A pro-independence Scot at a rally in Edinburgh. Photo: David Moir/Reuters
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The rise of Borgen nationalism

The conundrum of Britishness and the condition of Scotland.

Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination (1314-2014) 
Robert Crawford
Edinburgh University Press, 288pp, £19.99

Acts of Union and Disunion 
Linda Colley
Profile Books, 192pp, £8.99

The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum 
David Torrance
Biteback, 384pp, £14.99

The battle has been joined and it is growing more bloody by the moment. It took the unionist establishment in London quite a long time to notice how real the prospect of Scottish independence was becoming. Now, after a fusillade of speeches, comes the heavy attack: George Osborne and Ed Balls are united in telling the Scots that they will stop them keeping the pound if Scotland goes its own way.

This is clearly a long-prepared response to so many Scots being undecided and to the rate at which, recently, those undecideds have begun to fall more into Alex Salmond’s Yes camp than the Better Together, pro-Union one. It is brutal and will feel like bullying. The Scots don’t react well to bullying, as the polls show; nevertheless, there are few things more unsettling than not knowing what currency your pensions and wages will be paid in.

Some of us have been arguing for several years that Salmond is one of the most formidable politicians in the UK and that London has been remarkably slow to wake up to the mood in Scotland in the 21st century. Things are changing but there are many “what ifs” still unresolved. If Scotland votes for independence in September what, exactly, will happen to the 2015 general election? There are no contingency plans for what to do about Trident. And suddenly a common currency across the main island of Britain is under threat.

Plenty to think about and not much time. For those willing to educate themselves quickly, however, there is now a wonderful range of books on the subject.

The most straightforwardly political and carefully researched of these is The Battle for Britain by David Torrance. The writer, a meticulous political journalist, picks his way through the echoing labyrinth of recent developments in Scotland. He devotes generous space to the questions of currency, economic performance, pensions, defence and foreign affairs. Like Iain Macwhirter’s Road to Referendum, it’s an essential primer.

Torrance is best on the detailed politics. For most of the book, he manages to do something that has become almost impossible – he maintains an impartial tone. Only at the end, when he offers two rival versions of the future, can I detect any kind of bias: he suggests that if Scotland votes to stay in the Union it will not be the end of the matter, and at the same time his vision of an independent Scotland is, by and large, a benign one. Although Torrance is Alex Salmond’s biographer, unionists can trust this book as much as nationalists can.

He is least convincing when explaining the underlying, passionate urge that has driven the rise of nationalism – the poetry, if you like, behind the policies. This is an important deficit, particularly when addressing southern Britons. On the whole, the modern English disdain nationalism. It isn’t much talked about and is largely looked down on as a dangerous perversion, fit only for foreigners and the unbalanced extreme fringes. Patriotism, in the sense of a generalised love of the land, or broad approval of the political dispensation, is still an acceptable watery substitute, though even this is draining away.

But the nationalist phenomenon is beginning to look almost as normal in the contemporary world as modern English secularism. Scotland is not unusual. From Russia and Ukraine to Egypt, China, Japan and Argentina, nationalism remains a powerful force. Even inside the EU, a project designed to send nationalism quietly to sleep, it is stirring: in the Nordic countries, and in Hungary and Bulgaria.

What are the most important aspects of nationalism that the English could do with being re-educated about? First, it is a mighty force. Its emotional power to mobilise and upend should never be underestimated. Second, it is a force that is hard to control, a political impulse notoriously unaware of its proper limitations – which is why it became unrespectable in the first place.

Even inside the SNP, there is an uneasiness about the word “nationalism”. It is not the Scottish Nationalist Party, remember; it’s the Scottish National Party. I long ago lost count of the times I’ve heard friends intending to vote Yes to independence insist, “I’m not a nationalist: I’m in favour of an independent Scotland.”

Part of Salmond’s achievement – the key, I’d say, to all he has achieved – is to have distanced the SNP from the dark nationalism of the 20th century. He has wrenched it away from its bigoted history as part of Scotland’s old anti-Catholic mindset. He has muted its rhetorical Anglophobia and loses no opportunity to laud the English as good friends and neighbours.

