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Libya — Battle of the Arab Spring

If Gaddafi is defeated, it will be through the kind of fighting now raging on the streets of Misurat

It is 2 May, my twelfth full day in Misurata, and I'll start with a man I met at a private clinic that had been turned into the city's main trauma hos­pital. The uprising against Muammar Gaddafi was two months old. Loyalist forces surrounded Misurata and controlled parts of the city centre, but the thowar - or revolutionaries - were putting up fierce resistance despite being outgunned. The battle crackled and boomed day and night.

Dr Tahar Alkesa, a surgeon, was sitting on the curb outside one of the white tents erected in front of the clinic to serve as a makeshift emergency ward. He is 31 years old and undoubtedly handsome, but the hours and stress had marked and changed him. He was sallow and unshaven, with dark rings under his puffy eyes. The evening light was soft and fading fast as we chatted. He rubbed his arms for warmth.

I had seen Alkesa at work earlier in the day, when fresh casualties were arriving at the hospital every few minutes. An ambulance or pick-up truck would screech to a halt outside the tent, amid cries of "Allahu akbar". If the victim was a thowar, he usually had a bullet wound, having been picked off by a sniper. Civilian casualties generally had shrapnel injuries caused by shells or missiles, the most vicious of which was a Grad, a long, tubular projectile fired out of a 40-barrelled launcher known as "Stalin's organ". When they were fired into Misurata, you heard a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, and then bang, bang, bang.

One Grad victim arrived in the back of a blue sedan. Both his legs had been blown off at the knee. A crimson stream of blood trailed on to the tarmac as he was carried into the tent. Within a few minutes he was wheeled out, covered by a blanket. People gathered outside and launched into an anguished but beautiful refrain: La ilaha illa Allah,/La ilaha illa Allah,/ al-shaheed habib Allah. ("There is no God but Allah, there is no God but Allah, the martyr is dear to Allah.")

Alkesa worked without interruption, stitching, cleaning, talking softly to the patients, offering words of reassurance. His expression changed little, even when a grimacing man in his mid-twenties was rushed in. The man's face was blackened by smoke and his eyes were white and wide with pain and terror. His filthy khaki pants were bloodstained and torn. His forearms were shredded. He was a tank driver. The thowar did not have tanks.

His first request was for a lethal injection, because he was convinced that he would be tortured or beaten for fighting for Gaddafi. Alkesa politely said no, assuring him that he would be looked after. He cleaned the man's leg and groin wounds and sewed up the strips of flesh on his arms. The tank driver said he was from Tripoli, and that his commanders had told him that Misurata was under the control of foreign-ers and terrorists who had been destroying mosques. He said he felt he had been cheated, and was sorry.

Now, sitting on the curb, Alkesa told me: "Inside me, I really did not want to look after that man. I did not enjoy treating him. But it was my duty to look after a human being."

It pained him even more that the tank driver was a Libyan, unlike those of Gaddafi's forces, a minority, who are mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa, usually Mauritania, Chad or Sudan. "I just ask myself, what has Gaddafi done with their brains to make them fight us like this? He is not a human being. He is evil. Satan."

Until a few days earlier, he had not seen his wife, his four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son for a month. So intense was the workload at the hospital that he had been sleeping there; his family had become trapped after government troops overran his neighbourhood. Because the mobile-phone networks in the city had been cut, he had no way of reaching his family. "For two or three days I was completely dissociated from this world," the doctor said. "Even though I was working, I was asking myself: 'Is this real? Am I even real?' Then I came round and started feeling myself again."

Still, he said, every night when his shift ended, he would walk to his car, open the door and sit in the driver's seat. He had nowhere to go. He just needed a private place to weep.

