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Tom Holland on our island story: what England and Scotland share politically and morally

Magna Carta and the Declaration of Arbroath, Boswell and Johnson, Walter Scott and Disraeli – Scotland and England have long mirrored each other in many ways, says Tom Holland. 

Making of a myth: the Wallace Monument near Stirling commemorates the 13th-century hero of Scottish independence

 

The Tarbat Peninsula, a spit of land sticking out from the northernmost Scottish Highlands, seems an unlikely spot for a revolution. At its tip stands a lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle back in 1830 after a deadly storm in the adjacent Moray Firth; a few miles south lies the tiny fishing village of Portmahomack. Most visitors there today are tourists, attracted by its picturesque harbour and sandy beach; but back in the mid-6th century it was the scene of a momentous experiment.

A band of ascetics, wandering enthusiasts for an exotic new religion named Christianity, arrived at the court of a local king. Simultaneously intrigued and suspicious, he granted them some unwanted land on which to found a community. “The Haven of Saint Colmóc” – “Port Mo Chalmaig” – was the first ever monastery on the coast of Easter Ross. For 250 years, until it was destroyed by a terrible fire at the beginning of the 9th century, Portmahomack was one of the most celebrated places in Britain.

That it is impossible to be certain who either the king or “Saint Colmóc” was reminds us just how dark the Dark Ages can be. Various shocking details were reported of the people among whom Portmahomack was founded. It was said that they had come from Scythia; that they fought naked; that they were ruled by women who kept whole troupes of husbands. Most notoriously of all, they were reported to tattoo themselves: a barbarous habit that had led them to being nicknamed “Picti”, or “painted people”. A people more hostile to the norms of southern lands it would have been hard to imagine. Even the Romans had given up trying to tame them. Yet where the legions had failed, a hardy band of monks had succeeded. An outpost of Mediterranean culture had been successfully planted in the farthest north.

The coming of Christianity to Pictland was part of a much broader process that ultimately united the whole of Great Britain in a common religious culture. Pagan rulers, when they submitted to baptism, were rarely signing up to the poverty and pacifism preached by monks. What appealed instead was the awesome potency of the Christian God. Membership of the Church attracted those with broad horizons and a taste for self-enrichment.

Yet conversion to Christianity was never a one-way street. At Portmahomack, the missionaries were influenced by native customs, as well as vice versa. The tradition of holy men possessed of a privileged relationship to the supernatural was not unknown to the Picts. Even the tonsure worn by the monks derived from the Druids. The very stonework of the monastery was incised with patterns already ancient when the Romans had first arrived in Britain. The decision to become Christian did not, for the peoples of Pictland, imply surrender to an alien power. Rather, it reflected a creative engagement with the world beyond their various kingdoms.

In the words of Martin Carver, the archaeologist who led the recent excavation of Portmahomack, “People were arguing about their future, choosing with whom to align, and expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds.”

Today, when the people of erstwhile Pictland are once again arguing about their future and choosing with whom to align (albeit not necessarily expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds), it is valuable to remember just how protracted the emergence of a united kingdom within Great Britain was. The Act of Union between England and Scotland was only the final waymark on a journey that had begun as the island was becoming Christian. The notion back then of unifying it as a single kingdom would have appeared laughable. The Picts, so the great Northumbrian historian Bede reported, were only one of four different groups of people who inhabited Britain – and these four peoples were in turn forever fighting among themselves. The English, according to tradition, were like the Picts in being divided up into seven kingdoms; the Welsh, despite ruling a huge stretch of western Britain, from the Severn all the way to the mighty rock of Dumbarton, were even more balkanised; the Scots, penned in to what is now Argyll, were so isolated from their landward neighbours by the mountains of the central Highlands that they ended up inventing an Irish ancestry for themselves. Great Britain in the early Middle Ages could hardly have been more fragmented.

In this way, inevitably, the process by which a bewildering multitude of fractious statelets came to be forged into twin united kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south of the island, was bloody and complex. Perhaps, if the Vikings had not descended on Britain, it would never have happened. The destruction visited on Portmahomack, which was almost certainly their doing, was repeated across the island. Whole kingdoms went down in flames. Where there was ruin, however, there was also opportunity. The kings of Wessex, the only English rulers to stand proof against the Viking firestorm, succeeded in fashioning out of the rubble left by the invaders a united “Angle Land”. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, could plausibly claim to be Rex totius Britanniae – “king of the whole of Britain”.

Nevertheless, there soon emerged limits to the reach of the precocious new English state. The northernmost marches of Angle Land were remote from its centre of gravity in the southern lowlands. The great rock of Edinburgh, which had been in English hands since the 7th century, was lost to it soon after Athelstan’s death. So, too, some six decades later, was Lothian. A new power, fashioned just as England had been carved out of numerous toppled kingdoms, had arrived on the scene.

