New Orleans: a national humiliation

Anthony Lane reports from the city failed by its president

As you enter New Orleans, you would not know that, two years on, the city is still reeling from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

When I ask a fellow bus passenger, a middle-aged Texan in town for a boozy weekend, about reports of rocketing crime and hundreds of thousands still living in trailers, he upbraids me. "That's a whole loada leftwing crap. Just look at the place".

It's easy to sympathise with this view. The Central Business District of the city is gleaming, full of impressive colonnaded buildings, home to banks and swanky hotels. Indeed, beholding the obvious wealth at the heart of the Big Easy brings to mind Donald Trump's comment when President Bush promised to pump $200bn into the wider Gulf Coast after Katrina. "Now anybody that lived there is going to be a multimillionaire", he said of those whose homes were destroyed.

The main tourist area, the French Quarter, looks similarly unaffected and lives up to New Orleans' reputation of being 'the city that care forgot', the birthplace of jazz and the cocktail. Wandering down legendary, decadent Bourbon Street with its loud bars offering cocktails to go, is an assault on the senses. Not only is a good time guaranteed but the French Quarter feels incredibly safe, with patrols performed not just by local police but also by the Louisiana state police and the National Guard.

It is the latter's presence, however, which hints that all is far from well. The National Guard has stayed in the city at the request of Mayor Ray Nagin, in an effort to stem an explosion in crime. Murder, almost always black on black and located away from tourist hotspots, is reaching epidemic proportions. In 2006, there were 63 murders per 100,000 residents, the highest murder rate in the entire country and ten times that of New York. This figure may well be an underestimate.

One local academic, Prof Mark VanLandingham of Tulane University, has suggested the real one is 96 per 100,000. If true, that would mean New Orleans has twice the murder rate of America's second most murderous city, Gary in Indiana.

Figures for the first three months of 2007 are equally shocking. According to the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), overall violent crime increased by 107% in the space of one year. Armed robbery was up 135% on 2006 figures and murder rose by 182%. The crime wave is out of all proportion to the rise in population – thought to have increased by 62% – as residents returned to their gutted homes. (Many seem to have abandoned the city for good and one third of New Orleanians tell pollsters they want to leave.)

In January, there was almost a murder a day, prompting a march on city hall by angry residents. As a result, overnight police checkpoints have been set up across the city and the National Guard has launched aerial patrols. There are also 22 FBI agents on patrol. But a beefed-up federal presence cannot disguise falling police numbers.

Officially, the number of officers is down from 1,668 in 2005 to 1,400 today. However, the latter figure includes sick, injured and depressed officers (there are few who don't have harrowing stories from the aftermath of Katrina). Solidifying the city's reputation as the nation's capital of crime, Fox is setting its latest police drama, K-Ville, in New Orleans.

The city is showing little sign of coping with the consequences of the complete breakdown in the criminal justice system. State charges against 3,000 criminal suspects were dropped in 2006 because of a lack of resources to prosecute them. There were 162 murders last year but only three have seen convictions. Murders often go unsolved because the city does not have the resources to fund adequate witness relocation or change witnesses' identities. Residents are all too aware that drug gangs, often linked to these murders, are living much closer to their homes since Katrina. Armed drugs dealers are now encamped in hundreds of abandoned houses in the Ninth Ward, the worst hit area of the city. Police are widely criticised for not patrolling beyond main streets. Some locals sport T-shirts with the words, "NOPD: Not Our Problem Dude" emblazoned on them.

There is one very safe way of seeing the damage wrought by Katrina and just how little has been done to help those trying to rebuild their lives in areas like the Ninth Ward. The Hurricane Katrina Tour, a guided bus tour run by national tour operator Gray Line, is the epitome of disaster tourism; taking visitors around the most wretched parts of the city. The guide, a witty, middle-aged white woman called Sandra, ended up sleeping on one of the unbroken levees and went two days without food or water before being rescued. "Is anyone here from the government?" she asks. "I want to make sure I punch the right people."