Misurata is Libya's third-largest city, about 200 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli, where the Mediterranean coastline dips south in the Gulf of Sirte. In better times, if Gaddafi's rule in peacetime could be described that way, you would drive there from the capital with a government-approved guide by your side. But since the beginning of the revolution, the only way in to Misurata has been by boat. First, you fly to Cairo and drive west for 14 hours, crossing the Libyan border roughly halfway. That gets you to Benghazi, the eastern city where Libya's revolution began in mid-February.

From there, you travel on a local fishing boat, carrying emergency supplies and most likely weapons for the rebels. The voyage takes over 40 hours.
Another way in is on the Ionian Spirit, a Greek ferry chartered by the International Organisation for Migration to pick up foreign workers stranded in Misurata. That journey takes just under a day, assuming loyalist forces are not bombing the port - as they often were.

Misurata has a proud history. An important trading post since ancient times, it provided determined resistance to Italian occupation a century ago, prompting one commander to declare that Libya was a snake and Misurata its head - something local people love to tell you. In modern times it became Libya's industrial hub, with its port and one of Africa's largest steel factories. Low-slung and sprinkled with palm trees, the city is well laid out and mildly prosperous. Most of the 300,000-plus residents had enough food to eat and many had cars and decent houses, too. Yet, given the country's vast oil reserves and small population, Libya should be much wealthier, more akin to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, in the view of many people you meet.

Since seizing power in a coup d'état in 1969, Gaddafi has squandered tens of billions of dollars on vanity projects and misadventures, such as sponsoring international terrorism. Meanwhile, countless public works projects, such as the renovation of Misurata's main hospital, were allowed to drag on for years. Yet that was not the main reason Gaddafi was so despised here, Alkesa told me. He explained that by the time he was born, in 1979, Gaddafi had come up with his "Third Universal Theory" of government, which he claimed was superior to democracy and communism and would lead to "a state of the masses". Its principles were laid out in his Green Book, which became required reading in schools and universities.

Most Libyans thought it was quackery, but very few dared question it openly. Those who did so were hanged. As a public service, Gaddafi ensured that the executions were shown on state television. "I remember watching them as a child," Alkesa said. "Some loyalists would run up to the bodies as they hung and jerk them downwards, to make it more violent. My father would have tears in his eyes when he saw that. That is why we have always hated Gaddafi. Not because we lacked money or food, but because we had no freedom . . . We also believed that nobody could destroy him. We were resigned to waiting for God to take his life."

Then, in January this year, there was a revolution in Tunisia, which borders Libya to the west. And then the turmoil in Egypt, to the east. The despotic leaders of both countries were toppled by people power. Libyans were inspired, especially the youth, but still they had no idea how they could emulate their Arab neighbours, Alkesa said. Compared to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia had seemed like liberal democracies even before their revolutions. “Despite our dreams, nobody could imagine that this could happen in Libya," he said. "No one. Really, no one."

On 15 February, there was a small protest in Benghazi over the arrest of a lawyer representing victims of a prison massacre. Two days later, a protest had become a city-wide uprising. The ripples reached Misurata. Nothing had happened yet, but people sensed it might. Alkesa's two brothers, who sell gold jewellery, removed all the stock from their shops and brought it home. Something was about to happen.

On my arrival at the port in Misurata on 20 April, I was taken to a girls' school that had been turned into a media centre for local journalists, some of whom accompany the thowar to the front line each day. They post video footage on YouTube, or send it to al-Jazeera, to which every television set in the city appears to be tuned.

At the media centre, I met a 23-year-old man whom I'll call Ahmed Ali. He worked in the graphic arts and he spoke good English. He was one of Misurata's first revolutionaries. He told me that, on 17 February, he and a few dozen other young men, most of them in their early twenties, held a demonstration in support of the people of Benghazi.

They were arrested by the security forces, who beat them before hauling them away. "During interrogation they showed us our Facebook pages, where we had been talking about plans for a protest. They had been watching us even before," Ali told me.

