Lyons: City of outsiders

Beneath the civilised, bourgeois exterior of the "gateway to the south" lie the sharpest racial and

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.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars