Russian rally

Was it the car or the country? The Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov travelled from St Petersburg to Ek

In an old Lada, you will surprise no one in Russia and no one will notice you; Russia and the Lada are in complete harmony. Driving into Russia in a brightly painted Mercedes, one of 70 such cars, accompanied by their own fuelling station, is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, they crossed the border without me. I got into car number 69 in St Petersburg, where the crew, which had driven from Paris, handed over the ignition key. The next leg of the Paris-to-Peking rally course would take the 70 Mercs, including mine, to the Urals and Ekaterinburg.

A handful of people covered the entire rally course. They included the technical support group, the chief driver, Johannes Reifenrath, and the 63-year-old president and chief executive of DaimlerChrysler Thailand, Karl-Heinz Heckhausen - who was driving in a generally homeward direction anyway. The others, including me, all took part in one of the five legs of the journey. The participants were from 23 different countries. I was surprised to see the Ukrainian flag in the publicity material, and asked whether there really were any Ukrainian participants.

"You, of course!" came the reply.

That was when it sank in that I was a participant. Some 50,000 hopefuls had sent CVs and eulogies to the Mercedes-Benz rally website; 500 entrants were invited to Stuttgart for interviews, a medical and a test of their driving skills. On my leg there were two Estonians (both engineers), one Lithuanian, three Poles, one South African, four Swiss, six Americans and quite a few Germans. There was also a Russian team: two young chaps frequently to be seen posing for photographers draped in the Russian flag. I was certainly the only Ukrainian, invited as a writer rather than a competitor.

At St Petersburg, we were presented with our rally equipment - jacket, gloves, hat and rucksack with unbreakable Thermos flask. Then we were given a pep talk by the chief driver which included the warning: "Europe is behind you. Beware! Bad roads, unpredictable drivers and unpredictable traffic police lie ahead."

He seemed concerned that some cars might not make it to the Urals, and so, soon, we were all feeling nervous, spacemen heading off to an unknown planet.

At eight the next morning we assembled on Isakovskaia Square to set off. I had already met my partner driver, Oliver from Switzerland, and we were expecting a third team member - a certain Joe from New York. He had last been seen in the hotel bar at three in the morning, and after all attempts to find him had failed, having waited 90 minutes, we set off without him. Joe was the first victim of this little-known planet, "Russia".

No sooner had we crossed the city limits than a grey sky lowered itself over a road riddled with potholes, reminding us of the previous evening's pep talk. On either side, wooden houses flashed by, some occupied, some abandoned. Often a village had more abandoned than occupied houses. Their wooden façades, darkened by the damp, provoked autumnal thoughts. The great metropolis of St Petersburg was a world away. We were travelling in a Russia that had changed little since 1917. Occasionally, the modern era would intrude in the midst of the tumbledown cottages - a perfectly up-to-date petrol station, for example.

But mainly, the roadside services were remarkable for their simplicity. With surprising regularity we would pass a makeshift table on which stood a huge, old samovar, watched over by a woman bundled in layers of clothes. Dark coal smoke would rise from the samovar funnels and there would be a few token buns. On Russian roads, the most important thing is tea; everything else is an extravagance.

Fishwives and pilgrims

Now and again there would be a stretch of good road and we would see samovars and their keepers less frequently. They knew that drivers would brake and stop near a samovar only when the road was poor. On a half-decent surface, drivers want to fly past (checked only by the black-and-white stripe of a traffic policeman's baton). The speeding fines amused my fellow drivers, at least those who understood Russian. For exceeding the speed limit by 25 kilometres per hour, they were fined 100 roubles (about E3). Those who understood no Russian nervously handed over ten to 20 dollars and, thinking they had got off lightly, drove on.

Soon our drivers began to understand the headlight signals given by local drivers warning of traffic police and were able to avoid the fines.

Some 300 kilometres from St Petersburg, the "fish" villages began. Along the fences and on the gates of houses, in huge letters, were written the varieties of fish caught, smoked and sold locally. In the village of Zavidovo (from the word meaning "envy") we stopped outside one such fish house. The lady inhabitant, on seeing a camera pointed at her home and at the sign advertising her trade, immediately protested: "This is not a palace! There's nothing to photograph here!"

We moved 20 metres further down the road; the lady of this next house was more welcoming. She led us into her yard where, under a cloth, lay a smoked fish. She uncovered the fish and exclaimed: "That eel! It's only 1,500 roubles!" The price of fish obviously depended on the make of one's car. When the lady realised I spoke Russian without an accent, the price immediately fell to 1,000 roubles. But I really had no need of a metre-long smoked fish, so I opted for a smaller one, costing 100 roubles, and won the right to be photo graphed with the metre-long eel.