The forging of “Scot Land” was in many ways an even more remarkable achievement than that of Angle Land. By the early 12th century, three different groups of peoples, each originally speaking a different language, had come to think of themselves as “Scots”. Two of these, the Welsh and the Picts, had been subsumed so thoroughly into the Gaelic-speaking culture of their new overlords that their identities had vanished. The English-speaking population of Lothian, though, was to prove less assimilable – and with momentous consequences. It ensured that Scotland would be a kingdom of two languages, with Gaelic, in the long run, coming off second-best.

Similarly, the structures and presumptions of English kingship were destined to have a far greater influence on the emergent Scottish realm than the native traditions of the Scots. “It is almost as if,” in the impish words of James Campbell, the leading historian of the Anglo-Saxon state, “there are two Englands and one of them is called Scotland.”

 

***

 

A less provocative way of making the same point might be to say that the two rival kingdoms of Great Britain, having emerged out of such similar circumstances, were in many ways the mirror image of one another. England and Scotland, despite their consistently bloody border, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages in ways that were strikingly parallel.

Both, after the Norman conquest of 1066, had a French overlay added to their respective mixes of native cultures; both, in the 13th and 14th centuries, began to define themselves in terms of an emergent sense of national selfhood. The age of Wallace and Bruce, which more than any other period of Scottish history has inspired Scots down the ages to see themselves as distinct from the English, also highlights something else: the strikingly similar ways in which the two peoples mythologise themselves.

Edward I, whose taste for hammering the Scots was what forced them into their desperate and ultimately heroic fightback, was also the first king with an English name since 1066, and a noted enthusiast for the Matter of Britain, as the legends of Arthur were known. This was not just coincidence. Edward’s predecessors, as befitted heirs of William the Conqueror, had preferred France to Scotland as a field for throwing their weight around; yet it was clear, by the time Edward came to the throne, that Normandy and the other French possessions of the English crown were gone for good. Scotland had become, as a result, more self-consciously English – but so, too, had the people it ruled.

Tellingly, the king who had lost Normandy, Edward’s grandfather John, was the same king who had signed in 1215 a document that would end up enshrined as the very foundation stone of English liberty: Magna Carta. Edward himself, desperate to fund his wars, was forced in 1297 to reissue the “Great Charter” in return for a new tax. Then, a couple of decades later, it was the turn of Scottish barons to pose as the defenders of their people’s rights. In 1320, with the war of independence finally won, they assembled at Arbroath Abbey and set their seals on a momentous document of their own. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” so it stirringly declared, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.”

A manifesto pledge understandably popular with the SNP today; and yet, in truth, the principles articulated in the Declaration of Arbroath were quite as pan-nationalist in their implications as they were nationalist. Like Magna Carta, it came to serve the people of a British kingdom as something truly precious: an assurance that no one, not even a king, should be above the law. Understandably anglophobic in tone though it was, its ultimate significance lay in ensuring that Scots and English would end up treasuring similar ideals.

This, as their fortunes became ever more entwined in the 16th and 17th centuries, proved fundamental in providing the peoples of the twin kingdoms with a genuinely British political culture. Increasingly, to many Scots and English, what divided them came to seem of less moment than what they shared.

Granted, this did not prevent the road to a united kingdom of Great Britain from proving almost as bloodstained as the forging of Scot Land and Angle Land had been. Even though the Scottish king James VI, when he succeeded to the English throne as James I, rejoiced in describing himself as monarch of “Magna Britannia”, the failure of his son to respect the fault lines that still divided the two realms later played a critical role in the descent of both into civil war.

Under Charles I, the Protestantism that was the shared legacy of the Reformation in the two countries began to set them at each other’s throat. In Scotland, Charles’s attempt to impose the Anglican Prayer Book precipitated in 1638 a particularly startling exercise in popular democracy, as congregations across the kingdom swore to uphold a “National Covenant”, “against all sorts of persons whatsoever”.

This, naturally, cast the Scots themselves as a Chosen People – a conceit so invigorating to Scottish morale that over the following decade entire armies of Covenanters ended up intervening directly in England. There, however, the challenge facing them was not how alien their southern neighbours were, but how similar. The English were no less prone to thinking of themselves as God’s elect than the Scots – and to such crushing effect that Oliver Cromwell, after his stunning victory at Dunbar in 1650, was able for the first time to impose a political union on the whole of Great Britain.

This particular dispensation, maintained as it was at the point of a sword, did not outlast the Lord Protector; and it took two Acts of Union, one passed by the English parliament in 1706, and one by the Scottish parliament in 1707, finally to meld the two chosen peoples, Israel and Judah, into a single nation. Unpopular as this was with many in both countries, a largely loveless marriage of convenience brokered by governing and commercial elites, the fact that the Union had been secured at all suggests the degree to which differences between Scotland and England – although still eye-catching, to be sure – had become increasingly skin-deep.

To those resentful of the nation that came officially into being on May Day 1707, it was a terrible false turn. That the contours of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom still remain so clearly distinct and defined, three centuries on, has encouraged some, particularly in Scotland, to cast British identity as a kind of knotweed: alien, invasive, positively demanding to be uprooted. It is this, no doubt, that gives to so much nationalist rhetoric its decidedly 17th-century flavour. Lurking behind many of the arguments in favour of Scottish independence lurks a presumption – sometimes left unspoken, sometimes not – that the Scots are a blessedly egalitarian and moral people, denied their chance to establish a social-democratic paradise only by evil neoliberals south of the border.

