The French leg of the Paris Olympic flame relay began Thursday in the southern port city of Marseille, a day after it arrived from Greece on a 19th century ship.

French former star footballer Basile Boli carried the torch from a majestic cathedral overlooking the city and handed it over to 83-year-old Colette Cataldo.

The event drew dozens of spectatators including Marseille Archbishop Jean-marc Aveline.

"That really makes the heart beat fast and it's fantastic," said Boli after handing over the torch.

"It's the Olympic flame, it's the symbol of sport and of living together", he said.

It marked the start of a 12,000-kilometre (7,500-mile) torch relay across France and its far-flung overseas territories.

The opening ceremony for the Olympics on July 26 will take place in boats on the river Seine in a radical departure from past Games which have opened in the main stadium.

Organisers are hoping the first public spectacle of the Games on French soil will help build excitement after a row about the price of Olympics tickets and concerns about security.