Bobby: My moral beacon

Robert Kennedy believed he had a mission to combat poverty. In an exclusive extract from his book on

In his youth and well into his thirties, Robert Kennedy was known as moralistic. He saw the world in black and white, in a perpetual conflict between good and evil. At first, corruption, greed and dishonesty were the evils that impelled him to act, but in the years after his brother's death in 1963 he was moved to anger and action mostly by injustice, by wasted lives and opportunity denied, by human suffering. Kennedy, who had mastered the politics of attack, now practised the politics of moral uplift and exhortation. The street fighter had become a street preacher, the political pragmatist a prophet.

This was not a wholesale reinvention. The strain of moralism was consistent from his youth to the end of his life. In fact, people wrote of how from an early age this "moralistic" young man was always interested in the excluded and disempowered. Those who knew him before say that this "streak of caring" was always there. According to one friend he never lost that strain of moral commitment. Both as the political pragmatist of the 1950s and 1960s and as the compassionate idealist vying to change the world in the mid- to late 1960s, he believed in the eventual triumph of good over evil and prized services to others over personal gain. Both arose from his upbringing and early influences. They were not created but were brought to the forefront by the suffering he experienced after his brother's assassination that had given him, in the words of a close friend, "a tenderness so rawly exposed, so vulnerable to painful abrasion that it could only be shielded by angry compassion to human misery or manifest itself in love and loyalty towards those close to him".

In To Seek a Newer World he was honest enough to describe the two temptations that in the pursuit of his cause he had to show the courage to resist: what he called the danger of timidity and the lure of comfort. On the surface, this idea is reminiscent of JFK's study, Profiles in Courage, but in fact the meaning is not the same. The essential attributes of courage turn out for Robert to be quite different: moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential quality for those who seek to change a world that yields only grudgingly and often reluctantly to change.

I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world. For the fortunate among us, the danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the safe and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But this is not the road history has marked for us, and all of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves on the effort we have made to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

But what marked out the Robert Kennedy of the mid-1960s for so many who worked with him - and this perhaps most clearly revealed Robert's deep moral and political convictions - was his passion for children, their fate and their fortune. His interest in practical and bold new policies to alleviate child poverty had started to develop when he was attorney general from 1961 onwards. He had become interested in the link between poverty and race and self-worth and crime, and he invited a group of juvenile offenders to his office. "If I had grown up in these circumstances," he concluded, "this could have happened to me." He met gang members in Harlem. He sponsored legislation aimed at preventing youth crime, travelled to Appalachia and sent President Johnson a memo on racial violence in urban centres.

Wherever Kennedy travelled he was drawn to children: he listened to them, held them, talked to them, got down to their level; these were not staged Kennedy appearances. A friend, columnist Mary McGrory, wrote that she often brought children from the local orphanage for parties at the Kennedy home: "It was total immersion on both sides. Kennedy needed children as much as they needed him." He said that, aged three or four, slum children's faces had "a certain vitality and beauty" that their well-off middle-class contemporaries did not have, but he speculated that at the age of eight to 12 the faces of these children changed as they sensed the oppressiveness of the world. When he met children in Brazil he begged them to stay on at school but left dejected, saddened because he saw not only the desperate need for proper investment in education, which now had to be fought for, but that they had uttered, at a deeper level, "a cry for love". He wanted, as he commented himself, to bind up their wounds.

He "always saw poverty through the lens of children and young people", said his adviser Peter Edelman. "So much of what he did was based on instinct. He was quite different from his cerebral brother in his mode of thought and action." And in later years Robert Kennedy clung to a scrap of paper left on his brother's desk at the end of the last cabinet meeting they attended together in 1963: an agenda scribbled over repeatedly with the word "poverty". For Robert, this became his brother's last will and testament - almost a summons to a lifetime of action.

