Show Hide image

Seymour Hersh-extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

Is it always a journalist's duty to report the truth, even if it may damage innocents?
I'm a total First Amendment Jeffersonian. It's their job to keep it secret and my job to find it out and make it public. But once one gets some information, one doesn't run pell-mell into it. You spend some time making sure just what the downside is. At the New York Times in particular, I had the experience of telling the intelligence community: "I'm going to do this, and if you have people in harm's way, we're going to do this in a few days -- get them out." But most of the time it's not that dramatic.

You know, maybe six or seven times in 40 years I've had a story and I've communicated to the government what I'm doing, which we always do, and the president or the secretary of defence has called up my editor or publisher and said: "If you write this story, American national security will be damaged." And in every case except one where we delayed briefly, we wrote the story and, son-of-a-bitch, the Russians didn't launch paratroopers into the foothills of San Francisco the next day. At a certain point this claim about national security becomes something more. It's always political security.

Are there times when you have a scoop, or a piece of information, but let it go?
You're constantly not publishing everything you know. That's part of the game. You leverage what you know and sometimes you'll have a phrase that will indicate to someone on the inside that you really know more than you're writing. It's a self-protection measure. Sometimes if I'm into a sensitive story . . . it's hard to talk about this stuff -- but sometimes I'll indicate I know more.

For example, some kinds of intelligence are useless to us. Suppose one were to determine where the American attack submarines with nuclear arms are at any given time. How useless is that to a newspaperman? Some of the most secret secrets in the government are not very useful. But sometimes it is useful to tell people more than you actually write, to negotiate language with the other side -- that is, the government. Sometimes we don't do that. I'll add that this administration is actually more pleasant to deal with, because, unlike the Reagan-Bush years, they are not either taunting you or threatening you. The people I have dealt with here at a high level are almost rational. There's nothing quite as arrogant as somebody who thinks he's seen all the secrets.

Look, let's say you're a major player in a law firm billing $1m-$2m a year and you come down to $160,000 a year to work inside. What's it all about? It's all about: "My God, I really know what's going on. I've seen the top-secret stuff from the intercepts and the CIA. And then some punk reporter comes in and knows something he shouldn't know and I'm a person raged, not only because he knows it, but because that's what I'm in this job for -- I wanna know." I actually had people say to me during the Vietnam war when I was getting very critical -- I was just then working for a wire service (AP) -- I had people say to me: "If you only knew what I know, you would know how wrong you are." It's a cliché to say it, but it's true: they really do get it into their heads that they know more than you.

Do you ever worry that your phone is bugged?
Some people I only talk to in their home or their office, but I arrange the calls here. Even in the Nixon/Bush years, I could say this: there are certain people I would call on a Sunday morning at their home from my home. We'd have very good talks, and it's a very good time to work for me. I can't call people at their office. And as long as they were talking to me from their home on a Sunday morning about stuff, I would feel comfortable. If somebody suddenly stopped talking to me on a home phone . . . To bug me legally they'd have to get a warrant. Bush and Cheney did so many illegal things, but once you have something illegally you can't use it very much. If the 9/11 attacks taught us one thing, it's that the agencies collect lots of wonderful stuff they don't share with anybody.

You rely a lot on unnamed sources. Is that a dangerous technique, or an invaluable one?
Look at the serious press in the UK, France, America: every single day there are unnamed sources. I love the notion that somehow investigative reporters are held to a higher standard with unnamed sources.

My view is that I'm glad we don't have the British standard. In America we have this wonderful notion that you have to prove malicious intent. In England it is more difficult: you have to be just wrong -- it doesn't matter what your intent is. But I believe people in my profession should be held to an extremely high standard. I welcome the fact that people can sue me and go after me. I know American reporters who have described an unnamed senior CIA official and I knew . . . the name of the person they were not naming -- and the reason they didn't name him is that he had a certain bias which would have mitigated the story.

That happens all the time. It happened when I worked at the New York Times and I'm sure it happens elsewhere - people will have a source, but if they named him denouncing, let's say, the Bush administration, if you said who he was, he would be devalued. And by saying "a higher-level former senior intelligence official" you can cover that. I hate that. Therefore, the way in my own mind that I cope with that anomaly, that disgrace, if you will, is that I say I welcome people suing me.

I've been in a lot of litigation. I welcome that on the grounds that it is an appropriate measure. I think I've been in seven. We were in court once and the critical issue was that the judge was going to make me reveal my sources. I was going to have to say that we conceded the point and be found guilty of libel. The judge was a Reagan appointee in Chicago a couple of decades ago, and the Reagan appointee ruled that I didn't have to name sources. I went on camera and we went to the judge, and we gave an account of six people and gave a description of them, and the judge accepted that they were real -- that I was serious and I had sources. But if he hadn't, I think I would have had to concede the case.

How bad are British libel laws?
I had one case involving [Robert] Maxwell, a famous case in 1981 in England, after I wrote a book called The Samson Option. Basically, the British press had me accusing the former publisher of being an Israeli agent. I didn't quite say that -- he was an asset, he wasn't a spy; he just did what they asked him in one case. And we were sued to death and won a huge settlement. So my one experience with the law was fine.

Do you find the libel laws in the UK chilling?
There's no question -- D-notices are chilling. You guys have a very tough system. Every time someone goes up against it in England they end up in jail.