The sheer chaos after the storm smashed the city's flood walls and levees is realised by way of some amazing tales. We drive by the impressive Aquarium of the Americas, the stench from which was apparently unbearable as 10,000 fish gently cooked in the 98 degree heat. Then there is the Superdome, home to 28,000 desperate residents whose plight led to comparisons with the third world.

We go by impressive cemeteries. New Orleans, by long tradition, buries its dead above ground. The storm tore the tops off many graves with the effect that the skeletons of the long-since-departed floated next to the corpses of Katrina's 1,600 victims. Despite having the footage, American TV networks did not broadcast such images. The bus goes past houses belonging to the guide's friends, one of whom saved 65 people by cramming them into her home which has since been looted 17 times.

Another spent 10 days living on top of his home and bore witness to a deer trying to avoid the rising water by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, only to be gobbled by a shark swum in with the Gulf of Mexico. Chemical and oil spills, death by poisonous snakes, sharks, corpses and skeletons: it is anarchy even Hobbes would have found difficult to imagine.

But the true horror is more banal; it is in the sheer scale of what remains to be done, two years on. There are so many homes boarded up, still marked by paint indicating how many people – and their pets – were found dead there. Trailers are parked outside thousands of properties as people rebuild their homes. Many are beyond repair. Nine hundred houses are torn down each month in the city. There are hundreds of 'for sale' and 'now leasing' signs outside properties with smashed windows. Some of the most beautiful houses built in the richer Bayou area in the 19th Century are unscathed because they were constructed a few feet above ground (residents of old were worried about the possibility of flooding). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now requires properties most at risk to be raised three feet above ground and we see a few strange-looking homes which have been raised several feet, almost as if they are on stilts.

The bus takes a turn off one of the main roads and goes through the Ninth Ward, trailers and crumpled homes everywhere. We are in closer proximity to residents than at any other point in the trip and we see children walking barefooted. A certain queasiness sets in and the bus windows begin to feel almost like the screens at a zoo. I'm not surprised on later learning that the locals hate the tour and the gawping it entails.

The long-term damage to the economy is also obvious. We go past the place where a newly-opened 55ft shopping mall once stood and then by the rollercoasters of a derelict theme park which would take hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild. The local oyster beds were all destroyed, we are told, along with 10,000 boats. Environmental damage is apparent from the swathes of dead trees on the outskirts of the city. Marshes are still dying, due to the effects of salt water.

We see one of 50 new city landfills where debris from 2005 is still being dumped. According to Nagin the city has had to clear up six times as much debris as New York did after 9/11. A gigantic NASA compound can be seen on the horizon. Despite being badly hit, the federal government made sure it was operational just six weeks after Katrina, says the guide disgustedly, neglecting to mention that her tour was up and running only 10 weeks after that. Indeed, for all the sentimentalism about rebuilding the city, when I ask if the tour donates its profits to the victims of Katrina, the reply is a little frosty. "We've given $3000", she says. Considering that it runs twice daily, has a capacity of 40 and charges $35, I fail to disguise my surprise at such thinly-veiled parsimony.

But it is a brilliant tour, one which brings home the neglect and incompetence of Bush's administration. By the end, however, it becomes a desensitising experience as one gutted home leads on to another. "Too much. It's just too much," says the woman behind me, as the three hour trip draws to a close.

Reconstruction in New Orleans and beyond has been painfully slow. Public services in the city are in dire straits. In his recent State of the City address, Nagin said, "Healthcare in our city is in crisis…our mental health patients have been abandoned". Despite rocketing mental illness, the 300 public and private psychiatric beds destroyed by Katrina have not been replaced. The Louisiana State University hospital is on the verge of opening a 10-bed unit situated in a temporary building. Even if the city could provide more beds, it is questionable whether it could find or fund mental health workers to practice there. Higher education is in a bad way. The American Association of University Professors recently took the highly unusual step of marking out all of the city's universities for criticism.

Yet the greatest anger is directed at the failure of Road Home, the programme through which residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged, are compensated. Incredibly, along the entire Gulf Coast there are 87,000 households living in mobile homes and travel trailers and another 33,000 living in federally subsidised apartments. The federal government is supposed to provide the money to residents based on estimates made by the state of Louisiana about the level of damage their properties sustained. But the programme has an estimated shortfall of between $2.9bn and $5bn, with the result that a stunning four fifths of Road Home applicants have not received anything.