Focus on poverty

So when Robert Kennedy returned from the depths that followed his brother's death, he toured the country to see for himself the condition of America, to focus on the poverty that was often forgotten or unseen, and then to speak out on what changes needed to be made. One of his first visits was to meet impoverished black children in the Mississippi Delta in 1967, where he was shocked by what he saw. He was, he said, "appalled" by the open sores, the stench, the vermin, the lack of nutrition. He was visibly shaken when he rubbed a child's stomach "and found it distended by starvation". And he spoke out. What angered him was that this was the America of the 1960s, the richest nation on earth, yet here were "children with swollen bellies and running sores on their arms and legs that appeared not to be healing". He reported he had seen "rat bites on the faces of young children even in the wealthiest city in the world, New York". It profoundly affected his thinking. After one visit to the Mississippi, Edelman recalled:

His children say he came home to dinner that night deeply shaken and that he a man of few words so much of the time could not stop talking about what he had seen that day . . . it was one thing to say we needed more jobs or improvements in public education or a better welfare policy. It was something quite different to say we had near starvation in our rich country.

With this first-hand knowledge of the slums he talked openly of the "obscenity" of poverty. The word "unacceptable" became a favoured injunction that for him demonstrated moral outrage. As Kennedy said in Kansas in March 1968: "I have seen these other Americans . . . I have seen children starving, their bodies crippled from hunger." Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, said that with the outrage he showed, Robert could "have been a revolutionary priest".

But Robert Kennedy did not only expose; he organised and proposed changes in welfare policy that went beyond the offer of food stamps. He had to convince a disbelieving secretary of agriculture that in mid-1960s America there were still children dying of hunger. Robert Coles, a renowned child psychiatrist, recalled Senate hearings where Kennedy organised the medical evidence, working out how it could best be presented to overcome the doubts and even the cynicism of some colleagues. It eventually led to a select committee on hunger and malnutrition [. . .]

But what was new was not simply a more energetic and urgent focus on child poverty: it was to argue that the child poverty, inner-city, racial and slum problems that scarred 1960s America could only be solved through a new philosophy of government. Kennedy's originality was that he was the first from the left not only to express major doubts about big bureaucratic approaches, but the first also to call for a reassertion of personal and social responsibility, an end to welfare dependency, the empowerment of the poor and partnerships for renewal that brought private as well as public sectors into urban regeneration. His starting point for empowerment was that work, not benefits, offered the way out of poverty, and he was the first from the left to put a renewed emphasis on personal responsibility as the key to civic renewal. "I'm not for a guaranteed income, I'm for guaranteed jobs," he would say.

His was a muscular Democratic philosophy that founded his ideas of economic and social progress around a new self-reliance from the powerless and a new engagement from the powerful. He had come to the view that too much welfare left the poor dependent. He had seen an alternative to the old welfare in bottom-up community action during the short-lived War on Poverty, with communities strengthened by being rebuilt by the people who lived in them. And he was first to point out the sheer waste of unemployment and welfare costs to pay for it. New York, he said, spent more on welfare than on education. Putting his faith in the dignity of work and the potential of education, he asked Adam Walinsky to shape a programme founded on these principles for urban reconstruction in all major cities of the US. But his new philosophy of empowerment was also rooted in his embrace of the goals, the ideas and even the language of the civil rights movement. This embrace had come gradually - and perhaps reluctantly. In the early 1960s - and on the central issue of black rights - Martin Luther King had said of Kennedy that the moral passion was missing, and Robert Kennedy admitted later that he and his brother John were particularly reserved about King during that period of time.

Pathology of the ghetto

What Robert Kennedy saw in the ghettoes - the very scale of child poverty - converted him. He now talked of "the pathology of the ghetto"; and prefiguring a debate about the loss of community among the bigness of cities as "a besetting sin of the 20th century"; he lamented the decline of civic pride and "the destruction of thousands of invisible strands of common experience and respect which tie men to their fellows". "The whole history of the human race had been the history of community," he said, "and it was now disappearing." He spoke eloquently of the moral imperative of civil rights and of "the violence that affects the poor, that poisons the relations between men because their skin is different", and urged a radical programme of political, economic and social rights starting with votes and jobs. He concluded that "the violent youth of the ghetto is not simply protesting his condition but making a destructive and self-defeating attempt to assert his worth and dignity as a human being" [. . .]

The John F Kennedy who left an indelible impression on the consciousness of the world was also in private a man of irony and self-irony, with a cerebral detachment, "an idealist without illusions". The Robert F Kennedy of 1968 was different, an idealist who saw what others regarded as illusions - the empowerment of the poor, the liberation of the dispossessed - as the only practical outcome for an America true to itself.

If JFK was a man who believed that greatness was defined by great deeds, RFK became a leader who exemplified the greatness of seeing and feeling the hurts and hopes of others. When David Frost asked the 1968 presidential candidates how they wanted their obituaries to read, Robert Kennedy simply replied: "Something about the fact that I made some contribution to my country or those who are less well-off. Camus wrote about the fact that this is a world in which children suffer" - he paused - "I'd like to feel that I'd done something to lessen that suffering."

Both Kennedys left a legacy of poetry as well as power. But in Robert, tempered by the tragedy of his brother's loss, there was vulnerability as well as steel. His appeal beyond leadership was an empathy that did not proclaim itself but was self-evident. To him, the work of change - to redress injustice, to bind up the wounds of violence and indifference, to heal the brokenness of the world - was above all a moral command.

Courage over caution

There could be no advance to a new world in 1968 without addressing the question of Vietnam. So was Kennedy's advocacy of a negotiated peace settlement a conversion born of cal c ul at ion - as contemporaries alleged - to wrest the presid ential nom ination from Lyndon Johnson, or was it a brave act of self-sacrifice?

The facts are on Kennedy's side. First, opposing the war in Vietnam was not, even in 1968, a way to win many votes. It was only after the Tet Offensive, in January and February 1968, that a (slight) majority of the American public sentiment went against the war; previously most Americans supported it, and a good number actually thought the US should commit more troops. Nineteen sixty-seven was known as "the year of the hawk". Thus every time that Kennedy spoke out against the war, as he did forcefully in early 1966 and early 1967, he lost ground in the polls. Part of this was due to perceptions that he was pursuing a vendetta against Johnson. But mostly it reflected the fact that stoking anti-war sentiment was not yet a viable, mainstream political strategy [. . .]

Kennedy was caught between his deeply felt moral and strategic qualms about the war and his shrewd understanding of the political game, which suggested acquiescence as the safest approach. It was "an ordeal", said Arthur Schlesinger of discussions in 1967 and 1968. He had never seen RFK so torn, so obviously divided, about anything. But in the end, Kennedy's moral courage prevailed over his political caution. By the start of 1968, after repeatedly rebuffing those who had urged him to lead the movement to "dump Johnson" and end the war, Kennedy decided that he could simply not live with himself if he abdicated leadership. He took the greatest risk of his political career - the greatest leap into uncertainty - and, as he slid inexorably towards challenging Johnson, he finally spoke his mind about the war.

Kennedy started to allege that Johnson had departed from his brother's policy of self-determination for the Vietnamese and that he had switched from one point of view to another. Johnson, he now believed, had Americanised the war. Once the US had waged war, he claimed, because the South Vietnamese had wanted the war. Now from that standpoint, Kennedy challenged the whole basis of the war, questioning the morality of intervention and the accuracy of the domino theory. He broke from the established view that if Vietnam fell so would the whole of Asia.

But when Kennedy finally broke publicly with Johnson and announced his bid for the presidency in March 1968, he had a mountain to climb. He knew that part of his political challenge was to energise newly enfranchised black voters and to win back the young, anti-war Democrats who had abandoned him for Senator Eugene McCarthy - an earlier, passionate and more consistent opponent of Vietnam. But, unlike McCarthy's, Kennedy's was no protest campaign; he intended to win [. . .]

A late arrival to the contest, Robert Kennedy did not achieve as much as he had hoped for in Indiana, where he won the primary with overwhelming black support but failed to win over the white middle and working classes. Then in California he won and became the commander of the anti-war cause. "On to New York," he said, the last great primary, and moments later was assassinated. He had privately wanted to offer Eugene McCarthy a deal, that in return for his standing down he would be Kennedy's secretary of state. A family friend, the journalist Joseph Alsop, warned him, "You must really give more weight to the support of what people call the establishment than I think you do."