Salmond’s SNP makes much of its Sikh Indian, Pakistani and Polish supporters; it would be hard to imagine anything further removed from the “blood and soil” views of some of the old Nats I knew in Scotland 30 years ago. Radovan Karadzic would feel profoundly uncomfortable in the SNP.

This has allowed support for independence to move well beyond its old heartland. Some of the most vocal groups in the debate backing the Yes campaign are from what we might call civic politics: mostly left-leaning but politically uncommitted. And this has helped extend the appeal of the case for independence deep into the arts and literature. Most of Scotland’s leading writers and many of its major performers are lined up on Salmond’s side of the argument.

As the poet and academic Robert Craw­ford’s excellent Bannockburns, a survey of nationalist thinking across Scottish literature, makes clear, this is not an insignificant point. Poets may no longer be the world’s “unacknowledged legislators” but the cumulative impact of the literary (and cine­matic) imagination on our sense of identity remains central. Scots can turn to their formidable national poet Liz Lochhead, or the novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. In Kathleen Jamie, they have one of the sharpest poets and essayists writing in Britain; in James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still, they have a novel of ideas about the struggle for independence.

If you want to understand, in a single volume, the emotional energy behind this year’s drama, go first to Robertson. He has the cadences of Scotland’s greatest 20th-century novelist, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, welded to a panoramic understanding of British politics and history. Among contemporary Scottish writers, his is the most ambitious intervention.

Most of the leading names of the past century were on the pro-independence side: Gibbon; Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s first modern national poet; the Highland novelist Neil Gunn; and, towering over all, Hugh MacDiarmid – communist, fascist and Anglophobe but also one of the most formidable geniuses of modernism.

Of the SNP’s founders, MacDiarmid is the one about whom the party feels least comfortable talking. Yet his power is that he never lost sight of the proposition that nationalism must be “for” something. The answers MacDiarmid gives may seem profoundly out of date in the 21st century but the questions he poses are not. The SNP, however much it emphasises equality, neighbourliness and moderation, poses classic nationalist questions. There seems little point in asserting an independent national community if it is going to mimic all the other national communities clustered around it. The point of independence is surely to do something different.

In the collection of essays Acts of Union and Disunion, Linda Colley gives us many historical and geographical reasons to question the present British status quo. We talk about Britain being “the island nation”; but did you know that our archipelago is made up of more than 6,000 islands? You knew that England accounts for the lion’s share of the UK population; did you know that its numbers had grown hugely over the past few centuries? In 1801, 54 per cent of the UK’s population lived in England; now, it contains over 53 million people, more than five times the total number of inhabitants of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. “This growing demographic disparity,” Colley explains, “is one reason why support for Welsh and Scottish devolution or independence has increased.”

Her most powerful writing is about the distinctions and divisions inside England: “England is bottom-heavy. In wealth, status, power, population, and in key cultural terms, it is heavily weighted towards the south. The prime archbishopric of the Church of England is in Canterbury in Kent. Traditionally, the most prestigious English universities have been Oxford and Cambridge. British army officers are trained at Sandhurst in Surrey, while their naval counterparts train at Dartmouth in Devon. Then, of course, there is London . . . a pathological swelling on the face of the nation.”

Whereas, seen from Scotland, England can appear an enormous undifferentiated mass, the great cities of the north of England (and, indeed, their landscape) are much closer in terms of experience to the cities of Scotland than they are to London or to the tellingly titled “Home Counties”. This has a direct relevance to the earlier question: what is independence for?

The people of Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle – never mind Birmingham and Manchester – in general have voted for the post-1945 Labour welfare settlement more consistently than the Scots have done. The fundamental challenge Salmond throws down to the London establishment is to ask whether, by voting through Westminster, social-democratic Scots can ever get a government of which they approve. It’s a good question, as Labour struggles in the polls. Yet the same question faces swaths of England. There is no great gulf of values sep­arating Liverpool from Dundee, or Leeds from Lanarkshire.

My only criticism of Crawford’s book is that by defining the Scottish question from medieval times onwards as overwhelmingly one of “freedom”, he risks underestimating the importance of more conventional politics – the “for what?” – in all of this. Is national freedom for peasants in the Middle Ages, tied to their feudal superiors, in any way relevant to the modern condition? Freedom is clearly a good thing; but it is only a starting point. It is the lever for change, the entrance gate to a different society.