Consequently, many have failed to return. The population is thought to be around the 250,000 mark, well below the pre-Katrina population of 455,000.

Some fault the private firm put in charge of Road Home and hired by the outgoing Governor Kathleen Blanco on the basis that the private sector would be more efficient. Others ask why the state government, enjoying a budget surplus, cannot itself put more money into Road Home. But the real blame game is between the state government and FEMA.

The federal government agency's Donald Powell, President Bush's co-ordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, blames the state government for awarding grants to those ineligible for compensation. The federal government, Powell has argued, takes full responsibility for the flood damage due to the failure of the federally-managed levees but is not responsible for the hurricane's wind-related damage. Not true, says the Louisana Recovery Authority, pointing to the fact that in June 2006, the federal government approved the state's application for all to be compensated.

FEMA's position and the Road Home shortfall has resulted not only in many residents being denied the compensation to which they are legally entitled but has also led to the federal government now trying to claw back some $485m from those who have been helped – a sum it spends every 42 hours in Iraq. It is little wonder that Nagin recently lashed out at the "unfulfilled promises" of the federal government as well as "an unprecedented bureaucracy, a misguided Road Home programme, a state government flush with cash while citizens go broke trying to come home".

For her part, Blanco, a Democrat like Nagin, has blasted the amount of money given to the state. Louisiana, she says, was "low-balled" by the federal government, pointing out that neighbouring Mississippi, which was also hit by Katrina, has been given $5.5bn in grants compared to $10.4bn for Louisiana even though the latter sustained five times as much damage. The differential treatment, Blanco and many others claim, is down to Mississippi having a Republican governor who helped to get Bush elected. Moreover, hurricane-related spending decisions were signed off, until the 2006 Congressional elections, by the Senate Appropriations Committee which was chaired by a Republican Senator from Mississippi.

Just how badly some are suffering becomes clear at a protest 80 miles away in Louisiana's state capital, Baton Rouge. Apart from a few white hippies and volunteers, almost all of the 200 protestors are black and yet to receive compensation for the damage to their homes. Their placards say "Show Me The Money", pouring scorn on the federal government's claim to have spent $110bn on the Gulf Coast since Katrina. The anger is palpable. Some speakers on the steps of the Capitol building are almost screaming despite having megaphones to hand. Nagin has also joined them. He is an eloquent and impressive speaker, with an easy ability to command applause and share in the protestors' frustrations. I ask a nurse what she thought of the speech. "It was great – for all the good it will do".

Nagin has the unenviable task of radiating optimism to residents about the future whilst emphasising just how bad things are in order to get more federal funds. His poll ratings have plummeted as anger over crime and the lack of reconstruction has risen. Lakeisha, a waitress, calls him 'crooked', a word that gets used a lot. As the protest breaks up, I talk to one man, still living in his damp, rotting house and carrying a placard stating, 'Louisiana has the best politicians money can buy'. I ask if that's true of Nagin as the mayor glad-hands right next to us. "Him too. Everybody is."

There is no reason to think this is the case. Nagin made a name for himself before Katrina as a 'corruption-buster'. What such comments reflect is a dangerous contempt for, and anger at, all politicians and the institutions of government as well as the fact that in Louisiana, politics has long been a byword for brazen corruption. (Indeed, just as the city and state attempt to convince Congress that any extra money will be wisely spent, one Louisiana congressman, William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption. Amazingly, he was re-elected in 2006, despite the allegations swirling around him and the FBI discovering $90,000 hidden in his freezer.)

Another, more considered, critique of Nagin is that, as a relative newcomer to the choppy waters of Louisiana politics – before he became mayor, Nagin was a cable television executive with no previous political experience – he has been unable to navigate through a plethora of vested local interests. It must be frustrating to be simultaneously tarred by association with Louisiana politics and damned for not being well versed in it.

The flip side of being a passionate speaker is Nagin's loose tongue which has got him into trouble more than once. Campaigning for re-election last year and in need of black votes, Nagin pledged that New Orleans would remain a "chocolate city", i.e. predominantly black.

