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Mumbai massacre

India has suffered what many are calling its 9/11. Here one of the country's leading journalists int

In the summer of 2005, I moved with my family to live and work in Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra State. I came after living for several years in Kolkata, in the east of India, a city that, after decades of genteel dwindling and gradual reconciliation with its diminished sense of itself, was beginning to look up. As I settled down, I found Mumbai to be all the things that Kolkata was not.

If Kolkata was bashfully apologetic and self-deprecating, wry and ironical, Mumbai was brash and self-congratulatory. It was chest-thumpingly aware of its own importance and its position at the heart of India's rapid growth and change. The nation was being transformed by an economic miracle that had implications far beyond the Arabian Sea on whose edge the sprawling city of 19 million people was perched.

We found a flat in Bandra, a western suburb on the seafront. It was once predominantly a Christian locality, with many churches, and dotted with quaint cottages hugged by creepers. This was a neighbourhood in which, as Amit Chaudhuri wrote in his novel Afternoon Raag, the "Portuguese names - Pedro, DiSilva, Gonsalves - twang in the air like plucked, silvery guitar strings".

All that has changed over the past decade. Although it is only ten miles away, Bandra once seemed so far removed from the city's downtown (the area in which terrorists unleashed their audacious, murderous attacks) as to seem a place where you bought a weekend home. But now it is right in the heart of things.

Because outrageous property prices were pushing people ever further outward from the city's southern downtown tip (the business hub and centre of old money and aristocracy), Bandra had become the new midtown: nouveau riche, prohibitively expensive and fashionable in an edgy sort of way. The old cottages were being ripped apart, replaced by often ugly - but always lavish - towers of apartment blocks.

And now the soundtrack to our lives in Bandra, as in so much of Mumbai, is the relentless noise of old buildings being demolished and new ones going up: the clang of the hammer, the whine of the drill, the rumble of the bulldozer. Bandra is an embodiment of what Mumbai is now all about: wealth and social climbing, the need ostentatiously to proclaim that you have arrived.

The main Hindi film studios are not far from this neighbourhood, and most of the stars of the industry have moved out to Bandra, weary of the daily travel from downtown (where they once used to live) to the western suburbs (where they go to work). It isn't merely them. Anyone who wants to be in Bollywood is trying to move into Bandra as well, living far beyond their means in one-roomed flats little bigger than ten square feet. It is as though being in Bandra, close to the stars, takes away some of the sense of remoteness from their aspirations. Here they are, in the city of dreams, still dreaming.

In his novel Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra captured something of this feeling when he portrayed Mumbai as a city of magical possibilities: "It could happen. It did happen, and that's why people kept trying. It did happen. That was the dream, the big dream of Bombay."

Living in Bandra offers a sort of a start. If you can live here - and it is hard - who knows, you might soon find a role in a movie, a role that would put you on the billboards, like the stars you so admire but whose success you also resent. Bandra is Beverly Hills with terrible roads. Everywhere you go in the neighbourhood, there are reminders of the movie stars' presence.

Mumbai is in love with its own self-image and the awe it inspires in others; it has no patience with those in whom it does not inspire a sense of wonder. This is a city that exemplifies the new India: keen to inspire envy, in a hurry to get ahead, revelling in its importance and never shy of parading its not inconsiderable wealth.

Every week in the newspapers, there are reports of how Mumbai pays the most tax in India; how it has more billionaires than any other city; how its rentals and home prices are among the highest in the world; how it is getting richer and richer by the day. The business of making serious money drives Mumbai.

That business never lets up, even in the face of calamity. Mumbai is no stranger to catastrophe. In 1992, there were communal riots that threatened to rip apart for ever the secular fabric of this most cosmopolitan of Indian cities. In 1993, serial blasts tore through Mumbai, an event that has become the material for dozens of Hindi movies. In 2005, a month after I moved here, 934mm of rain fell in a 24-hour per iod, a world record. The deluge unleashed the worst floods in the city's history, killing hundreds and destroying thousands of homes and livelihoods. In 2006, bombs went off on the city's suburban train network, killing more than 200 people.

Mumbai has been repeatedly brought to its knees, and repeatedly it has picked itself up, and got on with life. There is a phrase that has become not so much a commonplace as a vulgar truism, one that people reach for as a shorthand to describe the city's indomitable nature: the spirit of Mumbai.

But something is different now. These latest attacks have truly shaken the spirit of the city.

This is what we know so far. The terrorists came by sea from Karachi, Pakistan. They were armed with enough guns, ammunition and explosives, and were sufficiently ruthless and well trained to be able to hold out for 62 hours against India's elite commandos and army. The terrorists held hostage two luxury hotels, the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi-Trident; the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the city's main railway station; a cafe called Leopold's, popular with tourists and backpackers; and a five-storey residential building that housed the city headquarters of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group. All the locations were in south Mumbai.

The strikes were timed to play out on worldwide daytime television. As the story of the attacks began to unfold from the night of 26 November in India, it coincided with Thanksgiving in the US. The terrorists were specifically looking for visitors with British or American passports. And at the end of the three-day killing spree and pitched gun battles, 173 people had been murdered. (That was merely the official count; the actual estimate of those killed is much higher.) Twenty of the dead were foreigners.

