The Olympic Flame arrives in Marseille

Before crowds thronging the seafront and hills of the ancient port city of Marseille, the Olympic flame arrived on French soil 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.

Florent Manaudou, the 2012 French Olympic men's 50m freestyle swimming champion, brought the flame to shore from a historic three-masted ship, the Belem. He left Greece on April 27, taking with him the flame lit in ancient Olympia 11 days earlier.

After a unit of the French Air Force, known as the “Acrobatic Team,” traced the five Olympic rings in the sky, Mr. Manaudou walked with the flame along a temporary pier made to resemble athletics lanes, in front of a crowd estimated by local authorities at more than 225,000. The fireworks exploded in plumes of red, white and blue smoke—the colors of the French flag—as he reached the ground.

President Emmanuel Macron looked on with a smile, basking in the joyous atmosphere of a city he loves, as Manaudou passed the baton to Nantenin Keïta, a French Paralympic sprinter. The flame was then given to Jul, a popular rapper from Marseille, who lit the Olympic cauldron amid wild applause.

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

France has been the target of repeated Islamic 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, Interior Minister and potential presidential candidate, called the level of security “unprecedented.”

Lucas Poujade, 23, an economics student from the Auvergne region in central France, was on holiday near Marseille and decided to attend the celebrations.

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

Benoît Payan, mayor of Marseille, rejoiced at a show that he defined as moving and full of surprises. “We can say that Marseille is the Olympic champion of atmosphere”, he said.

The relay carrying the flame will begin on Thursday. Among the torchbearers will be former players of Olympique de Marseille, the local football team. Among them will be Didier Drogba and Jean-Pierre Papin. Also carrying the torch will be Alexandre Mazzia, a three-star chef with a renowned restaurant in Marseille, who will provide food for the 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 brotherhood, commitment, craftsmanship and French savoir-faire”.

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

One idea behind the relay is to unite France, which has not been entirely convinced by the prospect of the Olympics. A poll conducted last month by polling firm Ipsos found that only 53% of French people were interested in the Games; around 37% of people living outside Paris feel completely indifferent. Although interest and enthusiasm have grown in recent months as the Games approach, there is nothing resembling unanimity in France.

An opinion piece published Wednesday in the left-wing newspaper 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 coming to a fortress Europe that has forgotten its traditions of welcome and hospitality,” they added, alluding to attempts by far-right parties to crack down on growing immigration. The Olympics would damage the local environment, they said, and in Paris “will accelerate the phenomena of gentrification and the expulsion of the poor.”

Marseille is a traditional rival of Paris, in sporting terms and beyond. Macron, a supporter of Olympique de Marseille, has been a regular visitor to the city during his seven-year presidency. He has tried, with only partial success, to address the serious social problems – drugs, violent crime, extreme poverty – that afflict some parts of the Mediterranean city.

“There are always doubts, there is always a France that doubts, and some of us who just want to see the problems,” Macron told reporters after the ceremony. But, he added, “now I think we've entered the games, the games are here, the flame is here!”

The atmosphere in Marseille was certainly decidedly cheerful on Wednesday. Music filled the air and the sound of horns came from an armada of more than 1,000 boats that had come to welcome the Belem under blue skies into the calm, glittering harbour.

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

Aurelien Breeden contributed to the reporting.

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