Some of those arrested, including Ali, were held overnight, others for two days. It was the spark that Misurata needed. The editor of a newspaper where Ali sometimes worked announced he would not publish again until all the men were released. On 19 February, some of their families and friends went on to the streets to demand the same. “We were 30 people, and then in a few minutes we were 100. Soon we were 5,000," Ali said. "It was incredible."

The security forces opened fire. The first martyr of the revolution, Khalid Boshahma, was shot dead. For his funeral the next day, tens of thousands of people turned out in the city centre. Tear gas was used. Snipers who had been positioned in nearby buildings began firing in the air. People in the crowd started hugging each other, believing the army had taken their side by refusing to shoot at them. But then the snipers started picking people off. Dozens were shot in the head or chest. None of the protesters had guns - keeping a weapon was prohibited in Libya under Gaddafi - but their rage was enough to shake the army. As demonstrators began setting fire to buildings associated with the regime, state security hastily left Misurata, perhaps having been ordered to, or maybe out of fear. Tension was mounting in Tripoli, and so the government was unable to spare troops to mount a counterattack for two weeks. For many people in Misurata, it was the best fortnight of their lives, Ali told me. But they knew Gaddafi would be back.

Under the guidance of a hastily assembled judicial council, the people of Misurata prepared to defend their city. By looting the local armoury, they had acquired some AK-47s and grenade launchers but most of their weapons were home-made. Young men were instructed to prepare thousands of Molotov cocktails as well as fist-sized bombs known as gelatina, made from TNT.

When Gaddafi's forces finally attacked on 6 March, they met no resistance and were allowed to drive into Tripoli Street, the main boulevard, a few miles long, with its smart shops, coffee houses, banks and office blocks. Then, when the order came, hundreds of young men positioned on the rooftops along the street started hurling their bombs. The thowar joined in with their light weapons. Taken by surprise, the loyalist forces battled
for four hours to fight their way forward, but could not. Many of Gaddafi's soldiers were killed, and the survivors were driven back to the edge of the city.

The next attack, on 19 March, was on a different scale. Troops entered the city from several sides, Russian-made tanks leading the way. This time they forced their way into Tripoli Street. Out of armoured personnel carriers poured many hundreds of snipers, who raced up into Misurata's office buildings and residential apartment blocks.

Other units took over the city's vegetable market, the college of medical technology and the unfinished hospital. The urban conflict had begun: terrifying, old-fashioned war where men fired at each other at close quarters. The daily casualty count rose remorselessly. Ali's maternal uncle was shot in the leg by a sniper. One paternal uncle was killed. Another was kidnapped from his home and has not been seen since.

Like thousands of other men, many of them students or workers in their early twenties, Ali volunteered to join the fight. His father gave him an old hunting rifle that he had kept hidden in the house for years. Others in Ali's unit joked that while Gaddafi's forces were pounding the city with anti-aircraft guns, Ali was fighting back with an anti-duck gun. "We were at the front line, but I never wanted to be right at the front. It was really scary, as we did not have a leader yet and the situation was very confused," Ali told me as we drove around the city one day. "I don't have a strong heart like some of the guys."

Nor was he sustained by faith. "You probably think that I am a Muslim, because of this," he said, pointing to a Quran on his dashboard.

“I did shout Allahu akbar when we fought, but I don't believe in God and that virgins for the martyrs stuff, and neither do many of my friends. We like to listen to music, get drunk on the beach on home-made alcohol. I just can't tell my family how I feel, because my uncle is the head of a mosque."
After a few days at the front, Ali's colleagues suggested he might be more useful working in the media centre. He agreed, and gave his hunting rifle to another member of his unit. Two days later, that man was shot in the stomach. “I never found out where my father's gun went," Ali said.

By the time I arrived in Misurata, the street battle had been raging for weeks. Most of Tripoli Street was controlled by snipers, but Ali agreed to drive me and two other journalists to the side roads that intersected it, where units of thowar were in combat with the snipers.

