Paris vs Marseille: A History of Rivalry on and off the football field

The roots of Paris versus Marseille run deep. Go beyond the rivalry of Paris St Germain vs Olympique de Marseille, into the history of these two ancient French cities.
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Full confession: we may be “Snippets of Paris”, but my Other Half is a born and bred Marseillais (pronounced mar-say-ay). And he is none too pleased that our kids are determined little Parisians.

The roots of Paris vs Marseille go deep into French history. These days, the rivalry mostly raises its head anytime a particular football (soccer) game is on schedule: Paris St Germain vs Olympique de Marseille. Just think Liverpool vs Manchester United, New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox, or Toronto vs Montreal.

I don’t suggest you walk around Marseille with a Paris Saint-Germain football t-shirt, unless you are keen to “meet” the locals. It is a friendly rivalry these days, but a rivalry nonetheless.

As an example, French politicians who want to present themselves as a counterbalance to the Government seated in Paris, will claim to be representing Marseille. That’s how they roll (or at least pretend to).

Facts & History

i) Gaul In Ancient times

To understand Marseille (pronounced mar-say), you have to know its location. The city on the Mediterranean is a natural harbor. Because of this, the city is the oldest city in France. It has been around since at least 600 BC, known as the Greek colony Massalia.

Then came the Romans, and with them, Marseille became an early center of Christianity. Tradition holds that Mary Magdalene came to Marseille, after landing in nearby Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer which is about 127 km away.

Mary Magdalene statue - Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume
Tomb of Mary Magdalene statue in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume near Marseille

She converted the local people, and then retired to nearby Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume (about 50min away from Marseille by car), where local legend says she is buried.

Paris, on the other hand, was not as important to the Greeks or the Romans. At the time, it was called Lutece on Ile de la Cité, but it was not as important as the port city on the Mediterranean. For the Romans, the capital was Lyon in the center of Gaul (old France), not Paris or Marseille.

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ii) A Marriage and the start of the Rivalry

Marseille remained prosperous even after the fall of the Roman civilization, largely due to its rich harbor. Its wealth made it a target for the Royal Kings based in Paris, a city with which Marseille has always been at odds.

Château in Provence

It was remained autonomous until the 12th century when Beatrice of Provence married Charles, the brother of Saint King Louis IX in 1246. She was the ruling Countess in Marseille, as her father did not have any sons.

She and 3 her sisters were reputed to be quite beautiful, along with being rich. (The 3 older sisters married the Kings of France, England, and Germany respectively.)

Anyway, Charles came down to Marseille from Paris and like every chauvinistic royal male of his time, tried to take over. He managed to quell the first of many rebellions, but there was always an underlying current of distrust.

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Notre dame de la garde Marseille

iii) Middle ages: Paris rules over Marseille

France at the time was not the country we know and love today. Rather, it was a hodgepodge of autonomous regions, ruled by different crowns and speaking different languages. People at the time didn’t speak French here, but rather a language called Provençale.

The Kings of France in Paris, over the generations had imposed laws on the population of Marseille, trying to wipe out the local culture and the language, doing little to endear themselves. Marseille was officially made a part of Provence, France in 1481.

In 1539, another King, François Ier imposed the French language on the entire population. No more speaking Provençale. This further inflamed the rivalry with distant Paris, where François Ier was based.

In 1660, French King Louis XIV built the Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille, but famously had his cannons pointed AT the city, instead of to defend it. 

The city suffered greatly in 1720, when the Great Plague of Marseille destroyed more than half the population, bringing this great city to its knees.

Marseille - Fort Saint Jean at the edge of the Vieux Port
Marseille – Fort Saint Jean at the edge of the Vieux Port

iv) The French Revolution and La Marseillaise

Needless to say, when the Revolution rolled around in 1789, Marseille was an enthusiastic participant. The King and Queen Marie-Antoinette were brought from the Palace of Versailles to Paris, which was the epicenter of the revolution.

The city of Marseille sent 500 volunteers to Paris to defend their interests. Their battle cry on the way to Paris became the national anthem of France: La Marseillaise.

Note: they weren’t actually that creative to compose a song while marching. The song was written by a French poet and soldier named Claude Rouget de Lisle, while he was stationed in Strasbourg. It was just adopted by the Marseillais on their way to Paris, and hence its name. Way to grab all the glory!

iv) Second World War

During WWII, while Paris was fully under German control, Marseille was technically in the “Free Zone”, which was managed by the Vichy Government (with their German overlords).

Marseille’s strategic position on the sea made it an early hub for the French Resistance for escape routes and safehouses. The city’s propensity for rebellion was an advantage, rather than a disadvantage. But while Hitler considered Paris was too beautiful to be bombed, he did not have any such reservations about Marseille.

Marseille was bombed several times and invaded by German soldiers during WWII. Many neighborhoods including much of the area around Marseille’s famous Vieux Port and Le Panier were deliberately blown up with dynamite, before finally being liberated in 1944 by the Allies.

v) Football Glory in 1993

In the 1990s, another chapter was written in Paris vs Marseille history. The chapter of footballing glory. For this generation of Marseillais, their most recent moment of glory is their Football Champions’ League title in 1993.

Olympique de Marseille playing in the Velodrome
Olympique de Marseille playing in the Velodrome

The local team Olympique de Marseille (OM) lays claim to being the 1st and only French team to win a Champions League title. 

A Jamais les Premiers!

English translation: Forever the First – Motto of Olympique de Marseille fans

This might appear to be a minor anecdote, but don’t tell any Marseillais that. To date, the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club has never won the Champions League, making the victory all that much sweeter.

Paris St Germain, with much deeper pockets and many a superstar, are knocking on the door, however.

Paris and Marseille Compared

Today, other than in football, the rivalry is mostly peaceful. Each city has its own personality and culture. Paris is the richer city and the capital of France. A lot of young Marseillais come to Paris for university, find jobs, spouses, etc. and never go back.

Industry and jobs are concentrated around Paris, leaving Marseille much poorer as the educated classes move away. This is slowly changing as Paris becomes overpriced, and companies are looking for cost savings and improved quality of life to attract employees. For more details, see a comparison of the cost of living between Marseille and Paris.

Population– The capital and 1st city of France– 2nd largest city in France
Weather– Lots of rain– Sunny weather
Location– Closer economic Northern Europe– Closer to Italy and Spain
Major LandmarksEiffel Tower, Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, etc. Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral and the Vieux Port
Local attractions– World-class museums– Beaches on the French Riviera
Cost of living– Real estate prices are more than 2-3 times the prices in Marseille. – Cheaper real estate
Education facilities– 20 universities– 5 universities
Football– Paris St Germain– Olympique de Marseille

So have you been to Marseille and Paris? Do you have a favorite? If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about living in Paris. A bientôt!

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