Many cities in many countries, have rivalries between each other. Whether you’re talking about Moscow and Saint Petersburg or Madrid and Barcelona, two cities being compared to each other a lot will end up in a rivalry. This doesn’t mean outright hostility! Most of the time, the rivalry is a fun and light affair, without any real negative feelings and actions, besides crude jokes and the occasional commotion at a football game.

If you ask any Frenchman what the most emblematic rivalry is in France, he is very likely to quickly answer “Marseille et Paris, évidemment”. The first and second cities of France definitely have a history of being at odds with each other, a thing that I am most aware of, being born in Paris and having grown up in Marseille. Here is why and how Marseille and Paris are rivals.

Before France was even France, the two cities already had very different backgrounds. What became Paris, Lutetia, was a Gallic city built inland on a river, whereas Marseille, then Massalia, was founded by Greek colonists on the Mediterranean coast. From their foundations, the two cities were built on totally different cultures and surroundings. While Paris was the seat of power and the heart of France during most of the Middle Ages, Marseille didn’t come under full control of the French crown until the 15th century. Even after this date, Marseille remained a rebellious city against the central power of Paris and was repressed on several occasions.

More recently, different economic and social circumstances also gave Paris and Marseille very different identities. While Paris is the embodiment of centralized government and wealth, Marseille is far more of a working-class city. From the 19th century onwards, successive waves of immigration coming from southern Europe and from the other side of the Mediterranean made Marseille a multicultural and multi-ethnic city, as opposed to the typical Frenchness of Paris. Overall, Marseille is far poorer than Paris: the average Parisian earns around a thousand euros more per month. This can create somewhat of a condescension of Paris towards Marseille and its culture, which can lead to hostility from Marseille in return. While Parisians may see Marseillais as uncouth and uncultured, they’re often themselves seen as snobby and superficial.

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Let us not forget the biggest point of rivalry between France and Marseille: football. OM (Olympique Marseillais) and PSG (Paris Saint-Germain) have been strong rivals for a few decades now, on a scale comparable to the rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid. It wasn’t always like that: the rivalry war was largely hyped up by both clubs’ owners in the 1980’s. The OM, almost a century-old club, wanted a new football rival to rile up its supporters, while the PSG, a newer club, wanted to gain a reputation by going against an established team. The following rivalry benefitted both teams by attracting new viewers and supporters and it has lived on until today. Every game between Marseille and Paris is now a national sportive event, called a “classico” or a “classique”, depending on who you ask. It crystallizes the differences and confrontational history between the two cities, only now Marseille is not rebelling against the crown, but mostly losing against Paris.

The rivalry is a real thing. In the hearts and minds of people of both cities, there is this confrontational and playful disposition towards the other. While it may sometimes turn violent, on occasions such as big football games, it’s no different from any other major game between two big French teams. Paris and Marseille are not two monolithic blocs separated by everything: both cities are French and both cities share a common history that cannot be trumped by a few differences, as significant as they often may be!


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