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Why empires fall: from ancient Rome to Putin's Russia

Moscow, to western eyes, does not look much like Rome. But if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can be felt, it is Russia.

Great pretender? Barack Obama seems a modern incarnation of a line of ambitious imperatores whose powers are all too mortal.

When did the Roman empire end? It is still possible to find history books that give a very precise answer to this question. The curtain came down on the Roman empire, so it is usually claimed, on 4 September 476, when a young man by the name of Romulus Augustulus was formally stripped of the imperial purple by a Gothic chieftain and packed off to retirement near Naples. The accident of his name, in this particular version of Rome’s fall, provides the perfect bookend to a thousand years and more of the Roman story. Romulus, after all, had been the founder of the Eternal City, Augustus her first emperor. Now, with the deposition of Augustulus – “the little Augustus” – the line of emperors had come to an end. The light-switch had been turned off. Antiquity was over; the Dark Ages had begun.

In fact, in almost every way that it can be, dating the fall of the Roman empire to a particular day in 476 is wrong. On the most pedantic level, the title “last Roman emperor of the west” should properly belong not to Romulus Augustulus at all, but to a Balkan warlord, named Julius Nepos, who was murdered in 480. Meanwhile, in Rome itself, life carried on pretty much as normal. Consuls continued to be elected, the senate to sit, chariot races to be held in the Circus Maximus. Most saliently of all, in the eastern half of the Mediterranean, the Roman empire was still strong. Ruled from a city pointedly christened the Second Rome, it remained the greatest power of its day. Constantinople had many centuries of life in it yet as a Roman capital.

It turns out, in short, that the fall of Rome is to human history what the end of the dinosaurs is to natural history: the prime example of an extinction that nevertheless, when one looks at it more closely, turns out to be more complicated than one might have thought. If it is true, after all, that birds are, in a sense, dinosaurs, then it destabilises our notion of the asteroid strike at the end of the Cretaceous era as a guillotine dropping on the neck of the Mesozoic. Likewise, the notion of a Romanitas, a “Roman-ness”, surviving into the Middle Ages, and perhaps beyond, upsets the categorisation of the Roman empire that most of us have as a phenomenon purely of the ancient world.

It is important, of course, not to take revisionism too far. Just as a wren is no tyrannosaur, so was, say, the England of Bede incalculably different from the Roman province of Britannia. “Transformation”, the word favoured by many historians to describe the decline of Roman power, hardly does the process justice. The brute facts of societal collapse are written both in the history of the period and in the material remains. An imperial system that had endured for centuries imploded utterly; barbarian kingdoms were planted amid the rubble of what had once been Roman provinces; paved roads, central heating and decent drains vanished for a millennium and more. So, it is not unreasonable to characterise the fall of the Roman empire in the west as the nearest thing to an asteroid strike that history has to offer.

One striking measure of this – the degree to which it was indeed, in the words of the historian Aldo Schiavone, “the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilisation, a rupture of incalculable proportions” – is that even today it determines how everyone in the west instinctively understands the notion of empire. What rises must fall. This seems to most of us almost as much a law in the field of geopolitics as it is in physics. Every western country that has ever won an empire or a superpower status for itself has lived with a consciousness of its own mortality.

In Britain, which only a century ago ruled the largest agglomeration of territory the world has ever seen, we have particular cause. Back in 1897, at the seeming pinnacle of the empire on which the sun never set, subject peoples from the across the world gathered in London to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. Rudyard Kipling, the supposed laureate of imperialism, wrote a poem, “Recessional”, to mark the occasion – but it was the very opposite of jingoistic. Instead, it looked to the future in sombre and (as it turned out) prophetic terms:

Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Today, in Washington, DC, precisely the same anxieties are being aired – and the example of Rome is often explicitly cited. In 2007, the then comptroller general of the US, David Walker, gave a bleak assessment of the nation’s prospects. America, he claimed, was afflicted by precisely the problems that he saw as responsible for the collapse of Rome: “declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”.

American self-confidence seems to have clawed back at least some lost ground since then. Nevertheless, pessimism remains the default setting at the moment in both the US and the west as a whole. When a country’s capital city boasts a Senate and a Capitol Hill, the example of Rome’s decline and fall is always going to be lurking somewhere at the back of the mind.