Crawford shows how, again and again, two medieval epics – John Barbour’s Brus and Blind Harry’s Wallace – were reprinted and subtly diluted until Wallace became a bland representative of British liberties, celebrated by the Victorian boys’ novelist G A Henty. Yet in the earlier accounts when the commoner Wallace confronts the aristocrat Bruce and berates him for betraying Scotland because, in essence, he prefers his own Anglo-Normans to his fellow Scots, there is already a class element to the story, even a proto-republican one.

So questions of class (or “fairness”, as we now call it) cannot be avoided. Crawford’s great scoop is the influence of James H Whyte – the American enthusiast for Scottish nationalism who edited the magazine The Modern Scot in the 1930s – in creating a more modern, pluralist version of nationalism opposed to his friend MacDiarmid’s national Marxism, and thus indirectly influencing Alex Salmond and today’s SNP. Alasdair Gray, misunderstood over his “settlers and colonists” remarks (distinguishing between the positive and negative contributions of English people living in Scotland), follows in the pluralist Whyte tradition; so do websites such as Bella Caledonia.

And so we have this new nationalism: well behaved, impeccably monarchist, politically correct and eager, always, to please. It’s a social-democratic, Borgen nationalism of a kind that would have had MacDiarmid spitting tacks.

What Scots are going to have to decide in September is whether this milky alternative is worth the risk of legal separation from the rest of the UK. It’s a big question that just now seems to be collapsing into a welter of competing scare stories. Whose national indebtedness is the scarier? Which is more likely to be controlled by monster-sized banks, Edinburgh or London?

And yet, in fact, everything is driven by national consciousness. It can’t be dodged. Not this year. I named some of the writers who have thrown themselves into celebrating Scottishness. But where are the alternative celebrants for Britishness? Who are the great poets, novelists and thinkers reviving the Union? All I see is a yawning gap. There are postmodern metropolitan writers des­cribing the multi-ethnic experience you get in London. And the beginnings, perhaps, of a Northern Renaissance – Simon Armitage, Philip Hensher.

But Britishness itself? Where would it even start, geographically or imaginatively? Linda Colley, like others, proposes an English parliament and a written constitution, but we are talking of a deeper and livelier sense of identity than that. Are the British generations left with nothing more than yet another celebratory programme about the First World War? Institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy and even the BBC have already been reimagined for Scottish circumstances, so they won’t do. Like many others, I was much moved by the opening ceremony for the London Olympics but it was, in its 1945-welfarist way, as nostalgic as any kilted Bannockburn gathering.

In 19th-century Britain the urge to explain and define Britishness (and, to an extent, Englishness) was almost uncontainable, from Tennyson and Kipling to H G Wells and the libertarian suffragettes. The 20th-century wars produced an upsurge in what we might call emergency nationalism, in which writers, artists and film-makers co-operated. The English patriotic consciousness of J B Priestley, Low, Ealing Studios and John Piper seems, from this distance, the last chorus of that “auld sang”. South of the Tweed, people have been insouciant about the power of nationalism for too long; they may be running out of time.

Scots who have the vote this September will be thinking about economics, individual leaders, welfare payments and security – but they will be thinking also, inevitably, about what nationalism means at the start of this new century. Around Europe, there are once again plenty of bad answers being given to that conundrum. The Scots, however they vote, have been looking for better solutions. Kathleen Jamie was chosen as the winning poet in a competition to celebrate the Battle of Bannockburn. Her poem, which Crawford refers to but does not quote, is the most inclusive and least threatening answer to the challenges of identity politics I have ever come across.

It begins by celebrating “our land”, which belongs “to none but itself” and in which the Scots “are mere transients . . . Small folk playing our part”. It ends:

“Come all ye”, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.

It’s hard to imagine anything more opposed to the “wha’s like us?” jingoism of an earlier Scottish nationalism. Those English who see what’s happening north of the border as nothing but greedy, welfare-state-driven chippiness need to look further.

 

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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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