The power of progress: Paul Delaroche’s The Conquerors of the Bastille Before the Hôtel de Ville in 1789 (1839). Photo: Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée du Petit-Palais, France/Bridgeman Images
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How liberalism lost its way

What happened to a defining world-view? David Marquand examines the religious roots of an ideology.

Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism 
Larry Siedentop
Allen Lane, 448pp, £20

Liberalism: the Life of an Idea 
Edmund Fawcett
Princeton University Press, 488pp, £24.95

All over the Atlantic world, political liberalism has fallen on evil days. In the US, the creed of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy has become a sin that dare not speak its name. In last year’s German election, the Free Democratic Party – the embodiment of the country’s liberal tradition and the second party in coalition governments for most of the postwar period – won less than 5 per cent of the popular vote and is no longer represented in the federal parliament. In the 2011 Canadian election, the Liberal Party – for decades a dominant force – suffered a catastrophic defeat. The Radical Party of the Left, today the closest approximation to a liberal party in France, is little more than a pimple on the body politic. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats, heirs of the Liberal Party of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge, have clambered into bed with a market-fundamentalist Conservative Party and endured a huge slump in the opinion polls.

As Edmund Fawcett and Larry Siedentop show in different ways, the travails of political liberalism reflect a profound crisis of the liberal world-view. To put it crudely, it is no longer clear what liberalism means. Its core value is freedom – freedom for unconstrained individuals to choose for themselves. Freedom, however, is a notoriously slippery word. Freedom as a source of human flourishing is one thing; freedom to ignore the common good and exploit others is quite another. Positive freedom, or freedom “to”, is not the same as negative freedom, or freedom “from”. The great Liberal government of 1905-15 curbed the negative freedom of the privileged in order to enhance the positive freedom of the dispossessed.

Much the same is true of choice and the individual. Choices can be bad as well as good. There is a world of difference between individuals of flesh and blood, shaped by lived traditions and shared histories, and the abstract, egocentric, disembodied individual posited by the neoliberal orthodoxy of our day. Yet today’s liberals seem strangely reluctant to distinguish between good and bad choices, to make clear how they envisage the individual, or to define the proper relationship between individual freedom and the public good.

At an early stage in the French Revolution, the great Whig statesman and thinker Edmund Burke declared that he was for the “splendid flame of liberty” but not for “solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man were to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will”. The liberty he sought, he added in a pregnant phrase, was “social freedom”.

In a similar vein, 70 years later, John Stuart Mill argued that individuality – the quality that made human beings “noble” – could grow only through arduous activity in the public sphere. Fawcett’s workmanlike history of the bundle of ideas and practices that liberals have espoused since the Spanish liberales coined the term after the Napoleonic wars is an excellent guide to liberalism’s rise and fall.

In its 19th-century heyday, as Fawcett’s history reminds us, liberalism was optimistic, passionate and imbued with strongly held moral convictions. Without using the terms, its proponents were for Burke’s social freedom and for Mill’s vision of human nobility. In France, radicals such as Clemenceau took on the army, an exceptionally reactionary Catholic Church and an ugly wave of anti-Semitism in defence of the unjustly imprisoned Captain Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew by origin. In Britain, Gladstone made his extraordinary transformation from High Tory to Liberal messiah because he came to believe that the masses were nobler and more virtuous than the classes.

Twenty-first-century liberalism is a pale shadow of its 19th-century ancestor. Albeit with some honourable exceptions, the passion and optimism have gone. Latter-day Clemenceaus and Gladstones are nowhere to be seen. Burke’s vision of social freedom has virtually disappeared from the liberal repertoire; few now echo Mill’s call for strenuous self-improvement. For the most part, today’s liberals see individuals as free-floating, history-less and untethered social atoms, quite unlike the rooted, flesh-and-blood individuals presupposed by their counterparts of yesteryear. The most obvious result is that, all too often, the robust moral convictions of the past have withered into a querulous self-righteousness, strongly tinged with moral relativism.