But the strongest image on that first part of the journey, for both Oliver and me, was the group of Orthodox pilgrims walking in the direction of St Petersburg. There were about ten: men in monks' gowns and women simply dressed with headscarves. One pilgrim carried a banner, another an icon. When they saw us, the icon-bearer turned it towards us as if, it seemed to me at the time, to ward off the devils in the foreign car. Later, I remembered the incident and realised that the icon had been pointed at us as a blessing for a safe journey. At the time, the dark group on the muddy road filled me with foreboding.

Moscow began suddenly. We jumped from one era into another. The single-storey wooden houses became fewer, until we were abruptly among the high rises of Moscow's suburbs. The dark evening was left behind. Above Moscow shone the bright sun of electric light, so that no one could say they had not seen the dawn of the new Russia. I felt sorry that Moscow was not a cake that could be cut into slices and shared throughout the land so that the other Russia - wooden, damp and puddle-ridden from lack of drains - could take some of the capital's energy, riches and optimism.

Later that evening, the rally participants ran about on Red Square and the nearby streets. I decided to take a walk along Varvarka, one of the corners of Moscow which dates back to when the Kremlin was Moscow. I saw the first British Mission building and the aristocratic town houses from the 15th century. Behind them, brightly illuminated, hundreds of builders were working in three shifts to dismantle the largest hotel in Europe, the Rossiya.

I stayed there once, in the Eighties. I think my room was on the ninth floor. I remember the 15-minute walk along corridors to get to it and the 15-minute search for the breakfast room the next morning. The ninth floor of the USSR's most important hotel had already disappeared. The architectural revolution is speeding up in Moscow. New buildings are overshadowing the old villas. On every road something is being built or reconstructed.

Early in the morning I made for the Old Arbat, where I wandered around for about an hour, watching the city's most popular street wake up. The first people to appear were Tajiks and Uzbeks. They swept and cleaned the road. Conversing quietly, they emerged from the side streets carting display stalls and cardboard boxes full of matrioshki and other souvenirs. A few English and American visitors walked by, briefcases in hand.

I heard the Russian language only later. Muscovites sleep longer and live a lot better than the immigrants who fill the vacancies that Russians disdain. Today, Moscow is swept and looked after by central Asia. Among wealthy Muscovites, it is fashionable to have a maid from the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia. Most popular are young women who don't speak Russian. They earn about $600 a month and often never leave the flat in which they work, terrified by the huge city and their inability to communicate.

Recently, the newspapers wrote of a curious incident. A woman reported her Filipina maid missing after she ran out of the flat wearing only her housecoat. She had been told off for some small oversight. After a two-hour search, she was found in a neighbouring yard. Coming from a culture where voices are never raised, she had understood from her employer's intonation that she was about to be murdered.

Bright lights of Kazan

The Republic of Tatarstan can boast both oil and gas and its own Kremlin, in Kazan, where, apart from a number of Orthodox churches, stands a newly built mosque, the biggest in Russia. There is also a monument: a Russian standing beside a Tatar, their expressions making it clear that, together, they are about to build a new state. But you need to remember that in the 16th century Russia seized the Kazanski kingdom, which has since been part of the Russian empire - an empire now called the Russian Federation.

Our American companion, Joe, had caught up with us by plane in Moscow and travelled with us to Kazan. He was amazed at the brightness of the evening streets in the city centre, at the number of pedestrians and their relaxed deportment. There were casinos, clubs, boutiques and shopping centres and, at the heart of it all, the luxurious Shalyapin Palace Hotel. Here the rally drivers rested before continuing the journey east.

To discover the less-well-lit Kazan, I walked half a kilometre along a murky little street and saw a policeman outside a bar, truncheon at the ready.

"It's understandable," I thought to myself. "The peace has to be protected. After all, the bright lights of central Kazan are unlikely to shed their rays on this part of town for a good while." So I thought, until I came across a noticeboard with an announcement that caught my imagination. Someone wanted to buy a railway branch line, together with land.

"Good idea," I thought. "Branches are the right things to buy, especially those with trains on. The price of transport can only go up."

On a well-lit street in Kazan, I went into a café. I ordered a hot chocolate and, as I drank it, marvelled at the way the waitress jumped back and forth between Russian and Tatar. The Tatar women do not cover their heads. Later, I was made welcome at the biggest mosque in all Russia and taken to the balcony for "the press and tourists", as it was called. During Muslim festivals, up to 2,500 people worship in the mosque. For those who can't get in, the prayers and sermon are televised.

The next day we journeyed east. The villages looked familiar, but there were more brick houses and the fences and yards seemed better kept. We passed a petrol station with small mosques attached and 50 kilometres further on we saw another mosque, this time built amid a cluster of cafés.

From Kazan to Udmurtia, the road was full of Tatar traffic police. They waved their batons cheerfully at every Mercedes they saw and it was difficult to understand what they were most interested in: a chat or extra income. "What Russian is averse to travelling fast?" wrote the great Ukrainian writer Gogol. Well, the Swiss, the French and the Germans are just as partial to it.