The car belonged to his brother and was a mess, cigarette boxes, shoes, biscuit wrappers and a few tins of sardines littering the floor. The boot was filled with tins of canned food. Ali slipped a CD titled Alternative Ballads into the car stereo: soft rock for a hard war.

We passed bakeries where men and boys were queuing for rations of bread. Despite the scarcity of goods, supermarkets had kept most of their prices stable. A shop manager told me: "This is a war, not a time to make money."

Cigarettes were the one exception. Rothmans, Ali's brand of choice, had quadrupled in price to ten dinars (about £4). There were thowar checkpoints every few hundred metres, reinforced with huge berms of sand brought from the beach, or large pieces of concrete pipe. At one roadblock, twisted remnants of missiles and shells fired by Gaddafi's soldiers into Misurata had been placed on top of one pipe. Next to it, with an arrow pointing towards the display, was a sign that read, "These are his weapons." Poking out of the pipe was a rake and spade: "These are our weapons."

Closer to the city centre, the tactics used by the thowar in the guerrilla war became evident. Giant shipping containers filled with wet sand and metal filings had been used to block off streets to prevent armoured columns getting through. Petrol-soaked blankets lay on the road, thrown there in the hope they would get caught in the tanks' tracks, allowing a Molotov cocktail or rocket-propelled grenade to set one of them on fire.

Leaving the car, we walked carefully down a side road to the main street, where several destroyed tanks hinted that the strategy had been successful. There had been an almighty battle; all the buildings were pockmarked by bullets. In places whole walls had been blown away. Splinters of glass and chunks of metal littered the street. A mosque had sustained heavy damage. There were burnt-out cars everywhere.

Closer to Tripoli Street, the damage had extended to residential homes, long abandoned by their occupants. Some of the side streets were within sight of the snipers, so Ali drove along new roads that been created by the thowar by punching holes in garden walls.

We were now very close to the vegetable market, where Gaddafi's troops had a base, protected by seven tanks. A group of about 20 fighters was having a breakfast of tuna and bread. They had been slowly clearing Gaddafi soldiers out of the neighbourhood, fighting house-to-house battles.
The leader of the unit was the only one wearing a uniform, which he'd taken from a captured Gaddafi soldier. He was a cartoonist's image of a rebel fighter - muscular, with a trim beard, a knife tucked into his belt at the back. Most thowar commanders had nicknames, but he was a replacement and new to the job; the previous leader had been killed by a sniper the day before. Ali suggested that we call him Mr Smile. He liked it.

He had been working in construction in Malta before the revolution, but had quit his job and taken a boat to Benghazi, where he received three weeks' basic training in light weapons. Now, as the leader of his group in Misurata, Mr Smile had control of a battle wagon that looked like something out of the Mad Max movies. A heavy machine-gun had been fixed on the back of a pick-up. Two giant rectangles of 12-millimetre-thick steel had been welded on to the front and rear of the vehicle. Mr Smile walked quickly towards Tripoli Street, waving his arm for us to join him. Coming to a crossing, he lowered his head and charged across.

“Snipers," he said. With gunfire zipping nearby, we bid Mr Smile goodbye. "Please come back and visit tomorrow," he said.

In this city, the abnormal quickly became normal. After a few nights sleeping on the AstroTurf floor of a basement gymnasium where journalists were put up, I no longer jumped at the rat-a-tat of gunfire, or the explosions or the ambulance sirens that pierced the night. Ordinary people in Misurata, who in January could barely tell the difference between a gunshot and a car backfiring, were - in their own minds at least - aural experts on heavy weapons.

Boom. "That's a Grad." Bang. "That's a mortar." Boom. "A tank shell."

Bang. "Katyusha rocket." Boom. "Nato must be bombing again."