We will, of course, never know whether Robert Kennedy's strategy would have prevailed. But the brilliance of Ken nedy's courage was not so much in what he achieved in 1968, but what he foreshadowed for the generation to come.

Gordon Brown's "Courage: eight portraits" will be published in June by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Andre Carhillo
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The decline of the Fifth Republic

With the far right and far left surging in the run-up to a defining presidential election, the French seem intent on blowing up the political establishment.

On a cold Saturday evening in late February, cycling back to my flat in southern Paris, I accidentally ran into a pack of lads on a rampage. They were turning over bins, kicking over expensive motorbikes parked on the street, and obviously looking for someone to fight.

It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen this sort of thing, even in this relatively gentrified part of the city. Usually the best course of action is to stop, let them swarm past and allow the police to do their job. But on this particular night, although I could hear the buzz of a police helicopter above us, there were no officers on the ground. As I nervously became aware of this, one of the lads, no more than five yards away, looked at me and screamed: “T’es qui toi?” (“Who the f*** are you?”). His mates turned and gathered round. Now panicking, I saw that he was pointing a screwdriver at me.

I pelted down the street, heart racing as the young men followed me, so shocked that when I reached my apartment building I twice tapped in the wrong entry code. It was only once indoors, now safe but genuinely scared and sweating, that I understood what had happened.

This was a gang from one of the local ­cités – council estates – that border this part of Paris. They had been flushed out of their normal dens, where they deal in weed and mess about, by police using helicopters and unmarked cars, and were now taking their revenge on these unfamiliar surroundings. When they saw me, a tall, white, male figure, watching in the dark on my bike (stupidly the same dark blue as a police bike), they assumed I could only be one thing: a police spotter. In other words, their most hated enemy.

In the past few weeks, in Paris and across France, there has been a new and special danger in being identified by such gangs as a lone policeman. This is because the ever-present tensions between police and the youth of the cités have become particularly acute following the so-called Affaire Théo. On 2 February in Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of Paris, four police officers violently attacked an innocent black man, identified only as Théo. The assault was caught on camera and allegedly involved the man’s “rape” with a telescopic baton.

The details of the case caused widespread outrage, right up to the highest level of ­government. In the banlieue, the suburbs where many young people feel excluded from mainstream French life, some felt a desire for revenge. And though their anger related to a specific incident, it was in keeping with the emotions sweeping across France, at all levels of society, in the lead-up to the first round of this year’s presidential election on 23 April.

***

France is in a state of political disarray. This much was obvious during the first live “great debate” on 20 March, organised by the television channel TF1, featuring five front-runners for the presidency.

Probably the greatest loser on the night was François Fillon of the centre-right party les Républicains, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012. Fillon has gone from being a sure favourite to outsider in the presidential contest, following allegations of dodgy financial dealings. Most damagingly, a formal judicial investigation has been launched into reports that he paid upwards of €800,000 of taxpayers’ money to his wife and other family members for jobs they didn’t actually do. Fillon, who denies any wrongdoing, has also been accused of failing to declare a €50,000 loan from a French businessman in 2013 (which he has since repaid). He held himself in check during the debate, trying to look dignified and presidential, but he has become the object of scorn from all sides, including his own.

Benoît Hamon, the candidate for the Parti Socialiste (PS), the party of the outgoing and discredited president, François Hollande, did not perform much better in the debate. Hamon identifies with the far left and green wings of the PS and favours a basic income, the legalisation of cannabis, and euthanasia. He resigned from Hollande’s government in 2014 claiming that the president had abandoned socialist values. But at every public appearance Hamon still looks surprised to be in the race. Although he has positioned himself as the “anti-Hollande” candidate – no surprise, as Hollande has the lowest polls ratings of any French president – even Hamon’s supporters concede that he has no reach outside the party faithful, and his dismal poll ratings reflect this.

