MARSEILLE (AFP).- Long plagued by a reputation for gang crime and lawlessness, France's port city of Marseille is hoping its year as the European Capital of Culture will finally give its image a makeover.
The gritty Mediterranean city kicked off the festivities on Saturday with a downtown parade, fireworks and the opening of a slew of exhibitions.
Organisers are hoping 300,000 people will take part and that the event will kick off a year leading to a cultural renaissance in France's second-largest metropolitan area.
"Marseille needs a bit of romance, to bring it out of everything that's been said about it in recent times," said Fanny Broyelle, one of the organisers of the opening ceremonies.
Ahead of the launch, Marseille has undergone a major facelift, with its famed Old Port remodelled, many museums renovated and new facilities opened under a 660 million euro ($865 million) public-private investment programme.
On Saturday French President Francois Hollande and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso were in town to mark the completion of works on a major new facility -- the seaside Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations -- that will open in June near the port.
The influx of investment comes at a crucial time. A key port in the "French Connection" drug smuggling route since the 1960s, Marseille has for decades suffered from its image as a hotbed of crime.
Recent years have seen Marseille especially hard hit by a wave of deadly shootings, often with automatic rifles and mainly in the city's impoverished outer districts.
The city saw 245 homicides from 2007 to the end of November, including at least 75 linked to organised crime, according to interior ministry figures.
The violence has reached such levels that a local official last year called for the military to be sent in and the government formed an inter-ministerial task force to tackle the crime wave.
The region is poor, with unemployment at 12.1 percent. With poverty and social exclusion at the root of much of the crime, many in Marseille are hoping the capital of culture year will act as an economic springboard.
Marseille's Chamber of Commerce says it expects a billion euros in extra cash to flow into the city this year, while tourist officials are forecasting 2-3 million extra visitors and a 20 percent jump in tourism jobs.
"I'm thrilled we're doing all this. The city has pulled out all the stops. It's impossible that people will not want to come," said Georges Antoun, owner of the 100-room New Hotel of Marseille on the Old Port.
Others are cautious, however. Jean-Luc Gosse, the head of a neighbourhood commercial association, said he is "a bit sceptical" that benefits from the cultural events will trickle down to small businesses and poorer areas.
"I'm not sure that everything was done for small producers and businesses," he said, adding that he hopes tourists will leave the centre of the city for struggling neighbourhoods and the suburbs.
"We're not just crooks! If we can show that the neighbourhoods, the suburbs, are more than this image, then we can help everyone," Gosse said.
For some, the battle was already won when Marseille was awarded the 2013 Capital of Culture designation, a European Union tradition since 1985, along with the Slovak city of Kosice.
"The important thing was to win the title of Capital. Marseille is so much in search of recognition," said Marseille sociologist Jean Viard, adding that he believes 2013 "is the start of a new era" for the city.
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