War became normal for children, too. The schools were all closed, and for a while parents kept their children inside, but after a few weeks they were let out again to play. Ali's ten-year-old cousin started a game with his friends where they tried to find a full set of bullet shells, from a 7.62mm AK-47 round to a 50-calibre heavy-machine-gun round. Inevitably, there were accidents. One afternoon, on a visit to a clinic on the western outskirts of Misurata, I saw a 14-year-old boy, Abdishakur. He was sitting in a wheelchair because of his osteoporosis. It looked like he had measles, but in fact his face had been blasted with tiny fragments of shrapnel. His 11-year-old brother, Ibrahim, had even more severe injuries, sustaining damage to both eyes. His father, a local imam, explained what had happened.

“The boys were looking after my sheep when Ibrahim found a bullet still in its shell," he said. "They did not realise it was dangerous. They took it home. Ibrahim was hitting it when it exploded."

Family life had acquired a strange new reality. Neighbourhoods close to Tripoli Street or in other areas controlled by Gaddafi forces quickly emptied out. Families moved in with relatives or friends. If they had nowhere to go,

a stranger might offer up his house, and move his own family in with somebody else. One evening, I visited the home of Mohamed Tag­ouri, a 50-year-old who owned two water tankers. It was a large, well-maintained house with four bedrooms, ideal for Tagouri, his wife and their five children. Now, there were 11 families living in the house, 62 people in all. Tagouri's sister and her three children, all under five, were among them. Her house, near Tripoli Street, was now "junk", Tagouri said. Her husband was dead, killed on the front line a few days earlier. "Every family in Misurata has lost a relative," Tagouri told me as he sat on the floor, drinking coffee. "But we cannot stop resisting. We have to finish the situation. We have no regrets."

Most days, the shelling was not too heavy and he would drive one of his tankers to the desalination plant near the port, which had become the city's main supply after Gaddafi had cut the water mains. He would then sell the water in town, or give it away if someone was low on cash. Many were, as no salaries were being paid and no banks were open, although neighbourhood committees were handing out small sums of money to all families. They were handing out food parcels, too, but Tagouri said they lacked a crucial item. “There is no macaroni in Misurata."

Despite the best efforts of Mr Smile's team and other bands of thowar, the snipers of Tripoli Street were still causing havoc. No target was off limits: not the mosques, which broadcast "Allahu akbar" over and over to give the thowar strength, and not ambulances. Children, too, were seen as fair game.

At the hospital, I saw a ten-year-old boy who had been shot in the head while stepping outside to play with his friends. Such was the fear of snipers that some people had been too terrified to risk fleeing the city centre when the snipers came in. These included 101 orphans housed close to Tripoli Street. After huddling together in the basement of their orphanage for weeks, they had nearly run out of food. The power and water had been cut.

Selima al-Teer was one of two social workers trapped with the children. "My colleague and I were so afraid of snipers, but we decided we had to run to try and find food," she told me. "We took a hammer, ran about 500 metres to a supply store, and broke the door down. We put food in a wheelbarrow and ran back to the orphanage."

They made the journey three times. “Each time we just said to each other: 'May God help us,' and then ran," she said. Eventually, with the help of the thowar, all the children escaped and found refuge in a Quranic school in a safer suburb of the city.

As the days passed, it was clear that the thowar were gaining the upper hand on the snipers. By blocking the streets, they had managed to cut Gaddafi's resupply lines and began clearing buildings along Tripoli Street one by one. To identify the snipers' hideouts, the revolutionaries crept along side roads and then held out small pieces of mirror to look up the street, examining the reflection for the tell-tale puff of smoke whenever a shot was fired. Then they attacked the buildings with their Kalashni­kovs, heavy machine-guns and RPGs. Finally, they sent fighters into the buildings. They worked through the floors, sometimes tossing burning tyres into rooms to smoke out the last of the snipers.

