The people of Provence in the south of France have a word for a particularly comic or bizarrely dramatic situation: pagnolesque.
It is a tribute to one of the region’s most famous sons, the author Marcel Pagnol, who declared in his play Les Marchands de Gloire (The Glory Merchants): “In politics everything is a comedy.”
Last week in fine pagnolesque fashion the Provençal capital of Marseille, France’s oldest and second most populous city, took its historical rivalry with Paris – these days most often played out on the football pitch between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille – to a new level.
At the precise moment the French prime minister, Jean Castex, began a press conference in Paris to announce the country’s new coronavirus measures last Thursday, an unlikely alliance of political adversaries in Marseille joined forces with rebel physician and microbiologist Dr Didier Raoult to stage a press announcement of their own.
Putting bitter political differences aside, they jointly complained that Paris had unfairly imposed new rules on Marseille and the Bouches-du-Rhône department by ordering everyone to wear masks in all indoor and outdoor public spaces, and making bars and restaurants close at 11pm. It was the apotheosis of the historical gripe between the two cities: first faraway kings, now distant politicians telling Marseille what to do.
“The government decided from Paris what would be good for our city without engaging in the necessary dialogue with elected representatives and above all, without giving us the means to respect their decision,” said Marseille’s green party mayor, Michèle Rubirola.
Her main opposition rival Martine Vassal, of the centre-right party Les Republicains, agreed, accusing Paris of swinging “a catastrophic sword of Damocles over our heads”. The three accused Paris of double standards, insisting the coronavirus crisis was no worse in Marseille than in the capital. “They [Paris politicians] are also painting us as naughty children,” Vassal said.
In Paris, Castex spoke of the increase in coronavirus cases – which hit a post-lockdown peak of 7,379 cases in 24 hours on Friday – and the need for greater vigilance ahead of “la rentrée”, the grand return to school and work after the long summer holidays on Tuesday.
In Marseille meanwhile, Raoult, the self-proclaimed “star of infectious diseases” and controversial exponent of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for Covid-19, took the opportunity of his own rival press conference to have another pop at Parisian “elites”.
“We just have to be serious, prepare and have the arms to respond to the situation calmly and with optimism,” he said. “Because pessimism kills patients.”
In the 2,600 or so years since the Greeks landed and named it Massalia, the port of Marseille has welcomed successive waves of visitors who have decided to stay on: Persians, Romans, Visigoths, Russians, Armenians, Vietnamese, Corsicans, Spanish and north Africans. All have left their distinct mark on the city.
On the resulting cosmopolitan streets and in the shops and souvenir stores, bars and restaurants, Raoult is a local hero. That many of his claims of coronavirus cures and treatments have not withstood scrutiny from the scientific community matters little. He stands, a plucky white-coated, long-haired Asterix figure, brandishing his magic potion to see off Covid-19 and the Parisians. In Marseille, locals see him as one of them.
Benoît Gilles, editor of Marseille’s online newspaper Marsactu, said the decision to hold a press conference in the city to clash with the PM’s was pure political theatre.
“It was symbolic: the message was, we are rebels in Marseille – we are being stigmatised and unfairly punished like naughty pupils. It’s historic in Marseille for politicians of all colours to attack Paris. Apart from anything else, it avoids having to deal with local problems, like housing and transport.
“Here are politicians who are deeply divided on almost everything except this. Attacking Paris is a subject we can all agree on,” said Gilles.
“A year ago nobody knew Didier Raoult outside a small medical and scientific circle. But he knew how to use social media, particularly YouTube, to promote himself,” he added. “He’s clever. He knows how populism works and how to pull strings to get funding. To the Marseillais he really is a local star. Of course the reality is something else, but his popularity is down to a certain local chauvinism.”
Sociologist Ludovic Lestrelin believes Raoult is hero-worshipped in Marseille in a similar way to that in which locals worship the city’s football team. For them, science and medicine matters considerably less than charisma.
“It’s a sort of seduction that operated on an important fringe of the population,” Lestrelin has said. “He’s a public and media figure who makes people declare themselves for or against him.”
He added that the Marseillais liked to play the rebel. “Raoult is a source of local pride in a city that has a bad reputation. Marseille is a city that is repeatedly stigmatised. Faced with this, the most classic attitude is to play on difference, particularism, rebellion.”
He added that Raoult was also seen as a defender of “little people” – locals whom he had invited to get tested for the disease at his hospital.
For Rémi Godeau, editor of the daily paper l’Opinion, the whole affair was pagnolesque theatre.
“Fans of the burlesque were given a new farcical version of the rivalry between Paris and Marseille on Thursday … and what a classic,” Godeau wrote.
“The singularity of this pagnolism is mainly in the baroque and unusual alliance between two [rival] local politicians and a microbiologist.”
Marseille’s supposed “victimisation” was short-lived, however. On Friday, soon after the politicians in Paris made mask-wearing obligatory in Marseille, the same measure was introduced in the capital.