By Jean-François Rosnoblet
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - The mayor of a tough Marseille neighborhood called on Thursday for France's army to tackle armed criminals after a spate of shootings in the Mediterranean port city, in a test of President Francois Hollande's crime-fighting mettle.
The appeal, which the government rejected, highlighted worsening crime in France's second-largest city, a drug-trafficking hub where an influx of weapons from eastern Europe after the Balkan wars has contributed to a rise in gun violence and tit-for-tat killings.
It follows the shooting deaths of two young men in less than a week in an escalating turf war between housing project drug dealers and neighborhood kingpins which is overwhelming a poorly armed local police force.
The mayor's call piled pressure on Hollande and his Interior Minister to prove that they can be tough on crime, just two weeks after riots in northern France fuelled concerns about urban unrest.
"Today, with criminals using weapons of war, only the army can intervene - firstly, to disarm the dealers and then to block access to neighborhoods as in war-time, with barricades, even if that has to last for a year or two," Samia Ghali, a Socialist senator and mayor of two troubled districts in northern Marseille, told La Provence daily.
The shootings, which police say were both drug-related, brought the number of murders in Marseille to 12 since January - already approaching last year's total of 13. In the wider Rhone-Alpes region, 19 people have been killed in drug-related shootings this year.
Frequent attacks have exposed the erosion of public order in the ancient Mediterranean city where the once-thriving industrial port, a top employer, has steadily lost business to Rotterdam over the past decade.
Economically depressed, dotted with housing projects and located on a trafficking route leading up from Spain to the rest of Europe, Marseille has long been known as a tough city.
But drug-related violence has risen sharply in the past five years, as youths from the city's restive northern neighborhoods grabbed business from career criminals and began feuding over turf, newly armed with Kalashnikov machine-guns that sell for as little as 400 euros ($500).
Hollande, in Madrid for a meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, rejected the call for army intervention in Marseille, but he did say that more police would be deployed.
"The army's role is not to control the neighborhoods of the Republic," he told journalists.
TEST FOR HOLLANDE
For Hollande and his tough-talking Interior Minister, Manuel Valls - whose energetic style has won him comparisons to former president Nicolas Sarkozy - the Marseille violence amounts to an early test of leadership and authority.
Valls has outlined plans to concentrate police resources on "sensitive urban zones", often immigrant-heavy neighborhoods identified as the country's most dangerous. But his strategy has already been widely criticized for stigmatizing those areas.
"Will Manuel Valls and the Left succeed on security?" asked a banner headline in daily Le Monde.
In the same paper, former interior minister Claude Gueant accused the Socialist government of being weak on crime, pointing to a rise in registered assaults in June and July as proof that criminals were taking advantage of a void.
The Spanish-born Valls has already lost political points. Once the most popular member of Hollande's team, his approval rating dropped to 49 percent in August, an Ipsos poll showed.
Hollande's own popularity has slumped since his election in May largely due to France's weakening economic prospects. But criticism that he is weak on crime is adding to his woes.
"The truth is that drug-traffickers are the top employer of youths in some projects," said Ghali. "If nothing changes, we are headed for an American-style system with gangs fighting wars against each other in totally lawless neighborhoods." ($1 = 0.7982 euros)
(Additional reporting and writing by Nicholas Vinocur; editing by Daniel Flynn and Myra MacDonald)