La Friche, a witness of Marseille’s history
In the 19th century, the tobacco factory at la Belle de Mai was the HQ of one of the biggest manufacturers in France. In 1860, the factory was situated on rue Sainte, near the Old Port in the town centre and was the biggest employer in the city and the second largest tobacco manufacturer in France, just behind Paris.
Every year, around 100 million cigars were produced by hand on the site. Due to the squalor of the premises, the tobacco factory left the south side of the Old Port in 1868 and moved next to the Saint Charles sugar refinery in la Belle de Mai.
The factory, which ran along the railway, would go through several changes, growing ever larger in line with the ever-increasing consumption of cigarettes and developments in production methods (the gradual modernisation and electrification of the manufacturing machinery).
In the 1950s, after years producing cigars and rolling tobacco, the tobacco factory at la Belle de Mai, owned by the SEITA, specialised solely in the manufacture of Gauloises and Gitanes cigarette brands, following orders from Paris for a new industrial strategy that reflected new trends.
In the early 60s, the factory was producing about a fifth of all Gauloises smoked in France. However, lighter tobacco came into fashion and the staff went from 1000 in 1960, to 250 in 1968. The factory was finally closed in 1970.
In April 1992, the project Friche la Belle de mai was born, and the old Tobacco Factory became a place for artistic production and residencies. An agreement with la SEITA, who owned the site, was signed offering an informal lease to occupy the site for free. This imposing, exceptional array of buildings is one of the last bastions of the industrial age in the Phoenician city, which the economic downturn has all but removed from the city’s landscape.
Over the months that followed, other producers, cultural and artistic groups and operators joined the Friche project.