Isn't there a risk that some high-level sources might be "playing" you?
Of course, that's a categorical risk. I'm doing something sensitive this morning, and there's no question some may have . . . But I consider myself a full-service agency. You can come to me with a secret and I take it to other people and learn things about what you know . . . You have something that they call "compartmented intelligence", above top-secret. You come to me with a secret, and then I write a story that includes things you didn't know. So when the government assesses what I wrote to see who could have leaked it, you're not ever considered to be someone who could have, because they know that you (because of you and your compartment) could not have known what was published by the other compartment. You can come to me with compartmented information and I can go to other people with compartmented information and make it very hard for them to come to a conclusion about who could have been leaking. It's foolproof.

How have you managed to remain an outsider for so long when, for example, Bob Woodward, another great journalist of your generation, has gone mainstream?
There's no way they would deal with me. Bob Woodward, I disagree with his point of view. He starts at the top and goes down. But if he hadn't written, for example, that first Bush book, we wouldn't have known much about Bush's thinking. I think Bob's books sometimes tell a lot more than he may think they do. I'm not saying anything I haven't said to him -- I just wouldn't do it the way he does it. The Obama White House can't abide me. Within a month, they were going behind my back to my editor: "What's your man Hersh doing?"

What do you make of Barack Obama?
Don't get me going on Obama. If he decided to be a one-term president, he could be marvellous, but it's not clear he's decided that.

Did he deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?
Well, no, of course not. It was partly an embarrassment to him and it says more about the people in Sweden [sic]. Let me just say this to you quite seriously. There are people -- for example, one of the defences of [John F] Kennedy was that [Ted] Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger said publicly that he was for sure going to get out of Vietnam after the election in '64. He couldn't do it then because he was going to run against a Republican. They think that's wonderful. My analysis of that is that this was a president who said I'm more interested in my personal politics and the election than the lives of those that are going to die in the next year. And that's true if he really was going to get out -- he didn't have the courage to get out in '63. That's a political judgement. They're made all the time. Johnson kept on making it. He probably never liked that war but he kept on going.

So with Obama, the question is: will he stay in Afghanistan until he thinks it's the right time to get out politically? Or is he going to take a chance of not getting re-elected and find a way out quickly? It's not such a hard way out. There are people to talk to there. There's no evidence any of them are interested in bombing the World Trade Center.

Do you see shades of Vietnam in the current Afghan war?
No -- only in the sense that an American president is making political judgements about a war for his own personal re-election prospects. But it's a whole different scenario. Yes, in the sense that we could have gone to the North Vietnamese very early in that war. There was serious stuff going on, particularly very early stuff between the North and the Diem brothers, and we stopped that by getting them killed. Basically, there's so many ways it doesn't break down, so many ways it's a whole different culture.

On Iran, are we repeating the mistakes that were made on Iraq?
Some of the things are very disturbing. We are getting new leadership at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The next wave there is not going to be as rational. So the trend is going to get worse. There's no evidence yet that Iran has violated any of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty proceedings. By the way, your country is so deeply involved in all this crap. It's amazing to me, as someone who went to the Vietnam war and Iraq war, and now the Afghan war. There's simply no learning curve.

The great [writer] Harold Pinter gave a speech on 15 October 2002. He began by telling an old story about Cromwell. The citizens are all brought to the main square and he announces: "Right, kill all the women and rape all the men. His aide says to him, "Excuse me, general, isn't it the other way around?" And a voice in the crowd calls out: "Mr Cromwell knows what he's doing." And Pinter said, "The voice is the voice of Tony Blair: 'Mr Bush knows what he's doing.' " I keep on thinking that about Gordon Brown, too: it's the same voice. If we have to rape the men and kill the women, then by God we will!

Post-Bush, do you think there's still a risk of a military strike on Iran by Israel or the US?
Yes.

Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum?
I'm your standard left liberal, but I vote for Republicans, I've given money to them. I'm not a pacifist. I would have been tough on Osama Bin Laden after 9/11, but I'd have done it legally. I would have done what the Indians did in Mumbai, what the Spanish did in Madrid after the train incident -- treated it as a crime.

Are you disappointed Obama didn't release those "torture pictures"?
I know a lot about this stuff. Let me just talk about hypocrisy for a second. I do believe Obama when he says there were more terrible things done by individuals than we know, and the record is more complete than we know. Obama's position is that, at a time when we have 130,000 Americans in Afghanistan, putting the pictures out would just inflame people to take action against them. The New York Times has been editorialising against him, but when it had a reporter captured, it thought it was perfectly appropriate not to talk about it publicly for seven months, on the grounds that the paper was trying to protect his life.

So I would say here's the president -- about whom I have many reservations, believe me - saying: "I'm gonna not put these out, because I'm going to save American lives." And he's being criticised quite vividly by the New York Times, which had done the same thing for its reporter. I don't like it. So I give him his due on that one. I have to know what it is. It's horrible, but so what? We know the basic story. And so this is one of the examples when I don't write anything I know. Are you kidding me?!

What would you like to forget?
My Lai.

How would you like people to remember you?
I couldn't care less. I don't believe in life after death.

Are we doomed?
The trouble is that hope sprang anew in America last November. And I think the dashing of that hope is going to be much more lethal than even the cynicism under Bush and Cheney. If that hope is dashed, we'll really be in trouble around the world.

091120_Seymour_Hirsh-02 1

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Andre Carhillo
Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496