In recent weeks, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a veteran left-winger and now leader of his own party, France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), has surged in the polls. He has been compared to Jeremy Corbyn but is more like George Galloway, in that he can be trenchant and biting and speaks fluently without notes. Some of his views – anti-EU, anti-Nato, pro-Russia – are close to those of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (FN). The candidate of the centre or centre-left is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker and protégé of Hollande, under whom he served as minister of the economy, industry and digital data. Macron broke with the PS in 2016 to set himself up as an independent candidate with his new movement, En Marche! (“onward”). He presents himself as a voice of moderation and common sense. He defends the EU and the eurozone and is an unashamed liberal globaliser. But Macron is also hard to love: his enemies claim that he is self-serving, an opportunist who cannot be trusted, and, worse, that he lacks experience of high office. On television he can be vain and testy – as was the case when he came under attack from Marine Le Pen, during the TF1 debate.

In many ways, Macron was a gift to Le Pen. She accused him of being out of touch and of not knowing what he was talking about. Even non-FN supporters, who didn’t necessarily agree with her views on security and immigration, conceded that Le Pen was the most convincing speaker. As I was told by a neighbour with an impeccable PS background, it was as if she was the only politician on the night of the debate in charge of what she believed. Le Pen’s popularity increased as a consequence.

So is it now possible to think the unthinkable: that Marine Le Pen could triumph not only in the first round of the presidential election but in the second as well? If that happens, not only would she become the first female president of France but she would transform French politics and further destabilise the European Union.

***

When I put this to Jean-Pierre Legrand, the leader of the Front National in Roubaix, a town of 90,000 inhabitants in the north of France, he shook his head. He wishes Le Pen well but fears that in the second round the mainstream parties will gang up and back whoever her opponent is. “This is what always happens,” he told me. “This is why so-called French democracy is actually a form of dictatorship. You can never really get your hands on power. It belongs to an elite, people like Emmanuel Macron.”

Legrand, 69, has been a supporter of the FN for decades. He smiles a lot and can be witty, but he also likes talking tough, like the hard-headed factory boss he used to be. He admires the way Le Pen has reinvented the party, shedding some of the old-school neo-Nazi trappings. But he is also faithful to, maybe even nostalgic for, the old FN of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who reached the second round of the 2002 presidential election (he lost to the centre-right Jacques Chirac). So I asked him if he was not really a democrat but, like Le Pen père, basically a fascist. “I am not afraid of being called a fascist, or even a Gaullist,” he said. “But all I really believe in is order and authority. And that is what France needs now.”

I had come to Roubaix because it is officially the poorest town in France. It is also, according to most media reports, one of the most troubled. It’s not far from Paris – just over 90 minutes on a fast train – but when you get there it feels like a different, distant place. The train station is scruffy and there is little sense of the usual Gallic civic pride; the stroll down the main boulevard to the Grand Place is drab and quiet, unlike in most French towns.

Roubaix has a large immigrant population, mainly from North Africa but comprising more than 60 nationalities. It has a reputation as a refuge for illegal migrants making for Calais and then the UK, and as a hotbed of Islamist radicalisation. In May last year the conservative news weekly Valeurs actuelles described Roubaix as “le Molenbeek français”. The magazine was referring to the suburb of Brussels where several of the terrorists and sympathisers involved in the November 2015 attacks on Paris, which killed 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan concert hall, grew up.

Legrand and his FN colleague Astrid Leplat offered to show me around the town, just as they had done with the writer from Valeurs actuelles. The article was criticised by the local newspaper La Voix du Nord as depicting a fantasy version of France conjured up by the FN. I was aware of this argument, but also keen to take up the offer of a tour: it was a rare chance to see an ordinary French town through the eyes of the FN.

I quite liked Roubaix. With its sooty terraced houses, empty textile mills, iron bridges and dirty canals, it reminded me of Salford in the 1970s. The town is neatly laid out even if the streets are scruffy. It is also busy with small businesses – Arabic-language bookshops, kebab houses and tea shops, as well as traditional French cafés and bistros. It looked no more menacing than Bradford or Rusholme in Manchester.

