Armenian community plays prominent role in Marseille's diversity

Marseille Travel Blog

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Typical Armenian church in France

More than 2,000 miles, various mountain chains and countless bodies of water separate France from Armenia. Still, 10 percent of the southern French city of Marseille consists of immigrants from the distant Middle Eastern nation after a devastating genocide beginning in World War I forced many Armenians to flee their homeland.

MARSEILLE, France -- Vartan Arzoumanian speaks Armenian. He eats Armenian food, enjoys Armenian culture and even attends an Armenian church. But the 26-year-old Marseille native has never visited the land where his family comes from, nor does he have any plans to - at least not anytime in the near future.

"I don't have the motivation to go right now," he shrugs simply.

Vartan taking care of the community
"I go to the school, learn the history, speak the language, but to go there is not my first priority."

One thing that is on Vartan's to-do list, however, is to ensure that Armenians residing in his Mediterranean town do not forget their heritage. As president of the non-governmental organization Armenian National Committee of France and collaborator to the mayor in his district, Vartan's tasks include initiating legislation on issues of concern to the Armenian community, increasing EU aid levels to Armenia and  ensuring the appropriate commemoration of the Armenian genocide in France, among other things.

More than 80,000 people of Armenian descent reside in Marseille, and as a result, there are eight Armenian churches, one cathedral, and a bilingual private school where French-Armenians can study Armenian history, language and culture.

Clippings from Armenian papers

"When Armenians first arrived in Marseille, they lived in three areas in particular. It was the beginning of a new life in a new area," Vartan says. "Like in New York, you have Chinatown and Little Italy, in Marseille, there is Little Armenia."

"There are several Armenian churches, and where there is a church, there is a community."

The community even has its own historical center - Association for the Research and Archives of the Armenian Memory - where visitors can dig through old, dusty books and documents and uncover more about their native land and their past.

Even before the genocide began in 1915, Armenians had been living in Marseille for nearly a century, though the community was much smaller then than it is presently.

The "museum"
Because of Marseille's position as a commercial port, many Armenians had been traveling to the harbor town for years via boat for business purposes.

Still, the majority of immigrants arrived in Marseille following the genocide, though a second wave came during the Soviet Union years. The most recent generation of Armenians to arrive are those who left due to internal conflict within their own nation.

"They are the ones of the Armenian Republic who came because of economic problems and the independence of the nation," Vartan explains.

But as of late, the French government has tightened restrictions and made it more difficult for these new immigrants to enter the country.

"It was no problem for the older generation to come here," Vartan begins.

Armenian tiles...houses that looked just like these littered the northern part of the city
"I won't say French society was ever perfect, but for new immigrants, immigration is much more difficult. There is a ghetto of these new immigrants."

Because of this strict French policy, the younger generations of Armenians tend to cling more to their roots. While Vartan didn't grow up in this type of environment, he recognizes it among his peers.

"I'm the product of double nationalities (Armenian and French) and double culture. It's the result of a mixed marriage," he states. "But the newer immigrants who have come more recently are more sensitive to their background and tend to only marry within their district."

Yet, unlike new immigrants among other nationalities residing in France, Armenians aren't typically subject to discrimination, nor are they at odds with any other ethnic group in Marseille, according to Vartan.

"For the political persons, the Armenian community is a good example. They say we integrate perfectly."

In fact, all of Marseille is pretty well integrated, as far as Vartan is concerned.

"It's more than the population, the people, the community. The city is not built like Paris or Lyon, where the immigrants live outside the city. This is not the case in Marseille. They all live in the center. That's a big reason for the integration," he says.

"Another reason is the sun, the sea and the possibility for the Africans to go directly to their country if they want. It all makes a difference."

That's not to say that all is always rosy for Armenians living outside their own country. While they may not directly experience discrimination in the workforce, there occupational choice is sometimes limited.

"They can't use their (Armenian) degrees here, because diplomas are not the same in France," Vartan explains. "So they have to engage in practical professions instead."

These applied careers include jobs as cobblers and construction workers, among other hands-on occupations. For younger generations of Armenians educated in France, however, professions like medicine and law are becoming more common.

"I think this is a symbol of the importance of the community in Marseille and the representation of Armenia," Vartan concludes.


AndiPerullo says:
Thanks for the informative blog! I always deeply appreciate anyone who shines light on situations that need illuminating.
Posted on: Apr 24, 2007
travelman727 says:
Great article! I spent Bastille Day 2005 roaming Marseille and southern Provence (see my Marseille - July 2005 travel blog). Thanks for educating me on the ongoing Armenian situation :-D
Posted on: Apr 19, 2007
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Typical Armenian church in France
Typical Armenian church in France
Vartan taking care of the community
Vartan taking care of the community
Clippings from Armenian papers
Clippings from Armenian papers
The museum
The "museum"
Armenian tiles...houses that looke…
Armenian tiles...houses that look…
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photo by: voordax