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Choking to death: should we stop sending women to prison?

Even if many politicians are convinced by the ethical and economic case for closing women’s prisons, many feel they need to appear “tough on crime” to a public that demands punishment and retribution.


No place for a girl like you: inmates protest from behind bars at HMP Styal. Photo: Don McPhee/Guardian News and Media. 

Gemma learned a lot from prison. On her first day in HMP Styal, eight years ago, she learned how to take heroin and crack cocaine. “I didn’t tell the girls I hadn’t done them before – I just wanted to fit in,” she tells me when we meet at Brighton Oasis Project, a charity for women with drug or alcohol addictions. By her second jail sentence, at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey in early 2013, she’d been taught how to “load up” with drug-filled condoms before her court date and how to avoid being “decrotched”: “when someone watches the cell door and they use a spoon to take the drugs out from inside of you”.

Gemma says she didn’t know before prison that if you slit your wrists the blood can spurt so high it hits the ceiling – but self-harm was so common at Bronzefield that a deep-clean team was often called in to mop up the bloodstains, and the staff carried knives to cut ligatures from inmates’ necks. One woman repeatedly tried to hang herself but the guards “didn’t do anything to stop it. They just put her on meds and kept on cutting her down.”

According to a study published in the Lancet in December, a quarter of female prisoners self-harm, and 102 female inmates self-harmed more than 100 times in one year. Self-harm is more common among women in prison than men: women make up 5 per cent of the UK’s prison population but account for 28 per cent of self-harm cases.

I first meet Gemma at Boppers, a mother-and-baby group in Brighton run by Oasis, for women whose children have been placed on a child protection plan by social services. We all sit on nursery-size chairs making peg-angels. Gemma’s six-month-old son, David, is gurgling happily in her lap and when she whispers “heroin and crack” she gently places her hands over his ears. David was born while Gemma was in prison; she gave birth in front of two female prison guards she’d never met before. She says she was fortunate that two women happened to be on shift that day. David and Gemma spent a month in hospital together following complications she believes could have been caused by prison nurses reducing her methadone dose during pregnancy. Two officers – men and women – stood guard beside her hospital bed 24 hours a day, so she felt unable to breastfeed.

“Prison doesn’t help you, it does the opposite. I came out angrier,” she says. “They should give you a chance to turn your life around, but instead they just send you to prison, lock the door and you lose a bit of time. The same people are coming in and out of prison.”

The statistics support her: 51 per cent of women leaving prison will be reconvicted within a year, and among those on short sentences of less than 12 months, this rises to 62 per cent. If one of the aims of prison is to reduce offending by women, it isn’t working. In fact, given that roughly a quarter of female inmates have no previous conviction, sending a woman to prison increases the probability of her offending again.

Gemma has finally been able to address the reason she has served two jail sentences, most recently for assaulting a security guard: her drug and alcohol addiction, her childhood abuse, the trauma of watching her first husband, who had joined a gang, being shot dead. “I’ve turned my life around,” she tells me. A month after we met, she regained custody of David.

Campaigners such as Rachel Halford, the director of the charity Women in Prison, want the 12 (soon to be ten) women’s prisons in England to close. “We want the complete abolition of the women’s prison estate as it exists today,” she tells me when we meet at her London office. “The prison system was designed for men, but women’s routes into criminality are very different, and their needs are very different.”

Most women in prison pose no threat to society: 81 per cent are jailed for a non-violent offence. They make up such a small proportion of the UK prison population – although at present there are as many as 4,000 women behind bars – that their specific needs are easily overlooked in national policymaking. At the same time, the impact of a prison sentence is often greater on women than on men; because women are still more likely to be single parents and the prime homemaker, they run a greater risk of ending up homeless after prison and losing access to their children. Home Office figures show that each year, about 17,000 children become separated from their mother because she is in prison.

“The majority of women have been let down by society long before they reach the attention of the criminal justice system,” Halford says. A significant proportion of male prisoners have experienced childhood abuse, been through the care system or suffered mental illness, but among women these trends are even more pronounced. According to the Prison Reform Trust, female prisoners are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators: 46 per cent have suffered domestic violence and 53 per cent have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. This could be directly connected to their offending: half of the women say they have committed an offence to support someone else’s drug use.

Rates of mental illness are also much higher among the female prison population: 30 per cent will have had a psychiatric admission before coming to prison, and 37 per cent have previously attempted suicide. The self-harm that Gemma witnessed in prison illustrates how vulnerable and distressed many women prisoners are, and how poorly equipped the prison system is to deal with their needs.

Halford would like to see all women who have committed non-violent offences being offered a community sentence, and for the minority whose violence makes them pose a threat to society to be kept in smaller custodial units. This might sound like a revolutionary rethink of the penal system, but seven years ago the UK government signed up to a very similar set of recommendations.


