To most foreign visitors to France, Lyons is little more than the gateway to the south of France - famous for its gastronomy, middle-class good living, some Roman ruins and not much more. A short afternoon stroll from the handsome Place Bellecour down to the newly gentrified Old Town via the swish restaurants of the rue Mercière does little to contradict this perception, and is more than enough to convince the casual visitor that this is definitely one of Europe's more civilised backwaters. From the French point of view, however, the reality is very different.
"The problem with Lyons is that it isn't like Paris," says Hamdi, a Moroccan student originally from Casablanca but now marooned here. "Lyons is a big city, but the people here have all the prejudices of a small town. This includes a big fear of what they don't already know or understand." Hamdi has lived in La Guillotière, a run-down inner-city district of Lyons, for the past five years. His student status gives him a precarious residency but, without real work or money, he lives in constant fear of deportation. "But it's not just papers and visas," he says. "The big problem here is race. If you're not French then forget it!"
I myself was returning to Lyons more than 20 years after being a student there. My first aim was, as the French presidential election picks up pace, to test it as a political barometer. On a personal level I was also curious to see what, if anything, had changed in a city I had known so well for several years, and that I knew to be quite a sinister and troubled place.
The contrast between the shiny new opera house in the centre of town and the dark, thin streets that run alongside it is emblematic of the sharp social and racial divisions in Lyons. During the Second World War, the Resistance used these alleys and passageways (known locally as "traboules") to dodge the Nazi forces; nowadays the police rarely enter this area, which, by night and by day, has become mostly a drugs supermarket. This is where I chat to a young Arab guy I meet in a bar on the rue d'Algérie who gives his name as Khaled.
"Everybody in France knows suburbs like Les Minguettes and Vénissieux are fucked-up places," he says. "But it's like Baghdad or Gaza: so much shit happens, you get used to it and then forget it ever happened." His mates nod silently in agreement. "We are the invisible nation in France," says one, nattily dressed in the latest hip-hop gear and spicing his French with Arabic slang. "The French, the Lyonnais, only notice us when we tear the place up." He doesn't give his name, but says he was born in Lyons. It's just that, for obvious reasons, he feels he doesn't belong here.
This all makes perfect sense from what I already know of Lyons's political culture. For a start, despite its stolid bourgeois appearance, Lyons never did have a mainstream political identity. Although today's mayor is the relatively benign figure of Gérard Collomb - a Parti Socialiste member of the senate - the spectre of far-right politics has never been too far away. A classic example was Collomb's predecessor Raymond Barre, an arrogant neo-Gaullist who flirted openly with hard-core right-wingers and allegedly made anti-Semitic remarks in public.
Barre's supporters still make the feeble defence that he was a lightning rod for the most popular and populist views of the far right. Without him, the argument runs, Lyons would have been long established as a Front National fiefdom. This much is probably true, even if Barre's remarks and views are inexcusable. Throughout the late 1990s, the Front National steadily advanced towards a substantial majority in Lyons at local and national elections, and it had targeted the city as its strategic capital.
Indeed, at the time of writing, the FN stands poised to take control of the city if, as the FN confidently expects, the Sarkozy-Royal-Bayrou race stalls in deadlock in the first round of the presidential elections. (Jean-Marie Le Pen is already talking about himself as a front-runner in the second round.) Making a speech to FN faithful in Lyons on 11 March, Le Pen was practically rubbing his hands at the prospect, calling upon the Lyonnais to rise up and "save Paris, save France".
Lyons's links to the far right in French politics run far deeper than just the Front National, however. Most notoriously, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Université Jean Moulin (usually called Lyons 3) - intended to be the city's flagship of republican values - was rocked by a series of scandals which revealed that it was also home to some of France's most influential "négationnistes" ("Holocaust deniers"), deeply embedded in the faculty and student body.
This much could be traced back to the late 1970s, when Robert Faurisson, professor of literary theory at Lyons 2, had declared the Holocaust a "hoax". In his wake came an even more sinister trail of fanatics and nutters, writing theses to disprove the gas chambers or defend Hitler. By the 1990s, Lyons and its university were known as the "world capital of negationism" and a national disgrace. This was like having David Irving and his acolytes in charge of Manchester University.
It all came to a head in 2001, when Jack Lang commissioned an official inquiry into Lyons 3 led by Henri Rousso, the respected veteran historian of Vichy. Rousso's report, published in 2004, was political dynamite. Among other things, it revealed that Le Pen's number-two figure in the Front National, Bruno Gollnisch - a leading figure in the European Parliament and professor of Japanese - was at the centre of the "negationist cancer" in the university. The response from Gollnisch was to denounce the inquiry as a politically motivated fraud.