Heavily criticised in the national media and lampooned as the Willy Wonka of American politics, he apologised and then hilariously claimed his words were consistent with his previous pledges to reduce racial divisions. "How do you make chocolate?" he asked. "You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about".

Perhaps more damaging to the reputation of Nagin and the city was the choice of Ed Blakely as recovery tsar. Blakely makes Nagin look like a paragon of diplomacy. Showing total contempt for the people he was supposed to be helping, Blakely was once quoted as calling many New Orleanians "buffoons" and has compared the city to "a third world country". On another occasion, he suggested the state should learn about birth control, comparing it unfavourably to California. It was an ignorant as well as insulting remark: on average, Louisiana actually has fewer children per family than California. Worse still, when back home in Australia, Blakely went on local radio and accused the city of exaggerating its pre-Katrina population so as to maximise funds from the federal government after the storm. He apologised and blamed "a serious medical condition" for his comments. With recovery chiefs like this.

Proposals made by both Nagin and Blakely to raise more money for recovery have not progressed. Both have spoken of issuing so-called blight bonds, using damaged properties as collateral to borrow $300m. Until recently, however, the city had a bond rating of junk, stymieing such ideas. There are a plethora of blueprints, action zones, commissions and recovery agencies, but no money with which to proceed. What progress has been made is the result of loans, donations from foundations and a partial recovery of the city's tax base thanks to the return of tourists.

But however justified the criticisms of Nagin, Blakely, Blanco et al might be, as one of the organisers of the Baton Rouge protest says, "No state or city government, no matter how efficient, could have coped with this". New Orleans has been in need of a Leviathan but has instead been dealt the most uncaring and incompetent administration in modern American history.

The charge sheet against Bush's management is damning. Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers required $62.5m to maintain Louisiana's flood control project, only for the administration to cut the budget to just $10.5m. There was a 44% reduction in spending on the levees between 2001-2005. Bush downgraded the status of FEMA, which had warned in 2001 that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three most probable disasters to befall the US. FEMA was placed in the charge of the Homeland Security department, miring it in "a dysfunctional bureaucracy", according to Hillary Clinton.

The shockingly indolent response to the disaster was, of course, a national humiliation. Some of the last people to be rescued, in nearby St Bernard, were saved not by American troops, but by the much-lampooned Canadian Mounties. And now, given the desperate shortage of cash, New Orleans is once again embarrassing the country.

Nagin recently announced that he is in contact with foreign governments who offered aid in the wake of Katrina. Their offers, totalling $854m, were rejected by the Bush administration. In an unprecedented act, Nagin has decided "to go around the federal government" to see if any of those offers are still on the table.

Whether New Orleans is in better shape to withstand another hurricane of Katrina's magnitude – it was a Category 3 hurricane by the time it hit the city – is an open question. The city successfully lobbied Congress for a strengthening of its levees and flood defences, guaranteeing it "100-year protection". But work on the new defence system will not be completed until 2011. There is no doubt that it is a big task. Though maintenance before the storm cost very little, Katrina left 225 miles of levees in need of repair with the result that the corps has been given $5.7bn. According to Col Jeff Bedey, the commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, the system "is stronger today than it was pre-Katrina".

However, the colonel was careful not to give categorical assurances and some engineers have stated that a prolonged Category 2 hurricane would flood the city once more. Ivor Van Heerden of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Centre, whose pre-Katrina warnings about the dangers facing New Orleans were ignored, maintains that there are still "weak links" in basic flood defences. According to an internal army corps report, because of the rush to offer as much protection as quickly as possible, new pumps installed in 2006 have failed to work correctly. Water has recently seeped through cracks in flood walls that have supposedly been restored.

But the potential for further ruin goes beyond the city. Nearby Terrebonne is thought to be most at risk of flooding and Congress has approved a $900m levee system. The Bush administration has yet to give the nod to construction with the result that residents have had to tax themselves $80m in order to provide 'interim protection'. The main consoling thought for anxious residents waiting for 2011 is that Katrina is often described as a '1 in 400' event. That anxiety is not helped by constant reports of what remains to be done. 'Hurricane hype' is amusingly lambasted by weather presenters on the very news programmes that generate it.

