Come together: an aerial view of Nairobi's outskirts and suburbs. As the city's population swells, unemployment has risen to 60 per cent. Image: Frederic Courtbet/Corbis
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Petropolis now: Are cities getting too big?

As we confront the challenge of urbanisation, we can deploy technology with two different intentions.

Imagine if you lived in a place where                                
the cool breeze caresses your face as                               
you stare at the lush green landscape,                               
where birds sing as you walk by,                               
where you can fish by the lake,                               
where your neighbours share your lifestyle dreams,                               
where your kids can play outdoors safely . . .                               

Where is this idyll? Migaa – a 20-minute drive from the rubble of the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya – is a new development complete with a private hospital, conference centre, “shop till you drop” mall facilities and a 200-acre executive golf course. Natasha, a sales rep, talks me through the mid-range Tamarind Tree residences – fully serviced apartments with a lift and a concierge, high-speed internet, a roof terrace with a solar-heated pool and a bar.

“We also have a wall,” she tells me. Patrolled by armed security guards, it is a 12- kilometre-long electrified stone wall around the perimeter of the compound.

Migaa is one of several “premier gated cities” springing up around Nairobi, from the $14.5bn Konza Techno City to Tatu City, with its helipad and biometric ID system, unveiled last year by the Moscow-based Renaissance Partners in Cannes, France. Nairobi is not the only place this is happening: a pan-African trend to upgrade to the “smart city” of the future is emerging. Uganda’s capital, Kampala, has Kakungulu eco-city, with two malls, a 50,000-seater stadium and a golf course with seeds for the greens flown in from Florida. Accra, Ghana, has Appolonia. Lagos, Nigeria, has Eko Atlantic, “rising like Aphrodite from the foam of the Atlantic”. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, not to be outdone, has la Cité du Fleuve, emerging, like a “water lily”, on reclaimed land in the middle of the Congo River near the capital, Kinshasa. The mansion designs on offer include “palace-style Arabe” and “Mediterranean villa”. Elsewhere, there’s Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, Norman Foster’s eco-oasis in the desert, coming in with an estimated $20bn price tag for 40,000 inhabitants.

In South Korea, Songdo is already open for business. Described by Cisco as a “model for future cities”, Songdo has smart water, smart garbage (pneumatically sucked out of sight), smart parking with cars guided to empty lots, centralised blood pressure monitoring consoles, elevators you can order from your television screen and ubiquitous 52- inch plasma screens for high-definition video conferencing. Plus, a green space modelled on New York’s Central Park and a canal system inspired by Venice.

Then there are the ambitions of China. After a decade of rolling out the infrastructure equivalent of Rome every two months, China, according to the news agency Xinhua, now aims to step up the pace, with 100 model cities, 200 model counties, 1,000 model districts and 10,000 model towns by 2015. It’s Grand Designs on steroids. Yet will these urban dreamscapes work in reality?

If urbanisation is the defining trend of the 21st century, with 4.9 billion people predicted to be living in African and Asian cities by 2030 (the population of the world as recently as the mid-1980s), are we up to the task? Or is this the next real estate bubble, not sub-prime but super-prime, dressed up in the mushy atmospherics of eco-bling? There are three potential problems.

The first is the demand for jobs. Around the world, some 200,000 people a day leave the countryside – crops failing, the agricultural model broken – in a pattern of distressed migration that takes them to the slums. Nairobi’s population has swollen to around 3.4 million. The figures are unreliable but some 60 per cent of its population is estimated to be slum-dwelling, concentrated in just 5 per cent of the city’s space.

The challenges are patent. Nairobi is bursting. Its streets are jammed (the city recently rose to fourth in the world in IBM’s Commuter Pain Index), its services are crumbling. Business, in a vicious circle accelerated by the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping centre, is leaving the city. As it leaves, it reduces still further the flow of tax revenue that, from roads to health to education, could transform public services.

Unemployment is at 60 per cent, with only 9 per cent (according to some estimates) in formal-sector unemployment. More than 500,000 new unemployed young people join the labour force every year; 90 per cent of the unemployed have no skills or formal training beyond primary education.

Why do the rural poor come to the city? For a woman such as Mama Felix, the owner of the Pink Lady hairdressing salon in the slum of Mathare, there’s a central answer – because that’s where the hope is. Braid by braid, customer by customer, she is working her way towards getting back the savings she lost to a loan shark. She has no running water and no lights. Half the money she earns goes out to relatives in the countryside. But she has some scissors, a mirror, an electric dryer and, above all, a market for her skills.

For all the “flying toilets”, Mungiki street gangs and illegal changaa breweries, Nairobi’s sprawling slums of Mathare, Kibera and Korogocho are concentrators not just of poverty but of opportunity. If the businesses move out to the new satellite city – if you move the engine that’s creating 45 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and economic opportunity 15 miles away – the migrants will follow and set up camp. You haven’t solved the underlying problem with a new city: you have just moved it on down the road. These new “smart” cities aren’t going to look like the architect’s model. They are going to have a lot of people camping in and around them, looking for jobs.

The second problem is the supply of jobs. Just how many will the smart city manage to offer? As part of its cultural life, Migaa, which is built on over 700 acres of a coffee plantation, will celebrate the rich heritage of that industry with the Coffee Museum, complete with digital displays and a café: a site for agricultural production transformed into a site for consumption and for the deployment of the development strategy known as “pacification by cappuccino”. As Slavoj Žižek notes in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously: “There is a wonderful expression in Persian, war nam nihadan, which means, ‘To murder somebody, bury his body, then grow flowers over the body to conceal it.’”

From its IT systems to the merchandise in its malls, the smart city risks being an import city, closed to local skills and goods, with a reduced capacity to develop or integrate local expertise in the supply chain. As a result, there’s the danger that it will become something close to an iPad city, a mesh of topdown, closed systems, both vulnerable and interdependent, with a deskilled local labour force that’s unable to repair or maintain it.

The smart city becomes a city that is only as good as its software, built for obsolescence. The impact of new cities such as Angola’s Kilamba, or China’s deserted Tianducheng (with its 108-metre-high “Eiffel Tower” and replica Champs-Élysées), is to create the throwaway city.

The third problem is what J K Galbraith called “the massive onslaught of circumstance”. Food price rises, which have already resulted in events from the tortilla riots in Mexico to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, have been shown to have a direct link to civic unrest. As Henk- Jan Brinkman and Cullen S Hendrix wrote in a report for the World Food Programme: “Food insecurity, especially when caused by higher food prices, heightens the risk of democratic breakdown, civil conflict, protest, rioting and communal conflict.”

If the predictions of climate-change-driven drought and impacts on crop prices across eastern and central Africa hold true, the new smart city is facing a complex external environment, with several specific threats to the boundary wall: more people with more mouths to feed, facing higher food prices, with fewer jobs to help them afford it.

As a point of reference, it was in the Lower Shabelle area of Somalia – where drought struck and brought child mortality of 10 per cent – that the Islamist terrorist group al- Shabaab gained control. Resilience, the capacity to adapt and heal, not the opposite, is what the 21st-century city will need.

Done right, the smart city has the potential to provide affordable housing and construction jobs and help incubate a next generation of start-ups. Done badly, it’s a different story and has the potential to leave us with three problems: a broken countryside, swamped megacities and non-resilient new satellite cities.

In 2011, there were 23 urban agglomerations that qualified as megacities, which means that they had populations exceeding ten million inhabitants. By 2025, there are expected to be as many as 37 megacities. The challenge for Nairobi and all of these cities is a defining challenge for societal well-being in the years to 2050.

Is there another option, beyond the smart city, that might work? In Erik Hersman’s photograph, taken 60 kilometres outside Nairobi in the Savannah at the construction site for Konza, the contours of two potentially dystopian cities of the future can be seen. The first, implied in the deserted fields, is the decreasingly resilient megacity, the swamped “petropolis” of Nairobi. The second city, Konza, advertised on the billboard, is what is currently on track to be its replacement, the new smart city, “cyburbia”, the gleaming citadel, censored and sensored. This is the eco-city as escapist urbanism.

I s there a third city, beyond the dyad of old Nairobi and its glimmering cyburb of Konza? Is there a city where technology helps us not escape but address the looming crisis of rural African poverty? Is there a city where we could thrive?

“The fields,” said the poet Ben Okri, “are sprouting strange new mushrooms.”

The group standing in front of the perimeter gate are members of Nairobi’s iHub, part of a network of self-organising groups that now run 16 innovation spaces across the city. From the iHub to M:Lab, Nailab and 88mph, an alternative approach is forming, deploying technology not to escape the problems of distressed migration but to tackle the root causes.

M-Kopa, the brainchild of Nick Hughes, one of the founders of the mobile money transfer system M-Pesa, is an example. Across the globe, there are as many as 1.5 billion people without access to power, spending 40 to 70 per cent of their income on kerosene and firewood, with two million deaths a year from smoke inhalation and 150 million tonnes of carbon released annually.

M-Kopa set out to address these three problems by making solar home-lighting systems affordable and accessible to low-income consumers. In October 2012, M-Kopa partnered with Safaricom to launch the first ever “pay-as-you-go solar solution” using mobile money. M-Kopa takes the d.Light mobile solar light and puts a mobile chip in it. This has a big impact for users. Instead of having to buy the light outright, at a cost far beyond their range, Kenya’s cash-strapped poor can make an initial deposit of $30, then lease it, just like a mobile phone, for around 50 cents a day: less than they would be spending on kerosene or firewood.

Using M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer system, they pay instalments of 40 Kenyan shillings a day for 12 months, about 30 shillings less than the cost of paraffin and charging. In return, they get the M-Kopa system, comprising a base station with a solar panel, three lamps and a charging kit for phones.

And they don’t just get power. Using the chip, they can get micro-insurance, buy fertiliser and make micro-payments for productive equipment such as the KickStart agricultural hand pump, which, at the cost of $34, gives access to the underground water table, tripling the number of crops that local farmers can plant.

They get the basic needs that make it possible to stay out of the slums and succeed as a rural farmer. The essence of the approach is to use technology not to accelerate consumption but, as Ford did with the Model T, to transform productivity within a new group of the population. In one study, exam pass rates went up from 68 to 82 per cent and incomes per head from $160 a year to $1,600. For Mama Felix, it means more hours in the shop, lights for her family, phone-charging and mobile money transfers. It means the chance to move slowly out of poverty.

Does it make business sense? The poorest of the poor spend $36bn a year on kerosene alone. The market for M-Kopa is believed to be $1bn a year in Kenya. It is a market that is the opposite of the sub-prime. It is big, growing and, when you serve it, by raising user productivity and income, you expand it.

M-Kopa is part of a growing movement to use technology for development. Another Kenyan innovation, iCow, is a voice-based application for small-scale dairy farmers. It helps farmers trace the oestrogen cycles of their cows and also gives technical advice on animal nutrition, milk production and gestation. Users of the application have reported an increase in income of 42 per cent, with milk retention increased by 56 per cent. Meanwhile, MFarm, a Kenyan agribusiness company, has partnered with Samsung to launch a new tool that allows subscribing farmers to obtain real-time price information, buy farm inputs and find buyers for their produce.

The MFarm tool was founded by three Kenyan women who met through the iHub in Nairobi. Their idea, facilitated by a group called Akirachix, a community of over 200 tech women, was developed at the M:Lab incubator at Nairobi’s iHub and launched after they won a 48-hour boot-camp event and €10, 000 of investment.

It is early days but a pattern is emerging. “Technology,” says Kentaro Toyama, “is not the answer. It is the amplifier of intent.” As we confront the challenge of urbanisation, we can deploy technology with two different intentions. One is vertical, isolating ourselves in gated smart cities from the crises affecting the poor. The other is horizontal, harnessing technology to empower smart citizens, with the goal of making both the rural and the urban work.

