Olympic Flame Arrives in Marseille

Before a crowd thronging the waterfront and hilltops of this ancient port city of Marseille, the Olympic flame arrived in France on Wednesday, beginning a 79-day relay across the country and its territories that will culminate in Paris with the start of the Olympic Games on July 26.

In an elaborate ceremony attended by President Emmanuel Macron and a crowd estimated at more than 150,000 people, all eyes were on the Belem, a historic three-masted ship that bore the flame, and was greeted by more than 1,000 boats in a forest of masts filling Marseille’s harbor.

The Belem, which spent much of the day cruising just beyond the city’s old port, left Greece on April 27, carrying the flame lit in Ancient Olympia 11 days before that.

“We needed a powerful symbol, a strong symbol that somehow showed the radiant face of France,” Tony Estanguet, the head of the Paris Olympic Committee, told France 2 television of the city, which was founded some 2,600 years ago. “Marseille is a city of sport, passion and festivities.”

Florent Manaudou, France’s Olympic men’s 50 meters freestyle swimming champion in 2012, ushered the flame ashore at around 7:30 p.m. A branch of the French Air Force, known as the “Acrobatic Patrol,” traced the five Olympic rings in the sky. Mr. Macron is not expected to make a speech, opting to shun politics in favor of a celebration that will include a free rap concert on a floating stage.

France has been the target of repeated Islamist terrorist attacks over the past decade, and security was tight on Wednesday, with access to the port area controlled by more than 6,000 law enforcement officers. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister and a prospective presidential candidate, called the level of security “unprecedented.”

Lucas Poujade, 23, a business student from the Auvergne region of central France, was on vacation near Marseille and decided to come witness the festivities.

“This is once in a lifetime,” he said. “I think people from Marseille are proud and happy that the games are not only hosted in Paris. For those who will not have the chance to see one of the events, at least this is a way to feel involved.”

The relay carrying the flame will begin on Thursday. The torch bearers will include former star players for Olympique de Marseille — the local soccer club, among them Didier Drogba and Jean-Pierre Papin — as well as Alexandre Mazzia, a three-star chef with an acclaimed restaurant in Marseille who will provide food for athletes during the Games.

“I am happy and proud to be part of this exceptional event,” Mr. Mazzia said in a brief interview. He added that carrying the flame, for him, represented “values of fraternity, of engagement, of artisanal work and of French savoir-faire.”

The elaborate relay will involve more than 10,000 people and will include France’s overseas departments as well as mainland France and Corsica. The torch, on a kind of grand tour of France in the world, is going to Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Réunion, between June 9 and June 17. It will make a first stop in Paris on July 14 and 15, before returning there on July 26 for its installation in the Jardin des Tuileries, between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde.

One idea behind the relay is to knit together France, which has not been entirely persuaded by the prospect of the Olympics. A survey last month by the Ipsos polling institute found that only 53 percent of French people were interested in the Games; some 37 percent of people living outside of Paris felt entirely indifferent. While interest and enthusiasm have been growing in recent months as the Games approach, there is nothing resembling unanimity in France.

An opinion piece published on Wednesday in the left-wing daily Libération and written by several local officials in Marseille, including two deputy mayors, illustrated some of the concerns.

“Let’s open our eyes” they wrote. “The flame is arriving in a fortress Europe that has forgotten its traditions of greeting and hospitality,” they added, alluding to attempts by far-right parties to clamp down on rising immigration. The Olympics would damage the local environment, they said, and in Paris “will accelerate the phenomena of gentrification and expulsion of poor people.”

Marseille is a traditional rival of Paris, in sporting terms and most others. Mr. Macron, a supporter of Olympique de Marseille, has been a regular visitor to the city throughout his seven-year presidency. He has tried, with only partial success, to address the acute social problems — drugs, violent crime, extreme poverty — that plague parts of the Mediterranean city.

But on Wednesday, the atmosphere in Marseille was resolutely upbeat. Music filled the air and the sounds of horns rose from the armada of boats welcoming the Belem under blue skies in the calm, glittering harbor.

The weather smiled on a city that has known more than its fair share of violence and hardship, while retaining a fierce pride and the openness of a port city. As a symbol of the promise of the French Olympics, the choice of Marseille seemed apt.

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.

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