of life continue to coexist in this city?
Your tandem partner is Prague. Their question is also about democracy. Or rather a new way of thinking about and organizing participation, with new voting systems and algorithms. Is this an abstract, academic idea to you or do you think it might work in Marseille, too?
The ideals of democracy are clearly undergoing a crisis right now in France as in many Western countries. What makes matters worse in Marseille is that here, more than in other cities, a large part of the population has totally written off voting as a means of political self-expression. This is why in the next council elections in 2020, the city will probably serve as a laboratory for parties like the left-wing populist La France Insoumise and the far right Front National. Unfortunately, even if the two parties have opposite ideals, they seem to be the only ones still trying to reach out to the working and middle class. So it’s essential to address the issue of voter participation.