Stitch-up

Britain's US ambassador leaves after four years dogged by Iraq. David Manning talks exclusively to J

David Manning greets me warmly as he strides into the ornate drawing room of his Lutyens residence. This is known as the decompression chamber, the room where he would sit down with Tony Blair and other aides at the end of a prime ministerial visit to Washington. I have known Manning for nearly two decades, since Moscow and the collapse of communism. Since then his career has taken him to Israel, to Blair's right hand and to the Iraq war. He is now leaving the diplomatic service after four years in the most coveted post of all.

I ask him what he has learned about his time in the United States. Does he agree with a recent article by David Miliband in the NS, in which the new Foreign Secretary talked of a shifting balance of power, with America on the wane as China, Russia and India grow more assertive? Manning suggests rumours of the death of America have been greatly exaggerated. "It's very easy to underestimate the power of this country to reinvent itself. There is still an extraordinary energy here. If you want something done, America is still the place to come and look for the pioneering new technology, the capital formation, the people who will take the risks."

As for the so-called special relationship, he says it remains special "at all sorts of levels", notably through economic ties and intelligence-sharing. But he is also keen to point out the differences. "One has to be careful not to say that the United States is the UK on steroids. We are different societies. It's very important to understand where we're different as well as where we see things the same." He talks of a "profound difference in the view of the role of the state, role of religion, and social mores such as gay marriage". Then he brings up the "p" word. "All the time I have been here we have seen the poodlism charge. It's a very simplistic view of the political and broader relationship. We have a natural affinity and a natural friendship, but we're very different, too. It doesn't help either of us to pretend that it isn't true."

He cites areas of diplomatic divergence. "We don't see eye to eye on the importance of a multilateral approach. We want to live in an international system that is predictable, that is very clearly rules-based. We join every club that's going." The Americans, by contrast, talk about coalitions of the willing. "There is much more of a debate here about 'why don't we do this unilaterally?'," he says. Each country has "a different approach to engagement" towards countries such as Cuba and Iran. "We feel you have to engage with people you disagree with profoundly. [Here] there's much more likely to be a view which is 'keep these people at arm's length'." On climate change: "When I came here there were pretty profound arguments about the science. Those have changed. But it's still very difficult here to get people to accept our line of argument that you can't solve this on new technologies alone; you can't do this alone on a voluntary basis. You're going to have to have mandatory emission caps, a carbon-trading system."

Testy exchanges

Manning was at Robin Cook's side when, as foreign secretary, Cook earned the opprobrium of the Israelis, and the more muted displeasure of the Americans, by meeting Palestinians at a planned Jewish settlement in Jerusalem in 1998. Manning has rarely concurred with the White House on Israel, but has been far too discreet to let his views be known in public. Even with Blair there have been spats. Last summer, Manning was in despair, as were a number of cabinet ministers, over the prime minister's refusal to criticise Israel for invading Lebanon. Eventually, after some testy exchanges, he helped to alter the British position with the call for an immediate ceasefire.

"We've never hidden the fact that we take a different view [from that of the Americans] about Palestine. We think this is a dispute about land, not just about terrorism. We have tried hard to push this in ways that have not always been welcome here." The outgoing ambassador makes the following appeal to those who will follow him, using language US politicians would not dare utter: "It is vital to signal to the Palestinians themselves that we care about justice for them. It is vital that we say to the Israelis we absolutely accept that you've got to have a guaranteed right to exist; we've got to show the Arab world that we really care about this problem. It's very important in the overall relationship we have with Muslims around the world, because this is, naturally, a completely neuralgic point for them. That affects our discussions about terrorism, radicalisation, whatever you want."

A diminutive, soft-spoken man, Manning seems haunted by the failure to shift the US approach (see Andrew Stephen's article on why America is afraid of the Israel lobby). "Is it a sadness to me that I sit here, 12 years after I went to Israel, and we are still stuck where we are? You bet." Blair's attempts to engage Bush on Israel-Palestine are well documented, but he took the view that disagreements should be kept in private. Given the differences that Manning talks of, I suggest the public may have been misled about the state of the relationship. "I think that's true," he says. "I don't have a ready remedy for that." He adds: "If you accept my thesis that it is better for both sides to be clear where we disagree, then I'm perfectly happy with that. I don't think the relationship will diminish . . . if we are clear about where we have differences. I don't think there's been much of an interest in the UK in highlighting difference. The story has been: we're poodles. It's hardly as if we've been sitting here pretending that we're some kind of echo chamber for American policy."

So why did Blair act the way he did? The answer is part calculation, part personality. "You have to be aware there's also the danger that if you go round trumpeting that you've changed people's views then there's a backlash." He cites the British presidency of the G8 in 2005. "I doubt very much people around here were thrilled that he chose climate change and Africa as the themes." Blair, he said, pursued his priorities, but did not advertise the differences. "Do we think that shouting loudly will make it work better? On the whole, British politicians don't do it that way."

Few people saw Blair more frequently, more intensely, than Manning during his two years as his foreign policy adviser, a period that began in the week of 11 September 2001 and ended a few months after the Iraq war. "You have to understand Blair the person before you get into this. A lot of what he was doing with Bush, he was doing with Clinton. Blair was very clear about the doctrine of liberal interventionism. This was not something . . . invented to justify close relations with George Bush. You have to understand he believed very strongly."

How is it that Manning, whom many consider to be one of the wisest and most decent men in public life, was party to the greatest foreign policy catastrophe of modern times? I never imagined he would succumb to Blair's Manichaean world-view, but even now some of that slips in. "It's a curiosity that people have lost the memory of the fact that the Labour Party has very strong views about dealing with dictators, fascists and people who trample on human rights. And Saddam was a monster. We tend to forget this," he says.

Even though he signed up to the theory, Manning was careful to point out the dangers from early on in 2002. What of Blair and the intelligence that led to war? "He believed the WMD story. It's not true that it was made up and that he always knew it was made up. Was it wrong? Yes. But the idea that he somehow sat down and confected this story and that was the justification for the policy he opted for is not true." By his own admission, Manning, "as a consumer", was just as enthusiastic about the information being processed by the Joint Intelligence Committee. Yet he makes a curious admission. "Were we wrong about WMDs? Yes, but we don't have a very good track record on intelligence on Iraq." This dates back to the first Gulf War, when nobody was prepared for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. "That was a pretty bad mistake," he says. If that was the case, why was the intelligence not treated with more circumspection this time around? "The tendency had always been to underestimate what Saddam was up to."

I ask Manning to confirm that Blair signed up in principle to Bush's war aims when they met at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, a full 11 months before the war began. Manning denies this. "If he did, he didn't do it in my hearing." He concedes that prime minister and president dined alone that night, but says that when Blair gave him a read-out afterwards, "He didn't talk to me as a prime minister saying to me, 'I've made up to mind we're going to war with Iraq.'" Indeed, he says that even in late 2002 Blair suggested to Bush that if WMD searches by the UN's chief inspector Hans Blix suceeded, military action might be unecessary - except that it would transpire that Blix would not find anything, because there was nothing to find.

Make peace, not war

Manning then makes a remarkable claim. Blair was desperate for a second resolution at the UN Security Council, not just to give him cover for war, but because, in his heart of hearts, he did not want military action. "Until very late he hoped there would be an international coalition that would work through the UN." He hoped pressure would be applied, so that either Saddam would quit of his own accord or neighbouring countries would help push him out. Blair "was always in favour of regime change, but that did not mean he always wanted regime change through military means. He must have known it might come to military action, but I have always believed he hoped and probably believed there was a way of getting there by using the UN to put pressure on Saddam. I don't think he ever wanted to go by the military route." In the end he had no choice. He was boxed in, worried about transatlantic splits. "He knew what the stakes were. He accepted it might come to this, but he always wanted to do it in a different way. I've always believed he would much rather it hadn't taken place."

This story is one of tragedy, rather than lies or hubris. Manning provides one more example to support his case. Blair, he suggests, was in effect deceived by the White House and the neoconservatives over plans for the reconstruction of Iraq.

In summer 2002, Blair sent Manning for a rare one-to-one with Bush to express his misgivings. There were, as Manning wrote in a leaked memo, no plans for "the morning after". Bush assured the British that he was on the case. The state department was entrusted with the task of preparing for postwar nation-building. Blair put great faith in the moderate secretary of state, Colin Powell. Neither man was a match for Dick Cheney, the vice-president, nor for Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary.

Even as the defence department (DoD) prepared to take over the running of Iraq, using Rumsfeld's infamous "invasion-lite" idea, Blair and Manning were being assured by Bush that the state department would take the lead role and that he was "very confident" about the postwar plans. They believed him. "We now know that the preparations were all blocked. There were plans made and deployed in the state department, but in the end the state department wasn't allowed to take the job."

I suggest to him that Bush and the neocons had pulled a fast one on Blair, and he provides a less-than-fulsome denial. "Was it a double-cross? I don't think they set out to double-cross the prime minister. I don't think that is true. I think what you see here is confusion. I've never entirely understood what happened, but I assume that, in some kind of inter-agency discussion, Rumsfeld's DoD said: 'We're going to do this.' I did not know that the DoD was going to take over the running of the country. We didn't have any sense that that was about to be the way postwar Iraq was going to be run."

The mood in Downing Street changed early on during the occupation, when the looting began. "That was the moment I remember having real feelings of disquiet. Then we got very concerned when we heard the army was being disbanded and when we heard that de-Ba'athification was going ahead on the scale it was." It was in these critical weeks that the long-term aims of the war were undermined. "Was a key period mishandled and opportunities lost? Yes. I don't think anybody can see that the immediate postwar situation was anything other than a failure. We had hoped that rapidly the situation would stabilise, that it would be possible to introduce reconciliation, get the economy moving quickly and rebuild society. Did it happen quickly? No, we failed. We were over-optimistic, as we perhaps were after the collapse of the Soviet Union, about the powers of this place to regenerate itself."

Iraq has left its mark on Manning. He does his best to defend the decision, suggesting that "the story isn't over yet" and that it may not be a failure in the long term. He is similarly protective of his former boss. "Iraq casts a very long shadow for him," he says, and hopes that Blair's legacy will take into account achievements such as Northern Ireland. "I admired him. He did not blow with the wind."

The Bush administration, he says, has shown more dex terity post-Iraq. He points to its readiness to use diplomacy in dealing with North Korea. On Iran, the Americans "have come in behind the Europeans" and "it is wrong to say they have only one mode of operation". Will it come to military action against the Iranians? "I don't see any intention on their part to use hard power on Iran . . . Of course there are pressures, but there is no sign for the moment that that is where the president is." He also says: "I would like to see a bolder effort by all of us to engage with Iran more broadly, so that the nuclear file becomes just one area of the dossier."

New man

Manning will be replaced in early October by Nigel Sheinwald, an altogether different character. After Christopher Meyer's showmanship and Manning's earnestness, Britain's interests in Washington will be represented by more of a bruiser. Perhaps that will be in keeping with Gordon Brown's cooler, more pragmatic dealings with the White House. Manning says both Bush and Brown described their first meeting at Camp David to him as "fine" - hardly a ringing endorsement.

Certainly, I find the mood in Washington more testy than at any recent time. Just as the British withdraw from Basra, much to the fury of the White House, so the Americans - from their military chief in Iraq, David Petraeus, to Bush - proclaim that their "surge" is working. The split could not be more pronounced. "You're right, it's not as close yet," Manning admits. "Personal relations of that kind don't develop in the same way, but you'll find a regular pattern of consultations. Life dictates they'll have to get close."

I ask Manning what has changed in his three decades in the service. When he started, Britain was "really struggling. In 1975 doing this job involved trying to explain why the lights had been switched off." Then, the Cold War was in full swing. Now, he points to a Europe "whole and free" (to use a phrase coined by George Bush Sr), the re-emergence of China and a flourishing Indian democracy. "Many more people have been taken out of poverty. Eastern Europeans don't get the knock on the door at midnight. By any measure there are a lot more democracies." This is, he says, "a better world".

He sounds several warnings, however. The west remains poor at handling post-conflict reconstruction; it has failed to deal with energy security, or with Islamic radicalisation and terrorism. Russia, he says, has become a dispiriting example of big money meets nationalism. During Vladimir Putin's first years in power, Blair took pains to win him over - tea with the Queen in London and visits to a beer bar in Russia. Wasn't this a classic case of Blairite charm over substance? "I don't think it was naive," Manning says. "There were serious attempts to engage. It just hasn't worked out. The mood has changed," he says, pointing to the rise in the oil price. "It is easier to be nationalistic when you're rich than when you're poor." The real mistakes were made during the early 1990s. On privatisation, "We were too dogmatic. We were in too much of a hurry. That sort of change, in a system that has been totalitarian for 75 years, takes time to work itself out."

One of Manning's projects on his return to London is to push for a World Education Bank. This would be a global fund to create opportunities in developing countries, but not through the World Bank or other institutions that carry so much baggage. "We must be able to provide access to funds without our fingerprints on them." Perhaps, like Blair with his peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, this, too, is atonement for all that has gone wrong in Iraq.

Manning: the CV

Born 5 December 1949. Public school at Ardingly, followed by modern history at Oriel College, Oxford, and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bologna

Joined Foreign Office in 1972. Has also served in Paris, New Delhi, Warsaw and at Nato

His wife, Catherine, writes thrillers under the nom de plume Elizabeth Ironside

Was in charge of Moscow embassy on first day of 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev

Foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair, 2001-2003

UK ambassador to the US, 2003-2007

Research by Matt Sandy

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq

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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