In January 2007, partly as a punishment for this statement, Gollnisch was fined ?5,000 (£3,280), ordered to pay ?55,000 in damages and given a three-month suspended jail sentence under the 1990 loi Gayssot, which makes Holocaust denial a crime in France. Gollnisch was also briefly suspended from the university. On his return to campus, Jewish and left-wing groups tried to bar his way to a classroom; fighting then broke out on campus between Front National thugs, Gollnisch's minders, police, university security staff and left-wingers.
Amazingly, given the international publicity these incidents attracted, I found when I visited Lyons a few weeks ago that the newspaper kiosk nearest the campus was openly selling copies of Action Française and Révision, both fascist magazines of dubious legality. I remembered reading these rags for the first time as a student newly arrived from the UK, where we listened to the Clash and the Specials and marched against racism. They were freely distributed at the university cafeteria and a skinhead bar called Le Bronx (now a bagel shop!). I remember being truly shocked at the time that such stuff even existed. Well, plus ça change.
Despite the trials and the suspensions, Lyons politics continues to be a mess. The most recent drama has been the sacking - apparently on Nicolas Sarkozy's instructions - of Alain Morvan, rector of the Lyons Academy (the local department of education), who had been opposed to the building of mosques and Muslim schools. Morvan, it is said, has been rooted out by central government as an attack on the right-wing caucus that rules the city. This has been a cause for mild celebration in Paris and much grumbling in Lyons.
But the real danger of the nastiness of right-wing culture in Lyons is that it stands in such sharp contrast to the multiracial composition of the city's population. Until the late 1970s, Lyons was shamefully home to some of the worst shanty towns outside the developing world; these housed immigrants, the majority of them North African. As such, it came as little surprise to most people who knew how divided Lyons was back then that, in 1981, it was the first big French city to explode in a blaze of urban riots.
In the cité of Les Minguettes, throughout summer and autumn of that year, cars were set alight by immigrant youths who called this kind of entertainment "rodeos" and who declared war on the police. These events have become legendary as predecessors of the October and November 2005 riots that shook the whole of France.
In 1984, the country was rocked again by even more violent disturbances in the neighbouring Lyonnais suburb of Vénissieux. These led to the week-long occupation of the area by more than 4,000 armed police officers.
Fear for the future
People who lived in or near Vénissieux talked of a "new French civil war". But nothing concrete was ever done to tackle the problems of so-called "quartiers difficiles". By the 1990s, the conflict between the police and youths had settled down into a contained and ritualised pattern of violence and counter-violence that made Les Min guettes and Vénissieux into "quartiers sensibles" - bywords for urban blight. Les Minguettes is still a virtual no-go area for police and outsiders.
"We don't feel part of the city," says the leader of a group of lads from Les Minguettes who are playing a fast and slightly dangerous-looking game of football at the fenced-off sports ground near the central bus station. "How can we, when we're treated like refugees in the place where we were born?"
On the other hand, it's easy enough to wander on to the campus of Lyons 3, which is really just a scruffy square near the inner-city and mainly immigrant district of La Guillotière. As I chat to a group at a café on the rue de Marseille, I find the mood among students to be unusually sombre. Says Dominique, a law student: "Lyons is the second city of France, but it will never be a big European city like Manchester or Barcelona because it is so inward-looking. We do not have the will to embrace the outside world."
Does this mean that France's problems are, as the far right argues, mainly caused by large-scale immigration? "Perhaps," counters one of the group who does not want to be named. "And I am not against Le Pen. But the problem with France is that all the good jobs are already taken by the older generation and there is nothing left for us. Or for the immigrants, either."
Still, in the city's official publicity, the Lyons authorities sell the place as the pride and the future of Europe. But as the economy stagnates and anger rises to the surface, no one I meet in Lyons believes this.
In recent days, the presidential debate has focused on the question of "national identity". It is a politically charged and potentially embarrassing topic for all politicians keen to distance themselves from the hard-core politics of the right. The Front National, on the other hand, has been noticeable for its low profile on the issue, waiting to enter the fray when the argument reaches boiling point. The matter has particular significance in Lyons, as the geographical and cultural centre of France. But the true question, in the strictest political sense, is for how much longer this will be the case.
And if the centre finally does collapse, it really will be time to fear for the future of France.