The predominating emotion is not anxiety but depression. "Everyone's depressed", says Ben, another organiser of the Baton Rouge protest. Despite having just over half its 2005 population, suicide prevention calls are up 800%. People speak of 'Katrina fatigue' – hardly surprising given the never-ending slew of bad news stories relating back to the hurricane, which can involve anything from 'ailing theatres' to having the highest rates of bankruptcy and heart attacks in the country. Nagin claims the death rate in the city is up 47% and the state as a whole continues to rank 50th in health surveys. There are a startling number of people coughing, despite the very warm summer heat.

The city at times seems almost cursed. I came across the story of one broken man whose home in the neighbourhood of Gentilly was badly damaged by the storm. He returned and spent the better part of 2006 using his life savings to rebuild it while he lived outside in a trailer, frequently fending off would-be looters. Just as he was about to move back in, a tornado ripped through the city in February, leading to 30,000 households going without power and a state of emergency being declared. It also slammed his trailer against his house. He is now living in a second trailer. He was lucky only by comparison with his neighbour, 86 year old Stella, who was killed in her newly refurbished home when her old trailer was thrown against it.

The other prevailing feeling is anger. Iraq hangs over New Orleans, almost as pungent as the smells due to poor drainage, another post-Katrina blight. Indeed, in another unguarded remark he was made to regret, Nagin suggested Katrina demonstrated God's anger at the US for going to war. Most New Orleanians are quick to link the cuts in flood defences preceding the hurricane with the president's $1 trillion war of choice. 'Make levees, not war' T-shirts are available in most tourist shops. "All that Road Home money, it went on the war", says Ann, a hotel worker who also recalls the Asian tsunami. "All that aid to a country no one had heard of, and in the US, we get nothing".

This anger is expressed most acutely by blacks. The racial divisions in the city, which was 67% black before Katrina, have always been stark. As Nagin said in his 2005 State of the City address, "Parts of our city are mired in violent crime, unemployment…and children are trapped in failing schools". Those parts were black and remain so. The anger and despair felt by blacks has been likened by Barack Obama to the situation in Los Angeles in the 1980s before race riots overtook the city in 1992.

New Orleans feels like a city at a crossroads. There is a danger that the "quiet riot" identified by Obama becomes audible and violent, that the city fails to get a grip on crime and that tens of thousands continue to wait for compensation. On the other hand, help may now come from a Democrat Congress, prodded into action by all three of the party's main presidential candidates who have promised more money should they be made president in 2008.

The city continues to be helped by a veritable army of volunteers. The work of charities like Habitat for Humanity has been invaluable. While no substitute for government action, the American volunteer culture is a truly impressive and noble sight to behold, as children from all around the country use their holidays to rebuild victims' homes. In especially rough areas like Treme, citizens are attempting to reclaim their neighbourhoods by way of rallies and public meetings. Recently, the first school in the Lower Ninth Ward was reopened, a 'Herculean effort' say local officials, considering that other dilapidated schools have had to house guard dogs to stop constant looting of pipes as well as the wood used to board the schools up.

Leaving the city centre, you are struck once more by its wealth and the fundamental strength of the city's position as a hub for big business and tourism. For all the public squalor, private investment is gathering pace. The city is manna from heaven for property speculators and 150,000 building permits, worth $3.7bn, have been issued. Furthermore, 62,000 out of the city's 81,000 businesses have now reopened. There is one particularly striking billboard, advertising a $400m, 70-storey tower which will be the tallest building in the state when completed in 2010 and which hopes to attract the affluent to condos priced between $375,000 and $3.3m. It seems somehow fitting that the proprietor is none other than Donald Trump.

The city of New Orleans has proven itself to be George Bush's domestic crucible, laying bare the sheer incompetence and callousness of the president. The administration's criminal neglect has meant that two years after Katrina, hundreds of thousands of American citizens endure a soul-destroying existence and the daily humiliations and indignities of trailer park life. Their homes destroyed, their humanity crushed and their promised compensation denied, they have become a diaspora of human detritus, left to rot by the pioneers of compassionate conservatism.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

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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