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A state of collapse

Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to strengthen “co-operation between p

Since 2003, we have been told repeatedly that the principles of the "two-state solution" envisaged in the so-called road map will lead to a peaceful settlement in the Middle East; and since Barack Obama was inaugurated as US president ten months ago, we have been told that he is preparing to put them into practice. Yet far from leading to the fulfilment of the "two-state solution", Obama's presidency seems more likely to lead to its demise. The committee that awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize cited his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples", but his attempts to force the Israelis and Palestinians into meaningful negotiations have only revealed the differences between them, and how empty the concept of the two-state solution has become.

On 4 November, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said what is supposedly the unsayable - that unless settlement expansion stops, Palestinians may have to abandon the goal of an independent state. Even the compliant Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was forced to acknowledge that the Israelis had put him in an impossible position: already gravely weakened by his hastily retracted decision to help defer a vote at the UN on the Goldstone report on human rights abuses during Israel's offensive in Gaza last December and January, he admitted that he can no longer justify his conciliatory stance as a means of winning concessions. He has since announced he will not stand for office in elections to be held in the Palestinian territories in January.

Yet the deadlock had been apparent for some time. The speech made by Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, on 14 June, in which he endorsed for the first time the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was reported as a "historic" breakthrough, but it fell far short of acknowledging Israel's internationally recognised obligations. The demilitarised entity that he envisaged in the West Bank barely merited being called a "state". Meanwhile, Hamas has attached similarly sweeping provisos to the idea of establishing a state within pre-1967 borders. "Hamas struggles for an end to occupation and for the restoration of our people's rights, including their right to return home," Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, said in an interview in the New Statesman two months ago.

There are now more than four million descendants of the Palestinians made homeless refugees by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. Some would say their right to return is symbolic, others that it is a matter of personal conscience which no politician can barter away. Yet, given that its implementation in even a partial way would mean the end of Israel in its current form, insisting on such a condition is nothing more than a restatement of the cause of the original conflict. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley put it in the New York Times earlier this year, "Acceptance of the two-state solution signals continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle by other means".

Israel's determination to resist meaningful compromises is apparent in the way it confronted the Obama administration over the "natural growth" of settlements. Israel maintains that people who are born in a settlement in the occupied territories should be allowed to live there when they grow up, and that the settlements should be allowed to expand “naturally" to accommodate them. It is an absurd argument: research suggests that "natural growth" includes significant numbers of incomers with no previous connections to the settlements. And besides, it does not address the existence of the settlements themselves. Yet it has served Israel's purpose: "It has provided a smokescreen behind which Israel can pursue more significant and urgent construction that, when completed, will truly render the occupation irreversible," says Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

The Jerusalem Light Rail, or JLR, is a case in point. The construction of Line 1, which is intended to run from the settlement-suburb of Pisgat Ze'ev in the north-east of the city to Mount Herzl in the west, is three years behind schedule, but in the past month or so the tracks have begun to climb the hill past the medieval walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. What used to be a four-lane road has been reduced to two, with inevitable effects.

One Sunday evening last month, I took a taxi back to my hotel in east Jerusalem. When we reached the north-west corner of the Old City, my driver gestured at the cars queuing down the hill towards Damascus Gate, just beyond the commonly accepted divide with the Palestinian quarters. He believed the JLR would not persuade drivers to leave their cars at home - in the long run, he said, it would generate more congestion and pollution. Others believe it will have even more profound implications for Jerusalem's future: the scheme's planners say it is intended to fulfil the vision of the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, of a city with "modern neighbourhoods with electric lines" and "tree-lined boulevards", but critics say it will fulfil another element of Herzl's Eurocentric vision. "The true objective," says Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, "is to entrench irreversibly the 'Judaisation' of Jerusalem, and perpetuate its current reality as a unified city with a predominantly Jewish population under Israeli control." The international community does not recognise Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem after the Six Day War of 1967, which means that settlements such as Pisgat Ze'ev are built on illegally occupied land, yet the JLR will bind them closer to the Jewish districts in the western half of Jerusalem, and make the task of partitioning the city even harder.

Other events in the summer, such as the eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, and a series of announcements about planned building projects, provide further evidence of Israel's intention to preclude meaningful negotiations about the city's future. In September, it said it was beginning work on 500 new apartments in Pisgat Ze'ev, and in August it vowed to build on the important “E-1" site, which lies between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, and drives a wedge through the heart of the West Bank.

Elsewhere, Israel has been building bypasses in an attempt to redraw the map of the West Bank, continuing the construction of the hated "separation fence" and forcing thousands of people off their land by appropriating water required for irrigation. As Halper sees it, these actions were Israel's way of telling Obama to "go to hell" while he was preparing a peace plan to present at a UN summit in September.

Two states or one?

In the event, Obama failed to produce a plan of any kind. It was all that he could do to force Netanyahu and Abbas to shake hands in public. Abbas had always insisted that the resumption of negotiations would be dependent on a complete freeze in settlement building, and his position was officially endorsed by the US - in May, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, said that the US "wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions". And yet, at the end of last month, she made the extraordinary statement that Netanyahu had made "unprecedented" concessions on "the specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements".

It isn't clear whether this pronouncement was a consequence of the undiminished influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a reflection of Obama's wavering will in the face of Israeli intransigence, or evidence of hidden tensions within the US administration, yet Clinton's distorted language suggests that even she was embarrassed to be mouthing such nonsense: the only "restraint" that Netanyahu has offered is to restrict settlement construction in the West Bank to 3,000 homes that have been approved already by the Israeli authorities, and he has not considered any halt to construction in east Jerusalem.

It was Clinton's announcement that prompt­ed Erekat to break diplomatic cover. He said that Netanyahu had issued the Palestinians with an absurd list of preconditions to restarting talks, insisting, among other things, that Jerusalem would remain the "eternal and united capital of Israel", that the issue of refugees would not be discussed, and that Israel would not withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. "This is dictation, and not negotiations," Erekat said.

Such tactics serve only to entrench the paradox at the heart of Israeli policy: by humiliating its so-called "partners for peace" in the Palestinian Authority, and hastening the demise of the two-state solution, it seems determined to bring about what the majority of its citizens fear most - the prospect of Jewish Israelis becoming a minority in a single, bi-national state. Barghouti opposes the colonisation of Palestinian land represented by projects such as the JLR, yet he is glad that it is rendering the two-state solution practically impossible. "For over 25 years, I've supported the unitary, secular, democratic state solution for historic Palestine, because I regard it as the most ethical solution to all involved. It reconciles the inalienable rights of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs with the acquired rights of Jewish Israelis," he says.

It may not be as simple as that. Israel's ultra-nationalists are preparing for the day when the Jews find themselves in a minority in historic Palestine by proposing legislation designed to shore up the Zionist vision of a Jewish state. The Netanyahu government has adopted a bill brought forward by the radical ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party of the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, which sanctions three years' imprisonment for anyone who mourns the nakba - the Palestinian name for the events of 1947-48, when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were driven from their homes, and the state of Israel was created. And earlier this year, the Israeli Knesset passed the preliminary reading of another bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu: an amendment to the citizenship law that includes an oath of allegiance and stipulates a year's imprisonment for anyone who publishes a "call that negates the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state".

Neither Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens nor the even greater number of Palestinians in the West Bank who would become part of a putative "Greater Israel" could be expected to recognise the contradictory notion of a "Jewish and democratic" state. If the day came when a Jewish minority found itself presiding over an Arab majority, then the focus of both the domestic struggle and the diplomatic and international effort would have to change: instead of attempting to create two separate states, the emphasis would be on securing equal rights for all the new country's citizens. It is a situation with an obvious precedent: Israel is already accused of running an apartheid regime in the West Bank, and the BDS movement targeting Israel for boycott, divestment and sanctions is beginning to assume the dimensions of the one directed against South Africa in the 1980s.

The sanction solution

Some maintain that targeting Israel for sanctions has grave consequences for the fragile Palestinian economy, though its proponents say it is the only effective way to force Israel to comply with international law. Either way, the movement is gathering pace. In the past few months, it has scored some notable successes, including one in the fight against the JLR. The French company Veolia, which owns 5 per cent of the City Pass consortium contracted to operate the line after completion, has come under concerted pressure to withdraw from the project. In 2006, the Dutch ASN bank broke off financial relations with it because of its involvement in JLR, and earlier this year a French court heard a lawsuit by a pro-Palestinian group demanding the project be halted on the grounds that it violates international law. Barghouti claims Veolia has lost billion-dollar contracts around the world as a result, and in September the company said it intends to sell its stake in City Pass to the Israeli Dan Bus Company.

If, or when, it does so, the focus of the campaign will switch to another part of the consortium - the French power generation and urban transport group Alstom. "In the coming weeks, Alstom will feel the heat, particularly in Arab states where it has won lucrative contracts," says Barghouti. The BDS campaign also claims credit for precipitating the financial collapse of one of Israel's most high-profile businessmen, Lev Leviev, whose company, Africa-Israel, built settlements in the West Bank.

Yet it was the British TUC's decision in September to mount a partial boycott of Israeli goods that convinced Barghouti the Palestinians' "South African movement" had arrived: he believes the endorsement of BDS "will reverberate across the world". It may even prove more significant than the best efforts of the Nobel peace laureate and his team of negotiators.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. He is writing a book about the West Bank city of Hebron.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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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