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Neil Kinnock, the man who saved Labour

Tony Benn saw him as the great betrayer and he led his party to two general election defeats. But now the best platform speaker of his generation has got his bounce back – and Kinnock’s reputation is on the rise.

A man of his word: Gerald Scarfe’s Sabre-Toothed Ptorydactyl, SDP dodo and Lesser Welsh Speckled Dragon (Kinnockus Pillockus Rhetoric), 1989

When Neil Kinnock told Ed Miliband that he should consider standing for the Labour leadership, the latter mentioned the little matter of his brother, David. Kinnock told him: “If you don’t mind David standing against you, why should David mind you standing against him?” “It’s not that simple,” said Ed. Kinnock replied: “Nothing is ever that simple.”

Kinnock laughs as he tells the story, but it’s a solemn laugh. In the 31 years since he was elected Labour leader himself, nothing has been simple for Neil Kinnock. If you listened to Tony Benn or Arthur Scargill, he was the great betrayer. Others believe that he has saved Labour twice. He saved it when he was leader from becoming an irrelevance after the Benn ascendancy. And then by helping to make Ed Miliband leader he saved it from becoming a mere US-style electoral machine whose default position was to support the rich and powerful. Today, as Ed Miliband goes into a make-or-break conference in Manchester, Kinnock is still prominent in his corner.

Is Ed Miliband the Kinnock de nos jours, as is often said by his disparagers? Not at all, says Roy Hattersley, who was Kinnock’s deputy from 1983 to 1992. “They are completely different. Neil is the orator, the Nye Bevan figure. Ed is the cerebral politician, the Hugh Gaitskell figure.”

Back in the 1950s, Bevan personified Labour’s left and Gaitskell its right. Hattersley treasures the moment when Ed Miliband told him: “I’m a Croslandite,” because this establishes him in the Gaitskell camp.

But Kinnock says: “It’s a different generation with new challenges. There are lots of issues he [Miliband] doesn’t have to address. The conditions facing me required a bare-chested approach. It now needs greater subtlety.”

It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar personalities. Kinnock is noisy, extrovert, affectionate and emotional, and he was, as Hattersley says, “the best platform speaker of my generation”. No one accused him of being geeky. By contrast, Miliband is quiet and thoughtful, charming but no tub-thumper, probably less sensitive to criticism than he sounds, and very clever. He told Kinnock that he was going to address Labour’s conference without notes. “I was terrified,” says Kinnock, but: “He does it brilliantly. It’s a sign of real depth.”

However, their leaderships have this much in common – the media and some of their party colleagues went in hard and early to kick the bounce out of them. The Bennites (for Kinnock) and the Blairites (for Miliband) predicted that neither would be prime minister. With Kinnock, it worked. It won’t work a second time if there’s anything Kinnock can do to prevent it.

I first met Neil Kinnock in 1982, when I was Labour’s press officer for the Peckham by-election at which Harriet Harman entered parliament. The grim, sectarian chairperson of the Peckham Labour Party women’s committee watched Kinnock exchanging rugby reminiscences with a senior policeman sent to look after our walkabout, and muttered furiously: “How macho!”

He had already made enemies. His refusal to support Tony Benn against Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981 had cost Benn the job. Benn never forgave him. Even in old age, in the final volume of his memoirs, published last year, Benn could not bring himself to mention Kinnock without a cruel sneer. He records attending an event and seeing guests who included “Neil Kinnock, now 65, laughing boy Kinnock”. Kinnock’s ready laugh is one of his most attractive traits.

In March 1983 the Labour Party lost one of its safest seats, Bermondsey, in south-east London, in a by-election. (It was won by Simon Hughes for the Liberals against Peter Tatchell.) The day the dreadful result was declared, Labour strategists, in a spirit of bravado, called another by-election straight away instead of delaying in the hope of better times. I again found myself in demand as a press officer.

One cold day that month, I went to Darlington station to meet a short, sturdy, noisy young man with ginger hair and a loud houndstooth suit. He stepped smartly off the London train, borrowed £5 from me and took everyone he found in the nearby party headquarters to the pub. In Darlington in 1983 you could buy a substantial round of drinks with £5.

