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?

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle