A France in Shock Confronts the Violence in Its Midst

If France is a country of illusions — a beautiful and seductive land offering many of life’s greatest pleasures that sits atop and conceals a crime-ridden, drug-plagued world of violence — then the past week offered a rude awakening to this dual reality.

The Olympic flame arrived on French soil last week in the ancient port city of Marseille as a joyous crowd thronged the beautiful harbor. The chatter was of peace ahead of the Games, which begin in July. But the flame also arrived in a city whose northern districts are the epicenter of the French drug trade, where 49 people were killed last year and 123 injured in drug-related shootings.

The coldblooded killing on Tuesday of two prison guards on a major highway in an ambush that freed Mohamed Amra, a midlevel prisoner being investigated in Marseille for possible ties to a drug-related homicide case, shook France. This, just 85 miles from the capital, was a methodical execution in broad daylight on the main road from Paris to Normandy. Its methods were consistent with the brutality of a booming narcotics market.

Senator Jérôme Durain, a member of the Socialist Party and one of two authors of a Senate Committee report on drug trafficking in France that was completed this week, was not shocked by the killing. “The world we found was one of limitless violence involving people, often very young people, who have no conscience and lost all sense of the value of life,” he said in an interview. “This fits exactly.”

He said “corruption has begun to spread because there is so much money,” implying that it was possible that the ambush was facilitated by a compromising of the security services.

Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, said in March that the drug trade in France is now worth about $3.8 billion a year, but other estimates range as high as $6.5 billion. The volume of Ecstasy and amphetamines seized by customs authorities rose 180 percent in 2023, the French customs service said.

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