Leo Johnson is the co-author, with Michael Blowfield, of “Turnaround Challenge: Business and the City of the Future” (Oxford University Press, £20). For more information, visit: turnaroundchallenge.org

Andre Carhillo
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The decline of the Fifth Republic

With the far right and far left surging in the run-up to a defining presidential election, the French seem intent on blowing up the political establishment.

On a cold Saturday evening in late February, cycling back to my flat in southern Paris, I accidentally ran into a pack of lads on a rampage. They were turning over bins, kicking over expensive motorbikes parked on the street, and obviously looking for someone to fight.

It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen this sort of thing, even in this relatively gentrified part of the city. Usually the best course of action is to stop, let them swarm past and allow the police to do their job. But on this particular night, although I could hear the buzz of a police helicopter above us, there were no officers on the ground. As I nervously became aware of this, one of the lads, no more than five yards away, looked at me and screamed: “T’es qui toi?” (“Who the f*** are you?”). His mates turned and gathered round. Now panicking, I saw that he was pointing a screwdriver at me.

I pelted down the street, heart racing as the young men followed me, so shocked that when I reached my apartment building I twice tapped in the wrong entry code. It was only once indoors, now safe but genuinely scared and sweating, that I understood what had happened.

This was a gang from one of the local ­cités – council estates – that border this part of Paris. They had been flushed out of their normal dens, where they deal in weed and mess about, by police using helicopters and unmarked cars, and were now taking their revenge on these unfamiliar surroundings. When they saw me, a tall, white, male figure, watching in the dark on my bike (stupidly the same dark blue as a police bike), they assumed I could only be one thing: a police spotter. In other words, their most hated enemy.

In the past few weeks, in Paris and across France, there has been a new and special danger in being identified by such gangs as a lone policeman. This is because the ever-present tensions between police and the youth of the cités have become particularly acute following the so-called Affaire Théo. On 2 February in Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of Paris, four police officers violently attacked an innocent black man, identified only as Théo. The assault was caught on camera and allegedly involved the man’s “rape” with a telescopic baton.

The details of the case caused widespread outrage, right up to the highest level of ­government. In the banlieue, the suburbs where many young people feel excluded from mainstream French life, some felt a desire for revenge. And though their anger related to a specific incident, it was in keeping with the emotions sweeping across France, at all levels of society, in the lead-up to the first round of this year’s presidential election on 23 April.

***

France is in a state of political disarray. This much was obvious during the first live “great debate” on 20 March, organised by the television channel TF1, featuring five front-runners for the presidency.

Probably the greatest loser on the night was François Fillon of the centre-right party les Républicains, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012. Fillon has gone from being a sure favourite to outsider in the presidential contest, following allegations of dodgy financial dealings. Most damagingly, a formal judicial investigation has been launched into reports that he paid upwards of €800,000 of taxpayers’ money to his wife and other family members for jobs they didn’t actually do. Fillon, who denies any wrongdoing, has also been accused of failing to declare a €50,000 loan from a French businessman in 2013 (which he has since repaid). He held himself in check during the debate, trying to look dignified and presidential, but he has become the object of scorn from all sides, including his own.

Benoît Hamon, the candidate for the Parti Socialiste (PS), the party of the outgoing and discredited president, François Hollande, did not perform much better in the debate. Hamon identifies with the far left and green wings of the PS and favours a basic income, the legalisation of cannabis, and euthanasia. He resigned from Hollande’s government in 2014 claiming that the president had abandoned socialist values. But at every public appearance Hamon still looks surprised to be in the race. Although he has positioned himself as the “anti-Hollande” candidate – no surprise, as Hollande has the lowest polls ratings of any French president – even Hamon’s supporters concede that he has no reach outside the party faithful, and his dismal poll ratings reflect this.