That Scotland, in reality, has become ever less keen on redistributive measures the longer its government has been devolved unsettles the true believers not a jot. The hold of the Kirk may have weakened; but as in the 17th century, so in the 21st: faith rarely derives from statistics.

If the Tories stalk the nationalist imagination as equivalents of Charles I, then the Yes campaign, with its fulminations against the iniquities of London bankers and the bedroom tax, has more than an echo of the Covenanter movement. There is mileage still to be had in appealing to the Scots as a chosen people.

Detail from Rowlandson's 1786 caricature of Johnson and Boswell walking arm in arm in Edinburgh

 

***

 
Yet, for 300 years now, they – and the English and the Welsh, too – have had the chance to direct their gaze beyond the medieval limits of their respective kingdoms, and to work for the common good, not just of their own countrymen, but of all the peoples of Great Britain. So habituated have we become to our domestic stability that we forget just what an achievement it was, after the rack and ruin of the 17th century, to fashion an enduring peace across this island. In 1751, a mere six years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites had reached Derby, and five after the slaughter of Culloden, the war secretary could stand up in the Westminster parliament and praise Highland soldiers as the best in the British army.

A decade later, the most celebrated of all Anglo-Scottish friendships began when James Boswell met Dr Johnson in a Covent Garden coffee shop. There is surely no more moving or joyous expression of what the Union has meant in practice than Rowlandson’s marvellous cartoon of the two men, Walking Up the High Street. The emergent Britishness that enabled the gruffly English Johnson and the twitchily Scottish Boswell to end up sharing a sense of commonality would be fundamental, too, in enabling their countrymen, so long divided, to change the world. Enlightenment and industrialisation; empire and the spread of the English language; the defeat of fascism and the establishment of a welfare state: the achievements of the United Kingdom, for good and ill, have been on a vastly greater scale than anything achieved by England or Scotland on its own.

Not that this is necessarily an argument for maintaining the Union in its present form; indeed, for those ashamed of what Britain got up to in her swaggering heyday it can easily seem an argument for breaking it up. “Ukania”, Tom Nairn memorably termed the British state: a Ruritanian ghoul unable to escape the taint of its early-modern origins. Linda Colley argued that with many of the raisons d’être that had initially contributed to the forging of a British identity – Protestantism, empire and detestation of the French – no longer what they were, “Britain is bound now to be under immense pressure”. Perhaps – except that the circumstances that brought about the united kingdoms of England and Scotland are no longer what they were, either, yet both are still going strong. The sharing of ideals and traditions that enabled distinct nations to be forged out of the once-independent realms of Wessex and Northumbria, of Pictland and Dál Riata, have long since become the common heritage of everyone on the island. The values traced by the English back to Magna Carta, and by the Scots to the Declaration of Arbroath, were mingling and merging even before the Act of Union. Right and left in Britain: both have derived their principles from all the corners of Great Britain. They bear the imprint of Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli; of Robert Owen and Keir Hardie. The fluttering of Union Jacks over foreign battlefields was never the essence of British identity – although, as the recent D-Day commemorations showed, even that has not entirely lost its power to tug on heartstrings. It is in our shared political and moral culture that all of us who share this island are most truly British.

That culture, however, is hardly something static. Even to articulate the phrase “British values” is to be reminded that the native traditions of Great Britain are no longer the only ingredients of our mongrel identity. A millennium and more after pilgrim monks brought Christianity to Portmahomack, other religions are now in the process of becoming British. The Picts may never have originated in Scythia, as they liked to claim; but today eastern Europeans in their hundreds of thousands have settled in Britain. English identity is already proving inadequate to cope with the scale of recent immigration; nor is there any reason to think that Scottish identity will prove any more absorbent, should similar numbers start to settle north of the Border.

British identity, though, is a different matter: more recent in origin than either Englishness or Scottishness, it is baggier, more capacious, less ethnically centred than either. “Not at all, mate,” Mo Farah said when asked whether he would rather have won his Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Somalia rather than Britain. “This is my country.”

By a profoundly ironic fluke, the invented Britishness that back in the 18th century sent English and Scots out from their native island to conquer much of the world now, in the 21st century, provides the United Kingdom with something incalculably precious: a national identity as well suited as any in Europe to the welcoming and integration of newcomers. Britishness may have lost an empire; but perhaps it has found a role.

Much will depend on whether the United Kingdom holds together. The decision on that, in the short term, rests with the Scottish electorate alone. Nevertheless, all those in the rest of the island who profoundly value their bonds of citizenship with the Scots, who would be distraught to see them become foreigners, and who believe that the referendum, far from separating us, may instead enable us to repledge our vows, can but watch on in hope. British identity remains what it has always been: a journey, not an end.

Tom Holland’s latest book is “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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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