One night, at the media centre, Ali told me that the eight-storey insurance building, the tallest in Misurata, which stood at the very centre of the city at the top of Tripoli Street, had been declared clear. We drove there early the next morning. For the first time the extent of the war here became obvious. Many of the buildings near the insurance tower resembled those of Mogadishu, in Somalia, where bullets have flown freely for 20 years. There were four destroyed tanks. A handful of local people wandered around in a near daze, struggling to grasp what had happened.
With Ali leading the way, we entered the darkened reception area of the insurance building, picking our way up the rubble-strewn stairs. We soon came upon some mattresses where a few snipers had been sleeping, and empty tuna and tomato paste tins. Spent shells lay in heaps on the floor. There was graffiti on the wall, which Ali translated. “If we survive, we are warning you gays and dogs. We will not forgive anybody from Misurata. We will fuck your daughters and your wives."

On the roof of the building, snipers had been sleeping in the elevator maintenance room, mattresses packed tightly together. Outside, there were thousands of spent shells on the terrace, along with several cases that had held anti-tank missile launchers. The roof had a panoramic view of the city and of the epic destruction below. To be up here with a gun was to be a master of downtown Misurata. However, after weeks of starving the snipers of food and ammunition, and hitting the buildings with gunfire, the thowar had cleared all the snipers from Tripoli Street.

And yet the death toll mounted. One day, I saw Mr Smile at the hospital, looking harried. He had lost a few men, he told me. The war had entered a new phase as the revolutionaries tried to push Gaddafi's soldiers out of their bases in the vegetable market and other locations. On the back foot - Gaddafi's minions called it a strategic retreat - the loyalist forces had increased their long-distance shelling of the city.

“Do you think this is over?" asked Hassan Mohamed, a 51-year-old man who was showing me around a destroyed house where 16 of Gaddafi's troops had been killed. He had already lost several family members in the conflict. He expected to lose more. Then he answered his own question: "This is not over. Gaddafi will send more soldiers. He is much bigger than the devil himself."

As the thowar pushed forward, there were terrible battles on the southern and western outskirts of the city. The scale of the missile and mortar attacks by the pro-Gaddafi troops increased, loyalist shells often falling on civilian neighbourhoods, whether intentionally or not. On one night of particularly heavy bombardment, Ali frantically searched the internet for information on the best place to take shelter in a house when bombs were falling. He then took the microphone at Radio Free Libya, which had become the voice of Misurata's revolution, and told people what he had learned.

As the first uncensored medium in the city in 42 years, the station offered an insight into some of the challenges that Libya might face once Gaddafi was gone. People of Ali's father's generation had pushed for Radio Free Libya to adhere to conservative values, with a strong focus on religion. But Ali and his friends, of the generation that had started the revolution and was dying on the front lines, wanted something more progressive. "Look, us young guys don't just know about camels or how to fix a car," he told me. "We have the internet. We know about the world."

I saw Tahar Alkesa in the emergency tent two nights before I left Misurata on 3 May. His stubble had turned into a beard, with patches of grey. He looked even more fatigued than when we had first met. The casualties had not slowed - ten to 20 killed most days and dozens of others injured. We could hear the boom, boom, boom of Grad missiles being launched by Gaddafi's troops in the distance. As they were slowly being pushed back outside the city, government forces had trained much of their attention on the port, determined to cut off Misurata's lifeline. A few days earlier, a small naval team sent by Gaddafi had been intercepted as it laid floating sea-mines outside the harbour.

Inside the hospital, while trying to ascertain the day's casualty figures, I bumped into Suleiman Ibrahim, a prominent businessman in Misurata who had been helping out around the hospital for weeks with Haythem, his younger brother. Haythem had left for Malta that morning on a boat - one of the very few able to enter the harbour in days - to sort out business in China. The men's two younger brothers, twins in their early twenties, were both working for the hospital, one as an ambulance paramedic, the other as a doctor. "This war is disastrous. Misurata has paid a big, big price," Suleiman said.

He was desperate to get his parents out of the country, but his mother had refused to leave unless all her sons did, too. They would not.

I had heard the reason many times from different people: we win, or we die.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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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