Slopping standard: inside Styal Prison, Cheshire, where in 12 months between 2002 and 2003 six women in custody killed themselves

In 12 months between 2002 and 2003, six women died in HMP Styal. The youngest was Sarah Campbell – an 18-year-old with a history of depression and heroin addiction – who took a fatal overdose in January 2003. In response, the government commissioned Baroness (Jean) Corston to review the women’s prison services. Her 2007 report called for women’s prisons to be replaced, within ten years, by “geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional custodial units” and for most of the women to be given community sentences. She drew attention to three specialist women’s community centres, based in Glasgow, Worcester and Halifax, that could offer an alternative to custody for female offenders. These provide a one-stop shop for women, including advice on housing, employment and social services, drug rehabilitation and mental health care.

Corston made her case persuasively: the government accepted 41 of her report’s 43 recommendations. But a 2012 paper by the Commons justice committee measuring progress following the Corston report concluded that the coalition government has failed to focus on women offenders, and that the pace of change has been too slow.

“There isn’t really the political will to see all the report’s recommendations through. Politicians could support the fuzzy notion that there shouldn’t be so many women in prison, but when it comes to actually closing down women’s prisons and replacing them with perhaps just one or two small custodial units for those few women who pose a threat to society, the reform efforts have faltered,” Andrew Neilson, head of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, told me.

Whether or not a woman is offered a community instead of a custodial sentence can depend merely on where she lives. The UK now has about 50 community centres similar to those recommended by Baroness Corston, but the patchy provision leaves women facing a postcode lottery. Val Castell, an expert on female offenders at the Magistrates’ Association, says she knows some women are missing out. “I am aware that up and down the country there are a number of situations where it would have been infinitely preferable for a woman to be given a non-custodial sentence but there weren’t any of those options available locally,” she told me.

It hasn’t helped that funding streams for women’s centres are complex and constantly changing. Under the much-trumpeted Transforming Rehabilitation plan, unveiled by the coalition last year (more of which later), funding for women’s centres will be completely overhauled. All current contracts will be put out to public tender, with small community centres compelled to compete with private providers for new, payment-by-results contracts (similar to those introduced in 2011 under the Welfare to Work scheme). Neilson fears that women’s centres could struggle to demonstrate their cost-effectiveness when pitted against large, specialist companies, possibly including giants such as G4S and Serco. “Women’s community centres are doing some great work,” he says, “but most are seeing such a small number of women that it would be difficult for them to compete for a payment-by-results contract where results depend on a volume of cases.”

Ironically, as the economist Vicky Pryce argues in her 2013 book Prisonomics, increasing the provision of community sentences for women would save the Ministry of Justice money. Pryce’s book draws on her experience of a two-month stint in prison (first at Holloway in north London and later at East Sutton Park open prison near Maidstone) for accepting penalty points in place of her ex-husband, the former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne. She writes that in 2009/2010 keeping a woman in prison for one year cost £56,415 while an equivalent community sentence cost just £1,360. If a woman’s children are placed in care, the cost of a prison sentence can shoot up, from an extra £40,000 to place a child with no specialist needs in care for 14 months, to £525,000 over 20 months for placing a child with complex needs in care. She estimates that moving just 1,000 women out of prison and on to a community sentence would save the Ministry of Justice at least £12m a year – and that’s without factoring in the money saved from not putting their children into care.

When I speak to Pryce on the phone, she tells me she thinks her economic case for prison reform is becoming “unavoidable”. “The public purse can’t afford it any more. This isn’t just about women, it applies to men, too. We are putting many more people in prison per capita than many other countries, and the cost of this is immense – and not just in terms of putting them in prison in the first instance. The cost is immense in terms of what it means for society as a whole, for their children, and for their ability to get jobs and be re-employed.”
 


A costly case: Pryce says prisons don't add up. Photo: Getty. 

Back at Oasis, I meet two women who have recently been given the option of avoiding prison by being placed on a Drug Rehabilitation Requirement. The DRR is an intensive, six-month treatment order sometimes offered as an alternative to a custodial sentence. It involves weekly drug testing as well as regular counselling sessions and group work. “Not many women get a DRR, and what’s different is that we have gender-specific services,” says Jo-Anne Welsh, the director of Brighton Oasis Project. Women placed on mixed rehabilitation programmes can find it harder to complete their court-sanctioned requirements: often there is no childcare offered by the DRR centre; they might feel intimidated by some of the men in their group and struggle to open up, or discuss subjects such as sex work and domestic abuse.

“You could say it’s harder to be in a group telling people why you’re addicted to drugs than to be in HMP Bronzefield taking Valium and knowing you’ll be out in six weeks,” Welsh adds. But at a DRR group support session I meet Faye, who tells me this is her first drug offence and that she’s grateful to be avoiding prison. She has just left her abusive partner and is now trying to kick her ketamine habit. Throughout our conversation she shakes, and each time she’s asked a question she jumps. I find myself fighting the urge to hug her and wondering how someone so anxious would cope in prison.