In recent weeks, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a veteran left-winger and now leader of his own party, France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), has surged in the polls. He has been compared to Jeremy Corbyn but is more like George Galloway, in that he can be trenchant and biting and speaks fluently without notes. Some of his views – anti-EU, anti-Nato, pro-Russia – are close to those of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (FN). The candidate of the centre or centre-left is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker and protégé of Hollande, under whom he served as minister of the economy, industry and digital data. Macron broke with the PS in 2016 to set himself up as an independent candidate with his new movement, En Marche! (“onward”). He presents himself as a voice of moderation and common sense. He defends the EU and the eurozone and is an unashamed liberal globaliser. But Macron is also hard to love: his enemies claim that he is self-serving, an opportunist who cannot be trusted, and, worse, that he lacks experience of high office. On television he can be vain and testy – as was the case when he came under attack from Marine Le Pen, during the TF1 debate.

In many ways, Macron was a gift to Le Pen. She accused him of being out of touch and of not knowing what he was talking about. Even non-FN supporters, who didn’t necessarily agree with her views on security and immigration, conceded that Le Pen was the most convincing speaker. As I was told by a neighbour with an impeccable PS background, it was as if she was the only politician on the night of the debate in charge of what she believed. Le Pen’s popularity increased as a consequence.

So is it now possible to think the unthinkable: that Marine Le Pen could triumph not only in the first round of the presidential election but in the second as well? If that happens, not only would she become the first female president of France but she would transform French politics and further destabilise the European Union.

***

When I put this to Jean-Pierre Legrand, the leader of the Front National in Roubaix, a town of 90,000 inhabitants in the north of France, he shook his head. He wishes Le Pen well but fears that in the second round the mainstream parties will gang up and back whoever her opponent is. “This is what always happens,” he told me. “This is why so-called French democracy is actually a form of dictatorship. You can never really get your hands on power. It belongs to an elite, people like Emmanuel Macron.”

Legrand, 69, has been a supporter of the FN for decades. He smiles a lot and can be witty, but he also likes talking tough, like the hard-headed factory boss he used to be. He admires the way Le Pen has reinvented the party, shedding some of the old-school neo-Nazi trappings. But he is also faithful to, maybe even nostalgic for, the old FN of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who reached the second round of the 2002 presidential election (he lost to the centre-right Jacques Chirac). So I asked him if he was not really a democrat but, like Le Pen père, basically a fascist. “I am not afraid of being called a fascist, or even a Gaullist,” he said. “But all I really believe in is order and authority. And that is what France needs now.”

I had come to Roubaix because it is officially the poorest town in France. It is also, according to most media reports, one of the most troubled. It’s not far from Paris – just over 90 minutes on a fast train – but when you get there it feels like a different, distant place. The train station is scruffy and there is little sense of the usual Gallic civic pride; the stroll down the main boulevard to the Grand Place is drab and quiet, unlike in most French towns.

Roubaix has a large immigrant population, mainly from North Africa but comprising more than 60 nationalities. It has a reputation as a refuge for illegal migrants making for Calais and then the UK, and as a hotbed of Islamist radicalisation. In May last year the conservative news weekly Valeurs actuelles described Roubaix as “le Molenbeek français”. The magazine was referring to the suburb of Brussels where several of the terrorists and sympathisers involved in the November 2015 attacks on Paris, which killed 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan concert hall, grew up.

Legrand and his FN colleague Astrid Leplat offered to show me around the town, just as they had done with the writer from Valeurs actuelles. The article was criticised by the local newspaper La Voix du Nord as depicting a fantasy version of France conjured up by the FN. I was aware of this argument, but also keen to take up the offer of a tour: it was a rare chance to see an ordinary French town through the eyes of the FN.

I quite liked Roubaix. With its sooty terraced houses, empty textile mills, iron bridges and dirty canals, it reminded me of Salford in the 1970s. The town is neatly laid out even if the streets are scruffy. It is also busy with small businesses – Arabic-language bookshops, kebab houses and tea shops, as well as traditional French cafés and bistros. It looked no more menacing than Bradford or Rusholme in Manchester.

