What 21st-Century Activism Looks Like in Marseille

Table de Cana

Marseille is characterized by great diversity and dynamism, as well as a blend of western and Arabic culture. While the city faces challenges such as huge inequality, homelessness or a lack of green spaces, it is also home to a thriving social innovation and entrepreneurship scene. One of the local protagonists is Joke Quintens, who runs a “Living Lab” for urban development and social innovation. She sat down with artist and entrepreneur Jörg Reckhenrich for a conversation about three shining examples of this scene.

Joke, the situation in Marseille is quite special. There are many unique social entrepreneurship initiatives. Why is that?

Joke Quintens: First of all, there is a lack of good governance in the city administration. That creates a vacuum. As a result, citizens, entrepreneurs, and social initiatives don’t wait for bureaucratic approval; they just get started. In addition, Marseille is attractive for young people from all over the Mediterranean region and beyond. Life here is much more affordable compared to cities like Paris; there is an interesting mix of cultures, and there are job opportunities. These newcomers have a bold “we want to move things” attitude.



Marseille is the second largest city in France and also the administrative and commercial capital of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, one of France’s fastest-growing régions. Located west of the French Riviera, the city is one of the major ports of the Mediterranean Sea. Marseille’s population, drawn from all parts of the Mediterranean and from elsewhere in Europe and Africa, has always been mixed. Or as the Lonely Planet puts it: "Grit and grandeur coexist seamlessly in Marseille, an exuberantly multicultural port city with a pedigree stretching back to classical Greece."

Do we see the growth of a different kind of social engagement?

Jole Quintens: Beyond important protest movements, such as the “Fridays for Future” school kids who care about climate change, I see a development that I call 21st-century activism. That movement acts now and on the spot. It creates new, bottom-up projects. The Point de Rencontre project is a brilliant example. It’s built on a unique alliance and models new ways to solve issues based on the needs of all stakeholders. It offers concrete solutions to urgent issues and takes action.

Integrating different stakeholders seems to be key. Can this new kind of activism also influence corporations?

Joke Quintens: In the last ten years, we have seen a growing discussion on how companies can better anchor themselves in society. Today, Generation Y simply asks: What is the purpose of the company? Why should I work here? How can I contribute to the greater good? If a company can answer these questions well, its attractiveness grows. Companies should not so much draw a line between social and business objectives rather than see overlaps as new social and business opportunities.

What is your vision for the next five years?

Social activism is developing in many ways. You can find changemakers in every city. I see many bottom-up initiatives. They all want to tackle particular problems and thus they provoke change. But we really need to reflect on how to collaborate more effectively, how to strengthen the network, exchange information, and celebrate success. From my point of view, it is all about matchmaking. Matchmakers are the new value creators.

1. Coco Velten: Social interaction in the neighborhood

Could you give an example?

A good example is the Coco Velten initiative in Marseille. Through this project, a broad number of activists have established a new alliance on a major problem: homelessness. The initiators of Yes We Camp and Marseille Solutions saw the opportunity of an empty building owned by the government and negotiated to occupy the building legally. They took the risk and started to organize the social interaction in the neighborhood. They want to see Marseille as a city of solutions.

How did Yes We Camp develop the Coco Velten project further?

Coco Velten offers a living space to about 120 homeless people. They also invited entrepreneurs, freelancers, organizations. Now, about 40 companies, NGOs, artists, and small businesses have started to work on the site. They pay a low rent and in return they offer services to the homeless people. On the roof of the building, they built a large terrace and grow plants and share seeds with the neighborhood. Yes We Camp opened a café and restaurant. Thus, a whole ecosystem was developed. A similar project in Paris, called Les Grands Voisins, has become a touristic hotspot.

Coco Velten offers a living space to about 120 homeless people. This is one of the cozy bedrooms. Now, about 40 companies, NGOs, artists, and small businesses have started to work on the site. Yes We Camp
The initiators of Yes We Camp and Marseille Solutions saw the opportunity of an empty building owned by the government and negotiated to occupy the building legally. Yes We Camp

2. Des Étoiles et des Femmes: Connecting great cooking talents

Can entrepreneurs, with a straight-forward business model, become social activists?

Joke Quintens: As I said, Marseille lacks good governance. Therefore, some entrepreneurs step in; they rethink their business models to address social issues. A good example is Des Étoiles et des Femmes (Stars and Women). Sylvie Bancilhon, the owner of the catering company Table de Cana, a very successful entrepreneur, started the project. She has very good connections with star chefs. Also, in the deprived neighborhoods she often meets women from different cultural backgrounds, with great cooking talent. She saw the opportunity and talked with the chefs and the women. She initiated a full-time, nine-month program to connect the talents with the star chefs. Marseille Solutions connected the right partners and the public sector to provide the legal framework.

What do the women do once the program is over?

Joke Quintens: The results of the program are spectacular: 100% of the women earned the certificate, 75% found jobs, 25% tried to become entrepreneurs themselves and start their own little canteens or restaurants. The success is amazing, as many of these women did not have a regular job or any job before. The program is so successful that it was scaled to Montpellier, Bordeaux, Nice, and Arles.

"We must move forward and reach out to new horizons," says Joke Quintens. A young daredevil at the Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (MUCEM) in the harbor of Marseille. Marc Beckmann

3. Point de Rencontre: Training athletes to become bankers

We recently spoke about a bank in Marseille that hires young people from sports clubs. Is this a new recruiting strategy?

Joke Quintens: You are referring to Point de Rencontre (Meeting Point), a unique collaboration between LCL Bank (Le Crédit Lyonnais) and APELS (L’Agence pour l’éducation par le sport), the agency for education through sports. The project offers to integrate young people who have only limited access to good education into the banking business.

Typically, banks recruit the best talents from top educational institutions. Why did LCL connect with a sports club?

LCL recognized the need for a broader range of employee profiles. First, they have to be well connected to all areas of the city. Second, there is a high competition for young talents, especially in the banking industry.

Why do you see the LCL example more as a social entrepreneurship initiative rather than a typical CSR activity?

I think it doesn’t help to put things too much into boxes. After all, the goal is to look at a situation, face the challenge, and explore what needs to be done. It’s all about results. The LCL initiative aims to be responsible not only for the business; it also wants to take responsibility for a particular situation. It’s about real social change in Marseille.

"I think it doesn’t help to put things too much into boxes."

Joke Quintens

How do LCL and APELS find the right participants for the program?

Joke Quintens: There are a number of sports coaches selected by APELS, who are trained to detect talents for the bank. In the first place, they look for human qualities, such as good self-knowledge, team spirit, a collaborative attitude, and perseverance. These qualities count whether you work in a bank or play in a sports club.

What makes the alliance of APELS and LCL so special for you?

Companies often think that they are doing well as long as they are creative and innovative, as long as they are improving their products and services. They run all kinds of activities like design thinking and sometimes even expand such an approach to social challenges. Well done! But we are often far too much in love with these methods. We must move forward and reach out to new horizons. Let me say it differently: Forget design thinking, social entrepreneurship is the next important step.

That's a bold statement.

Joke Quintens: Let's face it: What LCL and APELS achieved is way beyond any kind of a simple ideation process. Actually, the idea is quite obvious and straightforward. But to build this unique alliance, to be engaged with many stakeholders and to have the stamina to create a whole culture and ecosystem - that is the difference. Social entrepreneurship is about experimenting with new alliances, developing new approaches, and driving change. Social entrepreneurs are navigators. They are a part of the journey, with all the risks and opportunities this entails. I see a huge potential for these profit and non-profit partnerships. We need more of that!

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