It’s her group partner Tash’s second time on a DRR; she remained clean for a year before relapsing. She tells me she finds talking at the support sessions hard – “usually I take drugs to hide these feelings” – but when she slumps forward to tell me how she ended up here, the words seem to tumble out uncontrollably.

She pulls up the sleeve of her baggy black hoodie to expose a pale, thin arm covered in scratches and faded brown bruises from years of shooting heroin. She’s worked as a prostitute, she says, and after a string of violent relationships has lost several teeth and had a metal plate put in her head. She’s lost all five of her children. Four were placed in care and her newborn baby died of brain damage when he was a few days old – possibly because she “didn’t look after [herself] when I was pregnant” – a loss that triggered her most recent spiral into drug addiction. Tash has been addicted to drugs for 15 years and is 30, but she looks younger. Her long brown hair almost reaches her waist, and is parted perfectly at the centre. Sometimes her voice cracks with tears and at other times it is cold with rage. In prison, they called her “Psycho Tash”, she says. She was pleased with the nickname because it made her less likely to be attacked by other inmates.

“I’ve done eight jail sentences, and they are no good,” she says. At HMP Bronzefield, she says, she saw girls being raped by other inmates, scalded with hot water and sugar and knifed in the face. Other inmates have slept with male prison officers “just to get what they need”. “I’ve heard some of the screws refer to one of the wings as Beirut, and I’ve been on those wings and they are not nice,” she tells me.

One of Tash’s friends, Sarah Higgins, died in prison in May 2010 from a suspected drug overdose. An inquest published last October concluded that there had been grave failings among prison staff, who prescribed methadone for her despite suspecting that she had hidden drugs. Tash says her fellow inmates tried to get the guards’ attention when Sarah became unwell, but that they were ignored.

Tash may not complete her DRR; she knows she is “this close to going to prison” because of the difficulty she has with staying clean and out of trouble. She doubts that another prison sentence will help her: “The prison system is not good for females at all. It made me worse.”

One of the problems with offering non-custodial sentences is that it isn’t obvious what should happen when women can’t or don’t comply. Should they be locked up for non-violent crimes as a last resort when community alternatives don’t work?

Most campaigners would think not. Jo-Anne Welsh at Oasis tells me she is concerned that women could end up going to prison for breaching their community sentence, even if the original offence would not have warranted a custodial sentence. More research needs to be done to find out why a woman might struggle to engage with her community sentence. Sometimes there may be practical reasons why a woman doesn’t turn up to a compulsory community orders, such as problems arranging childcare. At other times there could be other, more complex barriers: a controlling partner, or unaddressed mental health problems. At root, those supporting the abolition of women’s prisons also support a complete rethink of how we approach women’s offending, recasting female offenders primarily as victims rather than perpetrators and placing greater emphasis on tackling the causes of criminal behaviour than on punishing crime.

However, things seem to be getting worse for female offenders. In October the Ministry of Justice announced that it plans to close the UK’s only two open prisons for women. The MoJ said this change would “improve family ties and employment links”, arguing that because women will no longer be moved to an open prison before their release they will be able to stay closer to home throughout their incarceration. Soon there will no longer be any dedicated open prisons for women. The government says that all prisons are due to become “resettlement prisons”, but it is not clear how it will be possible for women to have all the benefits of an open prison while remaining in a closed prison. For instance, East Sutton Park, where Pryce served part of her sentence, is in a Grade II-listed Elizabethan building with a working farm attached to it.

At the same time, the mother-and-baby unit at Holloway in London has been closed, so now some women with babies will be moved even further from home, to HMP Bronzefield, over 20 miles away. Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League, accused the MoJ of “deceit” because of the way it presented the closing of these open prisons as good for women. The ministry turned down my request for an interview, and did not permit me to visit a women’s prison.

Meanwhile, under the Transforming Rehabilitation plan launched last year, all prisoners on short sentences will receive statutory rehabilitation for up to 12 months. These rehab services are being contracted out by the government, which will pay providers according to their success at reducing reoffending. So far, 30 private companies and consortiums of charities have been shortlisted for 20 contracts. Women’s organisations had suggested that women’s rehabilitation services could be contracted out separately but the government decided to commission them by geographical area in order to cut costs. The concern is that cost-aware private contractors will be reluctant to fund services specifically tailored to the small population of female offenders. Alan Beith, the chair of the Commons justice select committee, said that “the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have clearly been designed with male offenders in mind”; women are an “afterthought”.

Even if many politicians are convinced by the ethical and economic case for closing women’s prisons, many feel they need to appear “tough on crime” to a public that demands punishment and retribution. Perhaps at root we are suffering from a communication problem. “Tough on crime” may be an appealing idea; less so if it is used to support the cruel and ultimately counterproductive practice of separating mothers from their children and placing disturbed, vulnerable and mentally ill women on Britain’s violent, drug-filled prison wards.

At HMP Bronzefield there’s a woman who often tries to hang herself. Is it right just to keep cutting her down?

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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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