He did not stop talking for a moment in the pub. As a stream of ideas tumbled out of him, each one perfectly wrapped in an evocative phrase, the ageing Labour grandee Barbara Castle listened in uncharacteristic silence. She seemed to be seeing the reincar­nation of her dead hero, Aneurin Bevan.

Eventually we dragged Kinnock across to the biggest hall in town, which seated hundreds and was packed out. He spoke for a full hour, making his audience laugh and cry in turn at his attacks on Margaret Thatcher’s government. “Now, the cabinet wets – By the way, do you know why they call them that? It’s because that’s what they do when she shouts at them.”

Then I took him to a private room and whispered that I had overheard a plot to oust Michael Foot as leader. Kinnock buoyed me with his optimism, and for a good five minutes we both believed that soon Foot would be prime minister.

We went down to the hotel bar, where a huge press pack was assembled; this was certainly the last by-election before the general election. There he took them on. This journalist had written a load of rubbish about Footie; that one was so deeply in hock to the Tories that he played “See the conquering heroine comes!” every time Maggie wiped her feet on him. As others left for their beds one by one, Kinnock’s musical Welsh cadences followed them to the hotel lift.

On the train home the next day, he snagged the houndstooth suit on a nail. No one has seen Kinnock in a loud suit for years. Seven months later, after Labour’s crushing defeat in the general election, Kinnock was elected leader of his party. He was 41 and his best years were over.

At once, the Conservatives, the newspapers and the Bennites set to work on him. Those who remember only the party leader, struggling to find words sufficiently boring that they offered no hostages to fortune; or the demoralised figure who gave up the leadership after his second general election defeat in 1992; or the European commissioner mastering the dead language of Eurocracy, stare in disbelief when I tell them that in the early 1980s he was easily the most exciting politician in Britain.

Born in 1942, Kinnock was the political leader of the Look Back in Anger generation. John Osborne’s play premiered in 1956, the year Britain invaded Suez and learned she was no longer a world power, and the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and showed that communism was no longer a proper vehicle for the idealism of the young. It was the generation to which both Osborne and Arnold Wesker spoke, a generation that believed it owed a debt to Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan; that spoke of socialism and Jimmy Porter’s great, brave causes. Youth found the voice that had been stifled by the grey conformism of the postwar years; a voice that had not yet turned into the muddled strivings of the late 1960s and the harsh sectarian stridency of the 1970s.

Yet he also carried Labour’s history as no other politician of his time could do, a man of the left with the revivalist socialism of the Welsh valleys. Michael Foot saw him like that, for Foot was Aneurin Bevan’s friend and biographer and Kinnock’s friend and mentor.

At the 1970 general election, aged just 28, Kinnock became MP for Bedwellty, one of the safest Labour seats in the country. After Labour’s 1979 election defeat, he entered the shadow cabinet as education spokesman, still aged only 37. If we had been told then that, 35 years later, Neil Kinnock would never have occupied any post in government, and that selective education would be stronger than ever, we would have laughed at so absurd a notion.

“Education is something he feels very deeply about – he knows it changed his own life,” Fred Jarvis, the then general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, told me. “And he’s not afraid to say the word ‘comprehensive’, which makes him unusual in today’s Labour Party.” Jarvis is still one of Kinnock’s friends.

He was, for those days, young and inexperienced when he became Labour leader in 1983, and felt in need of advice. A posse of clever men and women a decade younger than himself, politicians of the harsher era of the 1970s, became his praetorian guard: the Cambridge graduates Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke, who had been president of the National Union of Students (NUS); the Oxford graduate Peter Mandelson, who had been chairman of the British Youth Council. Kinnock says they “had been student union officers very young, and after that they came and worked for me”.

Among the other Kinnock confidants who had cut their teeth in student politics were the former NUS president Jack Straw and John Reid, a former young communist. Fighting the ultra-left was in their bones. They had fought them in the student unions and now they fought them for Kinnock, unrelentingly and obsessively.

They told him he had to acquire gravitas. Hewitt erected a barrier between their leader and the lobby journalists, who were used to the old, genial, witty Kinnock. Roy Hattersley says that Clarke did Kinnock great harm by protecting him when he did not need protecting.