Why should this be? Siedentop’s study is best seen as an attempt to answer that question. It is a magnificent work of intellectual, psychological and spiritual history. It is hard to decide which is more remarkable: the breadth of learning displayed on almost every page, the infectious enthusiasm that suffuses the whole book, the riveting originality of the central argument or the emotional power and force with which it is deployed.

Siedentop takes us on a 2,000-year journey that starts with the almost inconceivably remote city states of the ancient world and ends with the Renaissance. In the course of this journey, he explodes many (perhaps even most) of the preconceptions that run through the public culture of our day – and that I took for granted before reading his book. Inventing the Individual is not an exercise in dry-as-dust antiquarianism, still less in pop-historical fun and games. Siedentop’s aim has a breathtaking grandeur about it: to persuade us to ask ourselves who we are and where we are going by showing us where we have come from. A challenging epilogue suggests that the answers are not very flattering.

The most insidious preconception on which Siedentop trains his guns derives from the imperious rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment. For the likes of Voltaire, Diderot, David Hume and Edward Gibbon, the long centuries between the fall of the western Roman empire and the Renaissance were a slough of superstition, ignorance, credulity, clericalism and bigotry. “Monk” and “monkish” were terms of abuse; the theological speculation that had occupied many of the best minds in Europe in the Middle Ages was dismissed as hot air. Not all Enlightenment thinkers echoed Voltaire’s call to “écraser l’infâme” (“crush the infamous one” – that is, the Church) but the mood it encapsulated was widely shared and it was expressed with bloodthirsty savagery in the later stages of the French Revolution.

Yet the Enlightenment’s picture of the past was not all black. Before the darkness of the Middle Ages, Enlightenment thinkers imagined, the pre-Christian ancient world had spawned glittering examples of rationality and freedom. The statues depicting 18th-century statesmen in Roman togas and the classical themes that figured in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, the iconic French painter during the revolutionary period, all testified to the lure of pre-Christian antiquity. Enlightenment thinkers saw the Middle Ages as a break in humanity’s upward progress – but only as break, not as a dead end. As they envisioned it, the task for their generation was to resume the journey that the ancients had begun.

Siedentop believes that the essence of this mindset still survives, to ruinous effect. Thanks to it, he argues, our understanding of modernity is deeply flawed. We see ourselves as children of the Enlightenment and, by way of the Enlightenment, as great-grandchildren of ancient Greece and Rome. We talk of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and fail to realise that in certain crucially important respects Judaism and Christianity are polar opposites. Above all, we misunderstand the true nature of the ancient world and of the slow but profound revolution in its social and ideological assumptions that the rise of Christianity procured. The result is that we have lost touch with the moral traditions that lie beneath the surface of our culture – that we no longer know who we are and therefore can’t help to shape what Siedentop calls “the conversation of mankind”.

In truth, as Siedentop shows, the ancient world was not in the least like the Enlightenment’s understanding of it. Far from nurturing freedom, whether positive or negative, its cultures were shot through with hereditary inequalities of status, opportunity and expectation. Social roles were rigidly prescribed and, in effect, inescapable. Escape would be self-exclusion from the city and that was a kind of living death.

Patriarchy was fundamental to the social order. This was ordained by the household gods; it was the patriarch’s duty to serve them and he derived his authority from this role. The city was an association of families, each with its own cult, not of individuals. The family heads, who were by definition men, were priests as well as citizens. Women, slaves and the foreign-born, on the other hand, were not citizens and could not aspire to citizenship; the public realm of argument and debate that set the city’s course was not for them. In Athens, arguably the ancient world’s most famous city state, full citizens comprised only about a tenth of the population.