Legrand is proud of Roubaix, or at least of what Roubaix used to be, and has chosen to live here rather than in nearby Lille. Having been a blue-collar worker, too, he admires the noble ambitions and graft of the people who built the town. These were the original indépendants – the aspiring working class, much cherished by the FN, who believe in the values of hard work and public service. But Legrand told me that when he looks at the streets today he sees not the cluttered life of 21st-century, multicultural France but what he called “conquered territory”.

There are problems in Roubaix: 45 per cent of the town’s residents live below the official French poverty line of €977 a month. Describing the local poverty, Legrand used the term “misère”, a word that also translates as “wretchedness”. The unemployment rate is high (40 per cent in parts of town) and on a typical weekday afternoon there are many young men sitting around with nothing to do.

As we drove through some of the tougher areas, Legrand pointed out so-called Salafist mosques, most of them shielded from the streets by the high walls of disused factories. It is these places, unknown and unvisited by outsiders, which have given Roubaix its reputation for radicalism.

It is true that in the recent past Roubaix has produced many extremists. The most notorious is Lionel Dumont, a former soldier who is white and working class, and is viewed as the leader of radical Islam in the French prison system, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for terrorism offences that include trying to set off a car bomb during a G7 meeting in Lille in 1996. Islamists such as Dumont are, in effect, beyond the control of the penal authorities because French laws forbid the monitoring of prisoners on grounds of race or religion. One frustrated director of prisons in the Paris region complained to me that the French penal system was “the real engine room of radicalisation”.

The main reason why Roubaix has produced so many terrorists – including Mehdi Nemmouche, the gunman who fired the shots at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 that killed four people – is not immigration, as the Front National would have it, but geography. This part of France is depicted in the media as “a security black hole”, partly because of its proximity to the Belgian border. You can drive into Belgium from Roubaix in ten minutes, as I did with Legrand; the border is just a roundabout and unmonitored. The French and Belgian intelligence services are minutes away from each other but do not share information or collaborate properly. This allowed some of the terrorists who led the 2015 Paris attacks to escape after the killing spree.

***

Crossing the border to Belgium, you notice that the roads are lined with gleaming new warehouses belonging to Amazon and other technology companies. ­Roubaix suddenly seems like a ruin from the early 20th century. It must be difficult for its people not to feel trapped and abandoned – by the French elite to the south and the new economy to the north.

“If you live in Roubaix it is hard to feel connected to the rest of France,” said Hélène Robillard, a junior civil servant. I had come across her in the centre of town. She was leading a group of young women, merrily banging tambourines, blowing whistles and chanting slogans outside one of the
offices of the local council. They were striking against work conditions at the council, but having a laugh, too, in the best Made in Dagenham style.

I asked the women about the film Chez nous (This Is Our Land), which had been released only a few weeks earlier and was playing to packed houses across France. Set in a fictionalised town much like Roubaix, it tells the story of a young woman, Pauline Duhez, a nurse who is seduced into joining the FN and standing for a seat on the council. As she learns the party’s true positions, she becomes disillusioned and angry. The film ends with Pauline returning to the socialist values of her unemployed father, a former steelworker, culminating in a family trip to watch a game featuring the local football team Lens.

The women protesting with Robillard were all determinedly anti-FN. Those who had seen the film were full of enthusiasm. “It is our real life,” said one of them, laughing. “It shows our true values – not fascism, but football, beer and chips.”

Like Pauline in the film, the FN’s Astrid Leplat is a nurse. Jean-Pierre Legrand explained to me that this was why she had been hand-picked by Marine Le Pen to stand
as a regional councillor. The party has adopted a policy of recruiting fonctionnaires (civil servants), especially those who work in the health and support services. This is partly to demonstrate that the FN has left behind its neo-Nazi origins and is now the party of everyday folk, but also to undermine PS dominance of the public services.

When I asked Leplat why she supported the FN, she said that she had witnessed the disastrous effects of repeated budget cuts on hospitals, with overstretched departments and increasingly run-down facilities. “The Front National are there to protect us,” she said.

