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History of the American Consulate General in Marseille

The American Consulate General in Marseille, France is one of the United State’s oldest overseas posts. The first U.S. representative in Marseille was an honorary consul, French citizen Etienne Cathalan, who opened the first consulate offices on the rue Sainte (Sainte Street), just a few blocks from the present location. Consulate officials have dealt throughout the more than two centuries the post has been open with the full range of international issues, many of which (commerce, tourism, shipping) are related to Marseille’s importance as one of the world’s largest ports.

The Consulate’s workload was stretched to the limit shortly before the Second World War as a result of the massive influx into Marseille of refugees from all over Europe fleeing Nazi persecution. Perhaps tens of thousands (exact numbers are not known) of them came to the Consulate General seeking asylum in the United States; the consulate was forced to move its visa operations to larger facilities in a nearby suburb. The consulate’s current address is “Place Varian Fry” in honor of the American citizen who lived in Marseille from 1940-1941, saving hundreds of refugees from the gas chambers. Many famous Europeans, including Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, André Breton, Heinrich Mann and Nobel Prize winner Otto Meyerhof, lived in Marseille while Fry, a discreet intellectual sometimes referred to as “the American Oskar Schindler,” helped with lodging and arranged for exit visas, transit visas and visas to the United States.

Although Fry complained that many consulate officials were unhelpful, Vice Consul Hiram Bingham helped Varian Fry save refugees.  In 1940 and 1941, against the official policies of the United States, he issued visas and false passports to Jews and other refugees, assisting in their escape and sometimes sheltering them in his own home.

Since the posthumous discovery of his humanitarian activities during the 1980s and 1990s, Bingham has been recognized by the United Nations, and in June 2002 he was honored by the American Foreign Service Association with a special award for “constructive dissent.”  In May 2006 he was honored by the U.S. Postal Service in a commemorative stamp.

In October 2000, the small plaza in front of the consulate was named for Varian Fry in recognition of his heroic efforts. Varian Fry was also the first American ever to be honored as “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Heros and Martyrs Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem.

More information on Varian Fry.

More information on Hiram Bingham.

During World War II the consulate was closed. At one point consular records, which were entrusted to Swiss authorities as the representative of U.S. interests in Vichy France, were moved to Montelimar (150 miles to the north) for safekeeping.

After the war the consulate reopened and resumed a full range of services and activities, including issuing visas, passports, notarizations, etc. The current office building across from the Prefecture was acquired in the 1950’s. In the 1980’s and 1990’s Marseille’s consular district expanded as American consulates in Lyon, Bordeaux and Nice were closed. The DEA closed its office at the consulate in the mid 1990’s. In 2000-2001 new American Presence Posts (APP’s), small consulates staffed by a Foreign Service Officer and 1-2 FSN’s, were opened in Lyon, Toulouse and Bordeaux, and Marseille’s consular district contracted accordingly although passport issuance for Toulouse’s consular district is handled by Marseille.

In 1999 Marseille stopped handling applications for visas but continues to provide the full range of American citizen services, including the issuance of passports, Consular Reports of the Birth Abroad of an American citizen, and notarizations.