In Marseille, a city of nearly 860,000 that stretches over 35 miles of coastline, a record-high number of children cannot swim.
MARSEILLE, France — One hot evening this summer, Yanis Fatnassi left his home in a gritty northern neighborhood of this Mediterranean city, his swim goggles, bathing suit and swimming cap shoved in his backpack.
After about 40 minutes on a bus meandering past high-rise buildings and dilapidated parking lots, and then a short walk, Yanis, 17, arrived at the Martine swimming pool.
Luckily, the 25-meter pool, its rusty, spaceshiplike roof glowing in the setting sun, was open.
Yanis, the son of a deliveryman of Tunisian descent and a supermarket worker with Algerian roots, has been training to be a competitive swimmer since the age of 12.
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It has not been easy. Last year, his practice pool was unexpectedly closed for nearly a month, just weeks before a crucial tournament. Yanis did not perform well.
But at least Yanis knows how to swim.
In Marseille, a city of nearly 860,000 that stretches over 35 miles of coastline, a record-high number of children cannot swim. The lack of pools in good condition, combined with an atrophied public-transportation network and the dominance of other sports — especially soccer — have the city lagging behind the rest of the country.
While the phenomenon affects the whole of Marseille, the more underprivileged, northern neighborhoods, the “Quartiers Nords,” suffer the most.
In this segregated area, where violence and drug trafficking are common, and where youth unemployment has at times reached 50 percent, more than 2 in 3 primary schoolchildren cannot swim, said Brahim Timricht, the head of Le Grand Bleu, an association that has given free swimming lessons to hundreds of children from Marseille’s poorer areas.
“We have kids that are afraid of water,” said Timricht, 43, a solidly built, avuncular kayak instructor.
Like reading and writing, swimming is among the essential skills that the French Republic has pledged to make available to its citizens since the end of the 19th century.
According to local authorities in Marseille, an average 47 percent of children from the Quartiers Nords entering sixth grade fail a mandatory swimming test, compared with 27 percent in the rest of the city.
Most pools in France were constructed in the 1970s amid a nationwide effort to build hundreds of sports facilities. Many in Marseille have fallen into disuse; others are frequently closed for repairs.
To those who live in poorer neighborhoods, the lack of access to public pools reinforces the overall feeling that residents, most of them descendants of immigrants, are not entitled to the same rights as others in the city.
“You live in a tower, with drug dealers downstairs, with no public transport; the sea is far away, and so are pools and good schools,” said Samia Ghali, the mayor of Marseille’s 8th sector, which includes parts of the Quartiers Nords.
Of the five public pools in the Quartiers Nords, an area where 250,000 live, one operated about half the time, and the others closed frequently, often without notice.
About 10 years ago, Richard Miron, the deputy mayor for sports, announced a plan for 250 million euros, or about $295 million, to renovate and build 10 pools across Marseille. Little has come to fruition.
“If it were not for the sea, I wouldn’t know how to swim today,” Sana Jalleb, a bespectacled 18-year-old playing soccer in a local sports hall, said on a recent weekday. “It seems as though they don’t care about us,” she added, referring to the local government.
Many in Marseille said they had been surprised to learn that the city had been picked by a nonprofit federation, ACES Europe, as the European capital of sport for 2017.
Jalleb said she was worried about the younger generation. “I’m afraid my nephew may never be able to swim,” she said.
The frequent closures of the 14 indoor public pools mean many children in public schools in Marseille receive few swimming lessons. The French Education Ministry requires that children receive at least 30 lessons from ages 6 to 7.
“My mother taught me to swim,” Miron said, adding, “That’s also what parents are here for.”
Farès Hamadi Samet, 9, said that he had received no swimming lessons while in primary school because the local pool was closed so often in recent years. His mother had no choice but to pay for lessons at another pool some 45 minutes away.
In most cases, children can get to pools only on chartered buses, said Timricht from Le Grand Bleu, and they often end up spending more time on the bus than in the water.
Yanis Slimani, 20, a summer lifeguard at the Corbières beach, a popular spot for residents of the Quartiers Nord, said that he had only recently realized that one of his closest friends could not swim.
“I think most people hide it,” Slimani said as he scanned the beach.
Yanis Fatnassi said he was the only person in his class to join a swimming team. Of the dozen or so teams in the city, Marseille Nord is the only club in the Quartiers Nords.
He said swimming had taught him discipline, which, in turn, led to excellent results in school. He hopes those results will help him leave Marseille to study in London.
“I would say it’s essential,” the young man said.