Thus, not noticing any signs of Muslim fundamentalism, and lost in thought concerning the raison d'être of the Tatar traffic police, we left Tatarstan behind and entered Udmurtia. The republic was expecting us, and the welcome was warm. The head of the border region's administration was waiting for us with a giant samovar, a pile of Udmurt pies, and a song-and-dance troupe. Amid the snow, on a concrete platform, before a concrete symbol of the new republic, these Russian Udmurtis threw a tea-party-cum-concert for us, their bright costumes warming our spirits as the tea warmed our bodies. The dance troupe wanted us all up dancing and, in the end, even less-than-sociable Joe joined in.

The Russian birch trees that had accompanied us on the trail from Moscow came to an end in Udmurtia. Firs and pines took their place. There were far fewer villages, but the roads were excellent. None the less we came across several lorries, their long trailers lying in the snow-filled ditches beside the road. The many crosses and wreaths along the roadside also warned us to drive with extra care. Russians don't like to observe regulations, and traffic regulations especially, so it is not enough to drive carefully; you have also to be aware of what everyone else is doing and allow those in a hurry to overtake.

Hidden from Brussels

On a hill, roughly a hundred kilometres outside Ekaterinburg, stands a concrete obelisk marking the border between Europe and Asia. It is just as well that they don't know about that obelisk in Brussels. What nightmares the bureaucrats would have if they knew where Europe really ended. Most of Europe, it turns out, has nothing to do with Brussels at all.

Having said that, Ekaterinburg, with its population of just over a million, is a completely European city. The moderate-sized central shopping mall has two mobile-phone shops. It is a rich town effusing calm, in contrast to Moscow, which is a rich town effusing frenzy. Here, in 1918, in the cellar of Ipatiev House, the last tsar and his family were executed by firing squad. A church has been built on the spot and it bears the name "Church on the Blood".

Just outside Ekaterinburg, in the village of Ganina Yama, the Bolsheviks burned the remains of the royal family. Here, for the past six years, a huge monastery has been under construction. It already contains nine churches. Schoolchildren come on excursions and the monks show them the miracle-working icons - one of them belonged to the imperial family but, by some miracle, survived.

The funds to build the monastery were donated by a local metallurgy company. Ekaterinburg has dozens of industrial plants and factories. The local brewery was bought up by Heineken. At the English pub I visited in the evening, more than half the customers were British, German or American, and had nothing to do with our rally. The town is growing and is becoming more expensive.

A circus ring was to be the venue for the ceremony of handing over car keys. The teams picking them up would drive on to Almaty.

Circus elephants performed for us, along with camels, dogs and one clown. I felt strangely ill at ease. It seemed we had been cheated. Our journey had gone without a hitch: no wild bears on the city streets, no Russian bandits trying to hijack our shiny Mercedes on a quiet stretch of road. Everything had been too civilised. That is how I felt that evening, as I tried to decide whether or not to go to bed. I had to leave for the airport at four the next morning to catch the direct flight to Frankfurt. I decided not to go to bed.

But early the following morning, Ekaterinburg's newly extended airport did display a bit of the Russia we had expected. After a long wait while our e-tickets were being printed, we found ourselves in the departure lounge, where the two ladies selling duty-free goods shut up shop in front of us and went off to have coffee. My rally colleagues were outraged and proceeded to reopen the shop themselves, marching in and filling their baskets in the normal way. The shop assistants were forced to return to their posts to serve the queue of international clients who so wanted to take their bottles of Ural vodka back to far-off Europe.

"He must have been a complete idiot to imagine you could take over this country!" said Oliver, sitting back in his airplane seat at last. He was referring to Hitler. "It's totally impossible to control it."

"And nobody does control it," I replied. "It's just held together by the rouble and the dollar."

As I spoke, I remembered the billboard I had seen on the outskirts of Ekaterinburg. The text of the advert was written in Russian and Chinese. Surprised, I asked a passing woman who the Chinese script was for.

"We've got whole streets of Chinese here," she said calmly.

We were between six and seven thousand kilometres from Russia's easternmost borders and about two thousand from Moscow. Our flight was taking us west. Beyond the round windows, the night went on and on. We crossed three time zones that night and, in the morning, awoke in Germany. I understand the logic of time zones a good deal better now. Every large country, be it Russia, China or the United States, lives in its own time zone, its own epoch and according to its own rules. And none of these countries will ever set its clocks to Brussels time. Whether their wealth comes from underground or from the sweat of workers on low wages, they are all self-reliant in their political folly and their economic miracles.

Russia's wealth is underground. There is enough there to last hundreds of years. The important thing is that there should be someone to get the wealth out. There must have been something behind the government's recent call to all Russians living abroad to return to the motherland. In 30 or 40 years there will be no one left to dig, especially where the wealth is greatest, in the Urals and Siberia.

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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