“It was a terrible mistake,” Hattersley told me. “Clarke told him not to make speeches, because he only needed to make one mistake to lose the next election. But he would not have done that. He knew how not to do that. So Kinnock, this great platform speaker, just stopped using that talent. It was a dreadful waste.” (Clarke declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Kinnock’s protectors told him that his personality was all wrong. The noise, the passion, the bons mots, the houndstooth suits – everything that had endeared him to the public before he was elected leader – it all had to go. He started to wrap himself up in grey flannel suits and grey woollen phrases. Brendan Bruce, the Conservative director of communications for part of Kinnock’s time as leader, has said: “He was badly let down by his image-makers in recent years. There were endless things they could have done.”

It seemed as though they did not trust their man not to bungle if let out without a leash, and perhaps Kinnock started to take himself at their estimate.

Vicious attacks from right-wing tabloids and left-wing rivals punctured his skin, which turned out to be thin for a top politician. The magic went out of his relationship with journalists. His sure broadcasting touch started to desert him as he began to weigh every word and waffle to cover policy divisions. Perhaps for the first time in his adult life, he felt unsure of himself.

Kinnock knew he was young and inexperienced for the job. He could be the first person since Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 to become prime minister without having served in a government. When Hugo Young, the late Guardian commentator, wrote that he had “a pass degree in industrial relations from Swansea University on the second try in a bad year”, the sneer, according to Hattersley, “worried Neil much more than it should have done”.

References in Kinnock’s papers suggest that Hattersley is right. “Hugo Young was a friend of mine, and I told him that this was an appalling and stupid thing to write,” Hattersley says. “Neil could hold his own intellectually with anyone he might need to, as Labour leader or as prime minister.”

Young was an Oxford man, like every prime minister since 1945 except Churchill and Callaghan (and later Major), who did not go to university. The snobbery should not have upset Kinnock, but, as Hattersley recalls, it did.

Unfair attacks, whether from Norman Tebbit on the right, Tony Benn on the left, or Hugo Young on the higher intellectual plane, wounded him. As Denis Healey once said to Hattersley: “It’s all right for us. We’ve been up to our eyes in shit for years. He’s not used to it.”

Kinnock and Hattersley had fought each other for the leadership, but, unlike Blair and Brown a generation later, they buried their personal differences in the common cause. “Neil and I got on,” Hattersley wrote in his autobiography Who Goes Home?, adding rather archly:

We were never soulmates. Perhaps we were not even “pals” – Neil’s definition of the proper relationship between leader and deputy. But we only grumbled about each other in private and went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate mutual respect.

The 1984-85 miners’ strike was probably the worst 12 months of Kinnock’s life; nothing hurt so much as the pain inflicted when Arthur Scargill persuaded some of the mineworkers that Kinnock, the son and grandson of Welsh miners, had betrayed them. He was sure Scargill was leading them to disaster, and as he told me afterwards: “I still curse myself for not taking the chance and saying, to a miners’ meeting – I would not have said it to anyone else – ‘You will not get sympathetic action without a ballot, and coal stocks are piled up.’ ” He says now: “Conducted in a different way, it could have had a different outcome.”

There was then – and still is, even now, though they are getting rather long in the tooth – a collection of keepers of the pure Scargellite faith who were young men and women in the 1970s. Twenty-five years after the strike, I watched these grim folk, hugging their ideological correctness to themselves like a comfort blanket, cheer wildly as Scargill addressed a London rally and said: “If Neil Kinnock had have called on the whole working class to support us, Thatcher would have been out in a year.” They must have known it was nonsense.

The 1987 general election resulted in another big defeat for Labour. The wounds from the media campaign, from Kinnock’s long battle with the Bennites, and especially those from the miners’ strike, went deep. The ebullience that came naturally to him in 1983 was starting to look forced by 1987.

On Clarke’s advice, Kinnock decided he must get rid of cherished policies: unilateral nuclear disarmament, public ownership of key industries, the repeal of all of Thatcher’s anti-trade-union laws.

Yet, despite the relentless rebranding and repackaging, his advisers insisted that there were still vestiges of the old Kinnock to be suppressed. Mandelson wrote privately to Hattersley that Kinnock’s “values and rhetoric are still tied strongly to the ‘have-nots’. He cares too much. He’s too much of a socialist and hates the idea of being seen as anything different.”