Legrand is proud of Roubaix, or at least of what Roubaix used to be, and has chosen to live here rather than in nearby Lille. Having been a blue-collar worker, too, he admires the noble ambitions and graft of the people who built the town. These were the original indépendants – the aspiring working class, much cherished by the FN, who believe in the values of hard work and public service. But Legrand told me that when he looks at the streets today he sees not the cluttered life of 21st-century, multicultural France but what he called “conquered territory”.

There are problems in Roubaix: 45 per cent of the town’s residents live below the official French poverty line of €977 a month. Describing the local poverty, Legrand used the term “misère”, a word that also translates as “wretchedness”. The unemployment rate is high (40 per cent in parts of town) and on a typical weekday afternoon there are many young men sitting around with nothing to do.

As we drove through some of the tougher areas, Legrand pointed out so-called Salafist mosques, most of them shielded from the streets by the high walls of disused factories. It is these places, unknown and unvisited by outsiders, which have given Roubaix its reputation for radicalism.

It is true that in the recent past Roubaix has produced many extremists. The most notorious is Lionel Dumont, a former soldier who is white and working class, and is viewed as the leader of radical Islam in the French prison system, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for terrorism offences that include trying to set off a car bomb during a G7 meeting in Lille in 1996. Islamists such as Dumont are, in effect, beyond the control of the penal authorities because French laws forbid the monitoring of prisoners on grounds of race or religion. One frustrated director of prisons in the Paris region complained to me that the French penal system was “the real engine room of radicalisation”.

The main reason why Roubaix has produced so many terrorists – including Mehdi Nemmouche, the gunman who fired the shots at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 that killed four people – is not immigration, as the Front National would have it, but geography. This part of France is depicted in the media as “a security black hole”, partly because of its proximity to the Belgian border. You can drive into Belgium from Roubaix in ten minutes, as I did with Legrand; the border is just a roundabout and unmonitored. The French and Belgian intelligence services are minutes away from each other but do not share information or collaborate properly. This allowed some of the terrorists who led the 2015 Paris attacks to escape after the killing spree.

***

Crossing the border to Belgium, you notice that the roads are lined with gleaming new warehouses belonging to Amazon and other technology companies. ­Roubaix suddenly seems like a ruin from the early 20th century. It must be difficult for its people not to feel trapped and abandoned – by the French elite to the south and the new economy to the north.

“If you live in Roubaix it is hard to feel connected to the rest of France,” said Hélène Robillard, a junior civil servant. I had come across her in the centre of town. She was leading a group of young women, merrily banging tambourines, blowing whistles and chanting slogans outside one of the
offices of the local council. They were striking against work conditions at the council, but having a laugh, too, in the best Made in Dagenham style.

I asked the women about the film Chez nous (This Is Our Land), which had been released only a few weeks earlier and was playing to packed houses across France. Set in a fictionalised town much like Roubaix, it tells the story of a young woman, Pauline Duhez, a nurse who is seduced into joining the FN and standing for a seat on the council. As she learns the party’s true positions, she becomes disillusioned and angry. The film ends with Pauline returning to the socialist values of her unemployed father, a former steelworker, culminating in a family trip to watch a game featuring the local football team Lens.

The women protesting with Robillard were all determinedly anti-FN. Those who had seen the film were full of enthusiasm. “It is our real life,” said one of them, laughing. “It shows our true values – not fascism, but football, beer and chips.”

Like Pauline in the film, the FN’s Astrid Leplat is a nurse. Jean-Pierre Legrand explained to me that this was why she had been hand-picked by Marine Le Pen to stand
as a regional councillor. The party has adopted a policy of recruiting fonctionnaires (civil servants), especially those who work in the health and support services. This is partly to demonstrate that the FN has left behind its neo-Nazi origins and is now the party of everyday folk, but also to undermine PS dominance of the public services.

When I asked Leplat why she supported the FN, she said that she had witnessed the disastrous effects of repeated budget cuts on hospitals, with overstretched departments and increasingly run-down facilities. “The Front National are there to protect us,” she said.

Leplat told me she hadn’t seen Chez nous and that she probably wouldn’t, because it would upset her. There were also political reasons why she didn’t want to see it: it had been financed with public money from Hauts-de-France, the northern region that covers Roubaix, as well as the television companies France 2 and France 3. When I pointed out that most French cinema relies on public subsidy, she argued that the film’s release had been deliberately timed to undermine the February launch of the FN’s presidential campaign.

“How else can this be explained?” she said. “The Front National is always persecuted by the establishment elites in culture and politics.”

***

Back in Paris, as part of a documentary I was making for BBC Radio 4, I interviewed Émilie Dequenne, the actress who plays Pauline in Chez nous, and the film’s director, Lucas Belvaux. We met at the production company’s office just off the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the swish heart of Paris – a corner of the city that couldn’t be further removed from the streets of Roubaix. But both Dequenne and Belvaux are intimately connected with the region and the northern working-class life, because they grew up near the Franco-Belgian border and still have family ties there. I asked them whether the FN had a point about the film.

“The film is not ambiguous,” Dequenne said. “It is clearly a warning about being ­seduced by the far right. But it also has lots of [different] ambiguities. The main character, Pauline, is a good person, and not stupid. She wants to help people. She thinks that this is not the case with the main pol­itical parties. So she is attracted by a party that seems to care.”

“I agree it is a warning,” Belvaux said. “We are not yet a fascist country, but I do fear that this could happen.

“There are big social and cultural divisions in France. Not everybody who will vote for the Front National is a bad person, but there are many angry people in this country who feel hurt and damaged. When this is the case, fascism can arrive much more quickly than you think.”

Until now, voting for the FN has been a sign of protest, historically a safety valve for releasing discontent. Whenever the FN has got near to victory, right and left have come together as a bloc to exclude it from power. This is what happened in 2002, of course, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the then leader of the FN, made it through to the second round of the presidential elections. Jacques Chirac won the run-off with 82 per cent of the vote, despite accusations of corruption. The rallying cry across all non-FN political lines was: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!” Yet there is no guarantee that this will happen again, because Marine Le Pen has successfully reinvented and rebranded the FN, making it more acceptable to mainstream voters.

Even if Marine loses, there is another danger. If those French parties of the left and right which historically have been strongest continue to implode, there will be a new constituency of voters who in future will be “homeless”. Even if Macron wins – having blurred the lines between right and left – he will disappoint at some stage. When this happens, those who supported him may not find their way back to the established parties, thus opening up an avenue to power for the far right. Sylvain Bourmeau, an associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, told me that this was part of the Front National’s long-term strategy.

The withering of a historically strong party has already happened in the UK, where voters’ movement to Ukip and the SNP has undermined, if not destroyed, Labour as a national force. Marine Le Pen has already voiced her admiration for Ukip for “breaking the mould”. However, it is important to remember that the FN is not “populist” in the way that Ukip, or indeed Donald Trump, is. Nor are Roubaix and the north of France the same as the “rust belt” of the United States.

Rather, the present conflicts in France are ideological, with roots in the antagonisms and turmoil of French history. The FN’s ultimate goal is to get rid of the present French Republic – the result of the “mistake” of the “liberal revolution” of 1789. In other words, the promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité is to be replaced by an “awakening”, which would lead to a “national movement”: that is, the rebirth of the French nation. The FN is not just about racism, immigration or identity: it wants to send French history into reverse gear.

That is how high the stakes are, and why the coming elections are the most important in France since the Second World War. There is a generalised tension right now – the tension that I encountered on my bike on my own street in southern Paris – which sometimes finds expression in gang violence, anti-police riots and even terrorism, all fuelling the rise of the FN.

For all the polls, signs and omens, it is ­impossible to predict the election result. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, with the old political certainties melting away, it seems more than ever that France is set on a long and unstoppable journey into darkness. L

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada” (Granta Books). He lives in Paris. His documentary “Culture, Class and Le Pen” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 April (8pm)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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