The next stage in Siedentop’s argument is the most explosive. He shows that the gravedigger of antiquity’s implacable nexus of practices and beliefs was precisely the Christian revelation that Enlightenment thinkers scorned. What the historical Jesus believed and taught is uncertain, though he patently thought that the world was about to end and that the marginalised poor had at least as good a chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven as the rich and powerful. The real significance of his life lay in his death and its aftermath. For his followers, as Siedentop puts it, Christ’s crucifixion and the Resurrection that they believed had followed it were “a moral earthquake”, a “dramatic intervention in history”. For St Paul, the true architect of the Christian religion, that intervention was inherently egalitarian and individualistic. The fatherhood of God implied the brotherhood of man and (an even more revolutionary implication) the sisterhood of woman.

Irrespective of their social roles, all individuals – slaves as well as the free, women as well as men – were equal in the sight of God. The inegalitarian integument of ritual, heredity and prescription that had held the ancient city together was replaced by an egalitarian union of all in the “body of Christ”. God’s grace was available to everyone, sinners included: souls were equal.

In a striking passage, Siedentop suggests that the scenes of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection painted on the walls of medieval churches “testified that the immortal soul, rather than the immortal family, was the primary constituent of reality”. The doctrine of the incarnation lay at the heart of Christian egalitarianism. The deity was no longer remote and awe-inspiring, like the Jewish Yahweh was. God was within us and “us” meant all of us.

To followers of this world-view, the elaborate, God-given taboos that governed daily life among the Jewish people were not just pointless; they were also offensive. God was no longer tribal. He was universal. The multiple, local gods of pagan Greece and Rome – and, for that matter, the similarly multiple gods of the barbarian invaders who overwhelmed the increasingly decrepit western Roman empire in the 5th century – were swallowed up in that universality.

The “moral earthquake” that Siedentop depicts with elegant economy was a long-drawn-out affair. The egalitarian individualism that lay at the heart of the Christian revelation did not prevail all at once. (Indeed, it has not prevailed completely even now: inequalities proliferate and patriarchy survives.) Pagan habits and customs also survived, sometimes in Christian garb. The festival of the winter solstice was reprogrammed as Christmas; the practice of praying to local saints and their relics mimicked local pagan cults.

After the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, bishops were often drawn from the ranks of urban notables, reminiscent of the notables who had dominated city life in pagan times. Later, bishops and abbots were apt to see themselves as secular lords, occasionally even leading armies into battle. Sometimes, Church offices were bought and sold; in Rome, the papacy became “the plaything of aristocratic families”. A huge gulf separated the princes of the Church, such as powerful bishops and the abbots of rich monasteries, from ordinary laymen.

Yet, all this said, Siedentop’s “moral earthquake” transformed mentalities and sentiments – the deep-seated habits of the heart that make cultures what they are – across Europe. In the hands of medieval canon lawyers, by definition churchmen, the static, pre-Christian notion of natural law gave birth to the still evolving (and still revolutionary) notion of natural rights. The centralisation of the medieval Church, carried out by a series of reforming lawyer popes, helped to spawn the nation state. The creation of universities, in many ways medieval Europe’s most astonishing achievement, led to the emergence of “a new social role, the intellectual”, and created protected spaces for transformative thinking, argument and debate.

Appropriately, John Wycliffe, the “morning star” of the English Reformation, was for a time master of Balliol College, Oxford. By the early 15th century, philosophers and canon lawyers, Siedentop writes, had established the “roots of liberalism”:

. . . belief in a fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defence of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental or “natural” rights; and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for a society resting on the assumption of moral equality. 

These roots were planted and watered by churchmen, imbued with the egalitarian moral intuitions that had been fundamental to the Christian message since the days of St Paul. The great question is whether these intuitions can flourish in the secular societies of the 21st century.

Siedentop thinks that they can but only if  we are willing to recognise that secularism and Christianity share a common ancestry: that they can and should be allies instead of enemies. Failing that, liberalism will have no defences against the double threat it now faces: a morally empty utilitarianism on the one hand and an asocial individualism on the other. To put it at its lowest, its capacity to meet that challenge is far from self-evident. 

David Marquand’s latest book is “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” (Allen Lane, £20)

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

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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