Labour’s then pollster Bob Worcester of MORI looked at the evidence from his research and said there was a different problem. Kinnock, he said, must go back to being Neil. The statesmanlike waffling was not going down well. But the skids were under Worcester, because his advice too often conflicted with that of the praetorian guard. They had forced Kinnock to give up the simple, direct, passionate language that won hearts. He was now delivering his thoughts in shapeless bundles of words.

Kinnock’s enemies, and perhaps some of his friends, had done something much more terrible to him than he did to them. They made him, just occasionally, boring.

Yet Labour was still polling better than the Conservatives. Its by-election results were improving. Its results in the European elections of 1989 were good. The Bennites were in full retreat. The poll tax, introduced first in Scotland in 1989 and then in England and Wales in 1990, was hugely unpopular. But Labour’s internal feuds were poisonous and well publicised, and Kinnock’s personal poll ratings stubbornly refused to improve. Near the end of 1990 the Conservative Party finally dumped Thatcher and elected John Major to succeed her. Major hastened to get rid of the poll tax and Labour’s climb in the polls halted.

Eight days before polling day in the 1992 general election came the Sheffield rally. It was supposed to be, as an internal memorandum put it, “a TV spectacular . . . full of music, movement of people, light effects . . . As the main BBC News comes on air, we will set off the indoor pyrotechnics, light shows and confetti guns . . .”

Earlier speakers overran, so Kinnock appeared on the platform late, and as he did so the 10,000 keyed-up people at the Sheffield Arena erupted. His repeated “We’re awright!” went down a treat in the hall – and came across dreadfully on television. But the problem was not Kinnock’s performance: it was the gaudy triumphalism of the whole affair. And if the praetorian guard had not kept the lid so firmly closed on Neil Kinnock, the dam inside him might not have burst on that Sheffield stage.

The election lost, Kinnock departed with haste and dignity and in 1995 became one of Britain’s two European commissioners. A decade ago he left the commission, took a peerage, and seems to have got his bounce back. The scion of miners had carried the heavy burden of being Scargill’s scapegoat for three decades. But the last time I met him, just a few weeks ago, we were coincidentally both at the Hampstead Theatre in London to watch Wonderland, Beth Steel’s fine play about the miners’ strike. Kinnock couldn’t contain his delight.

“The whole thing was brilliant,” he said. “And all the more amazing because Beth Steel was a baby when the strike took place, though her dad was a pit deputy – he only retired two weeks ago. The production, acting, staging was all great and the story was told with accuracy and passion. She’s doing banking next. Can’t wait!”

A few days later he was still enthusing, but less excitably: “It had a core of passionate dispassion. She was committed to pursuing a truth about the times from the perspective of the coalfield. She conveyed the sense of hopelessness overcome by determination to deal with adversity.”

Charles Clarke still says Kinnock was a great Labour leader – but the sting in the tail is that he does so in order to draw an unfavourable comparison with Ed Miliband, who he predicts will not win next year’s general election. “I think the most likely outcome is a Tory overall majority,” Clarke told the Huffington Post. “Neil has far, far more qualities than Ed Miliband as a leader. Neil was a fantastic leader and brought Labour back towards victory.”

Kinnock disagrees vehemently: “Ed is very bright, gutsy, and he takes on the big targets and presses them with intelligence and courage. Look at what he’s taken on: the press, the banks, the energy companies; he stopped us from becoming engaged in Syria [with the House of Commons vote on intervention in 2013]. Without his insight and fortitude, Cameron would have got his majority for that.

“He’s the opposite of David Cameron, who is superficial.”

And the opposite of Tony Blair?

“Very different from Tony Blair,” Kinnock says, quickly and seamlessly. All those years of not answering questions taught him a few lasting lessons.

But Hattersley spells out what Kinnock is careful about: “I think Neil felt it was time we had a leader who was real Labour.”

Hattersley says the old Kinnock is back, with all the bounce – and he is not sure it ever quite went away. “You watch him going round the Labour party conference this year,” he urges. “He knows he made a huge contribution; he knows that history will show he saved the Labour Party.

“He’s very content.” 

Francis Beckett’s most recent book is “What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?” (Biteback, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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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