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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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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