Yet those who assume it to be an inevitable fact of nature that all empires, sooner or later, will come to share the fate of Rome need only look at America’s chief rival for the title of 21st-century hegemon to see that it ain’t necessarily so.

The People’s Republic of China, unlike the states of the modern west, stands recognisably in a line of descent from an ancient empire. Three years ago, a professor at the National Defence University in Beijing – a colonel by the name of Liu Mingfu – published a book about China’s future called The China Dream.

The title was an obvious riff on the ideal of the American dream; but the Chinese equivalent, it turns out, is as much about drawing sustenance from the past as about looking to the future. Unity at home, projection of strength abroad, the organic fusion of soft and hard power: these, according to the colonel, are in the DNA of Chinese greatness. How does he know this? Why, by looking to ancient history – and specifically to the example of Qin Shi Huangdi, the so-called First Emperor, who back in the 3rd century BC united China, embarked on the Great Wall, and established a template of leadership that even Mao admired.

Wild warrior of Leningrad: Vladmir Putin is undisputed king of Moscow, the "Third Rome". Image: Reuters/Ria Novosti.

It is as though US commentators, trying to plot a course ahead for their country, were to look to Caesar Augustus as an exemplar. The reason they would never do that is obvious. The US, for all that it has a Senate and a Capitol, is self-consciously a young country, planted in a new world. But China is old, and knows that it is old. Dynasties may have come and gone, waves of barbarians may have washed over it again and again, the emperor himself may have been replaced by a general secretary – but no rupture such as separates Barack Obama from ancient Rome divides Xi Jinping from the First Emperor. The “China dream”, in its essence, is simply the dream that the “Middle Kingdom” will regain what many Chinese see as her ancient birthright: a global primacy, at the heart of world affairs.

There is a taste here, perhaps – just the faintest, most tantalising taste – of a counterfactual: one in which Rome did not fall. That China was able to survive conquest by the Mongols and the Manchus demonstrates just how deep the roots of a civilisation can reach. What about the Romans in the heyday of their empire: did they have the same kind of confidence in the permanence of their empire the Chinese have always had? And if they did – what happened to that confidence?

People in antiquity were certainly aware that civilisations could rise and fall. It is, in a sense, the great geopolitical theme of the Bible. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet dreams that he sees four beasts emerge in succession from a raging sea; and an angel explains to him that each beast represents a kingdom. The fourth beast, so Daniel is told, symbolises the mightiest empire of all; and yet, for all that, it will end up destroyed “and given to the burning flame”. Gold and purple, in the Bible, are cast as merely the winding-sheets of worldly greatness.

The Greeks, too, with the example of the sack of Troy before them, were morbidly aware how impermanent greatness might be. Herodotus, the first man to attempt a narrative of how and why empires succeed one another that did not look primarily to a god for its explanations, bookends his great history with telling passages on the precariousness of civilisations. “Human foundations both great and insignificant will need to be discussed,” he declares at the start of his first book. “Most of those that were great once have since slumped into decline, and those that used to be insignificant have risen, within my own lifetime, to rank as mighty powers. I will pay equal attention to both, for human beings and prosperity never endure side by side for long.”

Then, in the very last paragraph of his history, he provides what is, in essence, the first materialist theory as to why civilisations should succeed and fail. The Persians, having conquered a great empire, want to move from their harsh mountains to a richer land – but Cyrus, their king, forbids it. “Soft lands breed soft men.” It is a perspective that Herodotus has been tracing throughout his account of civilisational vicissitude, using it to explain why the Persians were able to conquer the Lydians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, only to come to grief against the poverty-stricken but hardy Greeks. Implicit in his narrative, written at a time when Athens was at her peak of glory, is a warning: where other great powers have gone, the Athenians will surely follow.

The Romans signalled their arrival on the international stage by fighting three terrible wars with a rival west Mediterranean people: the Carthaginians. At the end of the third war, in 146BC, they succeeded in capturing Carthage, and levelling it to the ground. This was the great fulfilment of Rome’s military aims. In 216BC Rome had almost been brought to defeat by Hannibal, Carthage’s most formidable general – a brush with civilisational death that her people would never forget.

In these circumstances, the destruction of Rome’s deadliest enemy was an exultant moment. Nevertheless, it is said of the Roman general who torched Carthage that he wept as he watched her burn and quoted lines from Homer on the fall of Troy. Then he turned to a Greek companion. “I have a terrible foreboding,” so he confessed, “that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my country.”

There were many, as the Romans continued to expand their rule across the Mediterranean, who found themselves hoping that the presentiment was an accurate one. Rome was a brutal and domineering mistress, and the increasing number of much older civilisations under her sway unsurprisingly felt much resentment of her autocratic ways. Greek traditions of prophecy began to blend with Jewish ones to foretell the empire’s inevitable doom. “Civil tumults will engulf her people,” so it was foretold, “and everything will collapse.”

A century on from the burning of Car­thage, in the mid-1st century BC, it seemed that these oracles had been speaking the truth. Rome and her empire were engulfed by civil war. In one particular bloody campaign, it has been estimated, a quarter of all citizens of military age were fighting on one side or the other. No wonder that, amid such slaughter, even the Romans dared to contemplate the end of their empire. “The Roman state, just like all states, is doomed to die.” So wrote the poet Virgil amid the horrors of the age.

But the Roman state did not die. In the event, the decades of civil war were brought to an end, and a new and universal era of peace was proclaimed. Rome, and the known world with it, were brought under the rule of a single man, Imperator Caesar Augustus: the first man in what was to be a long line of imperatores, “victorious generals” – “emperors”.

Virgil, perhaps because he had gazed into the abyss of civil war and understood what anarchy meant, proved a worthy laureate of the new age. He reminded the Roman people of their god-given destiny: “To impose the works and ways of peace, to spare the vanquished and to overthrow the haughty by means of war.”

By the time that Rome celebrated its millennium in AD248, the presumption that the city’s rule was eternal had come to be taken for granted by the vast majority of her subjects – most of whom, by this point, regarded themselves as Romans. “Everywhere,” as one provincial put it, addressing the Eternal City, “you have made citizens of those who rank as the noblest, most accomplished and powerful of peoples. All the world has been adorned by you as a pleasure garden.”

In the event, the garden would turn to brambles and weeds. Intruders would smash down the fences. New tenants would carve up much of it between themselves.

Yet the dream of Rome did not fade. Its potency was too strong for that. “A Goth on the make wishes to be like a Roman – but only a poor Roman would wish to be like a Goth.” So spoke Theodoric, successor to the king who had deposed Romulus Augustulus: a man who combined a most German-looking moustache with the robes and regalia of a caesar. He was not the first barbarian to find in the memory of Rome – the splendour of its monuments, the vastness of its sway, the sheer conceit of its pretensions – the only conceivable model for an upwardly mobile king to ape.

Indeed, one could say that the whole history of the early-medieval west is understood best as a series of attempts by various warlords to square the grandeur of their Roman ambitions with the paucity of their resources. There was Charlemagne, who not only had himself crowned as emperor in Rome on Christmas Day AD800, but plundered the city of pillars for his own capital back in Aachen. Then there was Otto I, the great warrior king of the Saxons, a hairy-chested lion of a man, who in 962 was also crowned in Rome. The line of emperors that he founded did not expire until 1806, when the Holy Roman empire, as it had first become known in the 13th century, was terminated by Napoleon.

“Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” Voltaire quipped. Yet the joke was not quite fair. There had been a time when it was all three. Otto III, grandson and namesake of the old Saxon king, crowned in 996 and charged with the rule of Christendom during the millennial anniversary of Christ’s birth, was nothing if not a Roman emperor.

He lived on the Palatine Hill, just as Augustus had done a thousand years before him; he revived the titles of “consul” and “senator”. He had himself betrothed to a princess from the Second Rome, Constantinople. His death in 1002, before his marriage could serve to join the eastern and western empires, left hanging one of history great “what-ifs”. Otto III’s ambition of reviving the Roman empire had been the great theme of his reign. Tantalising, then, to ponder what might have happened if he had succeeded in joining it to the eastern Roman empire – the empire that, unlike his own, could trace a direct line of descent from ancient Rome.

***

Today, when we use the adjective “Byzantine” to describe this empire, we risk obscuring the degree to which the people we call “Byzantines” saw themselves as Romaioi – Romans. It was not, however, to the Rome of Julius Caesar and Cicero they looked back, but to that of the great Christian emperors: Constantine, the founder of their capital, and Theodosius the Great, who at the end of the 4th century had been the last man to rule both east and west. In that sense, it was indeed the capital of a Roman empire that fell to Mehmet II, the Turkish sultan, when in 1453 he stormed the great walls built by Theodosius’s grandson a thousand years earlier to gird Constantinople, the “Queen of Cities”. It was indeed the last territorial fragment of the Roman empire that was conquered when, in 1461, the tiny Byzantine statelet of Trebizond was absorbed into the Ottoman empire. At last, a story that had begun more than 2,000 years earlier on a hill beside the Tiber was brought to a definitive end by Turkish guns on the shore of the Black Sea.

Or was it? The Turks were not the first to have laid siege to Constantinople. Back in 941, adventurers known as Rus’, Vikings who had travelled the long river-route down from the Baltic to the Bosphorus, had similarly attacked the city. Their assault had failed; but Miklagard, Caesar’s golden capital, continued to haunt their imaginings. In 986, one of their princes sent a fact-finding mission. Volodymyr was the lord of a rough-hewn frontier town named Kyiv – and he had decided that the time had come for him to join the community of nations.

But which community? He had invited Jews to his court; but after questioning them said their loss of Jerusalem was a sign they had been abandoned by God. He had invited Muslims; but was appalled to learn that their religion would not permit him to eat pork or to drink (as he frankly told them, “drinking is the joy of the Rus’ ”). He had sent envoys to the churches of the west; but there, so they reported back, “we saw no beauty”. Only in Constantinople, in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had Volodymyr’s ambassadors discovered a spectacle worthy of their master’s ambitions.

“We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty. We only know that God dwells there among men . . . we cannot forget that beauty.”

So began a commitment on the part of the Rus’ to the Orthodox faith of the Second Rome that was to have enduring consequences into the present. Volodymyr had recently captured from the Byzantines the city of Chersonesus in the Crimea, originally founded as a Greek colony way back in the 6th century BC. He restored it to the emperor; and in exchange, it is said, received baptism in the city, together with the hand of Caesar’s sister. A momentous step. Never before had a Byzantine princess been given in marriage to a barbarian. The precedent it set was one that the Rus’ would never forget. In 1472, almost two decades after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the niece of the last emperor of the Second Rome was married to Ivan III of Muscovy. “Two Romes have fallen.” So a Russian monk, in 1510, would gravely tell their son. “The Third Rome, though, stands – nor will there ever be a Fourth.”

***

Moscow, to western eyes, does not look very much like Rome. There is no Senate there, no Capitol Hill. No buildings, as they do in Paris or Washington, seek to ape the look of Augustan Rome. Even so, if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can still be felt as a palpable influence on its leader’s policy, it is Russia. In 1783, when Catherine the Great annexed Crimea, it was in pursuit of a decidedly Roman dream: that of restoring the Byzantine empire under the two-headed eagle on her own banner. “You have attached the territories,” Potemkin wrote to her, “which Alexander and Pompey just glanced at, to the baton of Russia, and Chersonesus – the source of our Christianity, and thus of our humanity – is now in the hands of its daughter.” No one, as yet, has written in quite these terms to Putin; but if someone did, it would not be entirely a surprise.

Today, here in the west, dreams of restoring a Roman empire are gone for good. The shadows they cast are too grim. The most recent political philosophy to be inspired by them, and which even took its name from the bundle of rods with an axe carried by the bodyguards of Roman magistrates, was developed only in the 20th century: fascism. With Mussolini and Hitler, the millennia-old tradition in the west of looking to the Roman empire for a model reached a hideous climax – and then expired.

Yet if the First Rome is long gone, and the Second Rome, too, the Third, it turns out, retains an unexpected capacity to lurch up out of its grave. Even in the 21st century, the Roman empire clings to a certain ghoulish afterlife yet.

Tom Holland’s translation of Herodotus’s “Histories” is published by Penguin Classics (£25)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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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