Leplat told me she hadn’t seen Chez nous and that she probably wouldn’t, because it would upset her. There were also political reasons why she didn’t want to see it: it had been financed with public money from Hauts-de-France, the northern region that covers Roubaix, as well as the television companies France 2 and France 3. When I pointed out that most French cinema relies on public subsidy, she argued that the film’s release had been deliberately timed to undermine the February launch of the FN’s presidential campaign.

“How else can this be explained?” she said. “The Front National is always persecuted by the establishment elites in culture and politics.”

***

Back in Paris, as part of a documentary I was making for BBC Radio 4, I interviewed Émilie Dequenne, the actress who plays Pauline in Chez nous, and the film’s director, Lucas Belvaux. We met at the production company’s office just off the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the swish heart of Paris – a corner of the city that couldn’t be further removed from the streets of Roubaix. But both Dequenne and Belvaux are intimately connected with the region and the northern working-class life, because they grew up near the Franco-Belgian border and still have family ties there. I asked them whether the FN had a point about the film.

“The film is not ambiguous,” Dequenne said. “It is clearly a warning about being ­seduced by the far right. But it also has lots of [different] ambiguities. The main character, Pauline, is a good person, and not stupid. She wants to help people. She thinks that this is not the case with the main pol­itical parties. So she is attracted by a party that seems to care.”

“I agree it is a warning,” Belvaux said. “We are not yet a fascist country, but I do fear that this could happen.

“There are big social and cultural divisions in France. Not everybody who will vote for the Front National is a bad person, but there are many angry people in this country who feel hurt and damaged. When this is the case, fascism can arrive much more quickly than you think.”

Until now, voting for the FN has been a sign of protest, historically a safety valve for releasing discontent. Whenever the FN has got near to victory, right and left have come together as a bloc to exclude it from power. This is what happened in 2002, of course, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the then leader of the FN, made it through to the second round of the presidential elections. Jacques Chirac won the run-off with 82 per cent of the vote, despite accusations of corruption. The rallying cry across all non-FN political lines was: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!” Yet there is no guarantee that this will happen again, because Marine Le Pen has successfully reinvented and rebranded the FN, making it more acceptable to mainstream voters.

Even if Marine loses, there is another danger. If those French parties of the left and right which historically have been strongest continue to implode, there will be a new constituency of voters who in future will be “homeless”. Even if Macron wins – having blurred the lines between right and left – he will disappoint at some stage. When this happens, those who supported him may not find their way back to the established parties, thus opening up an avenue to power for the far right. Sylvain Bourmeau, an associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, told me that this was part of the Front National’s long-term strategy.

The withering of a historically strong party has already happened in the UK, where voters’ movement to Ukip and the SNP has undermined, if not destroyed, Labour as a national force. Marine Le Pen has already voiced her admiration for Ukip for “breaking the mould”. However, it is important to remember that the FN is not “populist” in the way that Ukip, or indeed Donald Trump, is. Nor are Roubaix and the north of France the same as the “rust belt” of the United States.

Rather, the present conflicts in France are ideological, with roots in the antagonisms and turmoil of French history. The FN’s ultimate goal is to get rid of the present French Republic – the result of the “mistake” of the “liberal revolution” of 1789. In other words, the promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité is to be replaced by an “awakening”, which would lead to a “national movement”: that is, the rebirth of the French nation. The FN is not just about racism, immigration or identity: it wants to send French history into reverse gear.

That is how high the stakes are, and why the coming elections are the most important in France since the Second World War. There is a generalised tension right now – the tension that I encountered on my bike on my own street in southern Paris – which sometimes finds expression in gang violence, anti-police riots and even terrorism, all fuelling the rise of the FN.

For all the polls, signs and omens, it is ­impossible to predict the election result. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, with the old political certainties melting away, it seems more than ever that France is set on a long and unstoppable journey into darkness. L

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada” (Granta Books). He lives in Paris. His documentary “Culture, Class and Le Pen” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 April (8pm)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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