This year, many hundreds of people have been killed in terrorist attacks across India, in Jaipur, Hyderabad and Delhi. High-profile terrorism in cities (70 blasts and attacks) has killed 400 people in India over the past seven months alone. But the November assault on Mumbai suggested something not hitherto evident: that India was now firmly on the deadly map drawn up for attack by global jihadists.

After each of the previous attacks on Mumbai, people could begin to guess why they had happened. In this instance, there was obviously shock but there was also profound bewilderment and confusion. How exactly? And why?

India has been quick to insinuate that Pakistan is linked to the strikes. The one terrorist who has been caught and interrogated has told investi gators that he was trained by Lashkar-e-Toiba, a jihadist group based in Pakistan.

For ordinary people, however, there are no clear answers or explanations. No one can tell why this happened or when something similar might happen again. Stumbling and groping, Mumbai has had its sense of security and confidence eroded. Never before has the city so acutely felt its own fragility.

Of the five locations, it was the attack on the Taj Mahal hotel near the Gateway of India that was, in terms of symbolism, the most resonant. Mumbai's monuments are secular, and the 105-year-old Taj, built by a Parsi businessman because he was turned away from a hotel for being Indian, is the picture-postcard emblem of the city. It is to Mumbai what the Empire State Building is to New York and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It is Mumbai.

As pictures of the smoking hotel - flames leaping out of windows, panes shattering, crows taking off in the foreground at the sound of gunfire against the plumes of smoke that darkened the afternoon sky - flashed up on live television, and later, as the Taj Mahal closed down for repair on Monday, Mumbai saw the attack on its signature hotel as a violation unlike any other.

On Sunday 30 November, a groundswell of protests against the attacks began in Mumbai. There were candlelit vigils, marches and peaceful demonstrations with eloquent placards. The resentment, for the moment, seems to be directed at the perceived failure of the intelligence services and at politicians. In a nationwide survey conducted by the Hindustan Times, one of the country's best-known and most influential English-language broadsheet dailies, 84 per cent of the respondents felt that the government was not doing enough to fight terrorism.

With general elections due in 2009, the ruling coalition headed by the Congress Party bore the brunt of the anger. Shivraj Patil, India's home minister, stepped down on Sunday. By Monday morning, Maharashtra's home minister, R R Patil, had quit as well. The indications are that Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra, is on his way out, too.

How India will react to the attacks will shape the events of months and years to come. Already, the peace process with Pakistan is in jeopardy. And with India's dismal history of strife between Hindus and Muslims (in 2002, the main opposition party, the BJP, was accused of the biggest anti-Muslim pogrom in modern Indian history), the country will do well to be particularly vigilant against communal conflict.

Time and again over the past week, commentators have referred to the attacks on Mumbai as "India's 9/11" - a world-historic moment of change after which nothing can be the same again. That is indeed the most convenient analogy to use. But if one were to assume that it is so, that assumption brings its own complexities.

As the novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote in an essay published in the Hindustan Times: "If India can react with dispassionate but determined resolve, then 2008 may yet be remembered as a moment when the tide turned in a long, long battle . . . Defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself. It is determined by the response."

And what, now, of Mumbai? How will this city withstand these ravages and go about its business? How resilient can the city prove it- self to be?

Mumbai is the glittering exemplar of the new India and the national success story, yet it is also a city of dichotomies. Nowhere in India (perhaps even in the world) is the gulf between the affluent urban elite and those who live beneath the poverty line as pronounced as it is in Mumbai. Nowhere, perhaps, is the urge to cross over from the side of the underprivileged to the other as deeply consuming.

The degree to which these attacks have scarred Mumbai, and the extent of the damage they have inflicted, was symbolically represented on Thursday 27 November when the Bombay Stock Exchange did not open for trading. The business of making money might drive Mumbai, but the shock of being violated had stalled it.

The following Monday morning, still numbed, the city was returning to its frenetic self. Children went back to school. Hotels had been turned into fortresses. Offices were open, and the roads were filling up with the sort of traffic which is usually so dense that you can hear the conversation in the car alongside yours when you stop at traffic lights. Money was being made – and lost – on the stock exchange, as usual. Markets were doing business. And in homes, cremations or burials over, hundreds were beginning the process of grieving and reconciliation.

Mumbai, hurt and angry, was still grappling with how to come to terms with what had happened but it was also beginning to get on with the business of getting along, of going on.

In a way, this is the story of India, the world's largest democracy: learning to carry on after assaults on its pluralist democracy, and being, in the end, able to do so.

In his book India After Gandhi: the History of the World's Largest Democracy, Ramachandra Guha argues persuasively that it is no small triumph that India, as well as its democracy, not merely exists at all but continues to thrive. "India will go on," Guha quotes the novelist R K Nara yan telling V S Naipaul in the 1960s.

In its darkest hour, that is Mumbai's triumph, too. Mumbai will go on. As India will.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and author of the memoir "You Must Like Cricket?", published by Yellow Jersey Press (£12)

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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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