Pregnancy is one of life’s most untouchable, personal experiences. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/AFP/Getty
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The feminist history of surrogacy: should pregnancy give a woman rights over a baby?

Surrogacy rates are rising in the UK, and 95 per cent of these births are taking place overseas. Glosswitch looks at decades of feminist thinking on surrogacy to see how women’s labour and female lived experience can be incorporated in this complex ethical debate.

Surrogacy is not a new idea; indeed, there is a precedent in the book of Genesis, with the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, the slave who bears Abraham’s son Ishmael. There have always been people (usually men) who have sought to continue their bloodlines while circumventing the social structures and sexual taboos set up by others (again, usually men). Right now, however, a combination of factors – improvements in embryo transfer technology, changing family structures, the rise of global capitalism – have created expectations and possibilities the likes of which we simply have not seen before.

Surrogacy rates are rising in the UK, with over 2,000 babies born by surrogates on behalf of British couples each year, and 95 per cent of these births taking place overseas. International surrogacy is described as a booming business and restrictions on the use of eggs, embryos and wombs are facing legal challenges at home. We no longer live in biblical times. We can do things differently – better, faster, and with greater choice. While the story of Hagar and Sarah might have once served as a cautionary tale, it seems that now we have the technology and the moral sophistication to make surrogacy a part of how we transform contemporary family life.

For feminists it can be tempting to see these changes in wholly positive terms, as challenges to both social norms and reproductive determinism. Henceforth the continuation of the species need not be tied to compulsory heterosexuality and innate biological functions. But this only tells half the story. For the consumer, it seems, anything is achievable. For the supplier, on the other hand, pregnancy remains what pregnancy always has been: a risky, unpredictable, deeply personal experience. Embryos can be created in laboratories but human beings take shape – where? In wombs? In mothers? In families? Such distinctions matter but it takes more than scientific progress and legal reform to make them clear. 

Neither the physical reality nor the emotional aftermath of pregnancy fit into our neat little categories for how society is organised. It produces something of immeasurable value yet it has no immediate monetary worth. It is hard, dangerous work yet it involves no skill and can be endured by even the most reluctant of participants. Whether or not one can gestate is not decided by any moral or physical examination; we may talk of “blessings” but what we really mean is “luck”. Pregnancy creates something from one’s own flesh, with lasting physical aftershocks, yet one does not own it. A baby is not one’s own self. Yet in the twenty-first century we have started to behave as though something so complex can be traded on a market whose very foundations rest on global inequality and the unpaid labour of women.

Feminists first started to express concerns about the development of reproductive technologies and the associated commoditisation of pregnancy during the 1980s. It was in some ways a natural continuation of feminist critiques of the medicalisation of childbirth found in works such as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and Suzanne Arms’s Immaculate Deception. It was not, however, an anxiety shared by all. Indeed, perhaps to many such concerns sounded luddite and paranoid, the fearful imaginings of women unwilling to let go of outdated beliefs in maternity as women’s only source of power. Three decades on, much of what was feared has come to pass. Proof that feminist doom-mongers were right? Or that human beings can adjust to anything, including our brave new surrogacy-friendly world?

In her 1985 work The Mother Machine, Gena Corea foresaw a time when surrogacy by donor insemination (“straight” surrogacy) would be overtaken by IVF (“host” surrogacy):

Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid women.

Of course, Corea was being somewhat alarmist. Thirty years later, if you look at the website of Sensible Surrogacy, you’ll find it’s not a tenth, but a fifth. Meanwhile, in Right-Wing Women Andrea Dworkin argued that “the social control of women who reproduce— the sloppy, messy kind of control—is being replaced by medical control much more precise, much closer to the efficiency of the brothel model.” For anyone curious as to what a “reproductive brothel” might look like, Sensible Surrogacy provide photos of their “typical surrogate apartments” (which remind me of the YWCA I lived in during the 1990s, the difference being that the women were granted a hostel room without making any commitment to conceive for others). On such evidence it seems that we have indeed sleepwalked into the very reproductive dystopia predicted by the second-wave Cassandras, yet somehow we’re okay with this. There is, after all, a competing alternative narrative, one of progress and liberation, to which we can turn our attentions.

This was evident, for instance, following Dolce and Gabbana’s recent pronouncements on IVF, surrogacy and same-sex parenting. The designers were, without question, being both homophobic and bigoted towards children conceived by so-called artificial means when they issued their messianic directive: “No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.” Nonetheless, in the furore that followed it was striking how little attention was paid to the “rented uterus” question. The responses of gay men including Peter Tatchell, Elton John and Owen Jones focused on the parenting skills of same-sex couples, eliding ethical concerns related to how parenthood is achieved in the first place. Jones claimed that “because it is harder for same-sex couples to have children, there is a positive selection for what are more likely to be doting parents”. While such an argument contains its own prejudices (are we to conclude that children conceived accidentally – as is the case with one in six pregnancies in the UK – are any less doted on?) Jones is absolutely right that children raised by same-sex parents (and single parents) fare just as well as, and sometimes better than, those raised by heterosexual couples. But this only covers one half of the transaction. It is a narrative which, as Corea put it in 1985, “stresses a partial and inadequate element of the situation (the suffering of infertile couples) and obscures a clear vision of the actual social forces. Certain facts about surrogate motherhood are highlighted in media discussions while others are buried.” That surrogacy can bring enormous happiness to those who could not otherwise have children who are genetically their own is not in question; nor is the fact that the children themselve lead happy lives. Yet this does not resolve the issue of how we place their stories alongside the broader narrative of women’s reproductive rights and destinies.

The website of Surrogacy UK has the look and feel of a pregnancy magazine, all plump little poppets in multi-coloured sleepsuits: look! Look what you could make! They describe their ethos as “surrogacy through friendship,” arguing that surrogacy “can be a wonderfully rewarding experience for everyone involved”:

For Surrogate Mothers it is a chance to do something truly extraordinary.  For those who are unable to have children by any other means surrogacy can be a light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Scratch the surface, however, and the reality – that pregnancy is a physical process taking place in another person’s body, a body which one cannot wholly separate from the idea of a self – is never far away:

In the getting to know you stage take some time to talk through the details of surrogacy.  There may be certain things you want or expect from one another.  Would you be happy to have extra tests for abnormalities?  Are there circumstances in which you would consider terminating the pregnancy?  These topics can be difficult to talk about, but it is important to address them.

While such issues do need addressing, the idea that one might address them in advance is surely unrealistic. Pregnant with a baby I expect to raise myself, I’m not even sure how I’d deal with them until they actually arose. The thought of making decisions in advance and harnessing my own and the happiness of several other people to them seems impossible. It is not just raging hormones that make this difficult, but the shifting contexts of life itself (my family, other people’s families, money, security, relationships, health). And even then, hormones do matter.

It is notable that, as I am having my “own” baby, it is expected that rising levels of oxytocin will not only support my labour, but help me to bond with my child. Should this not happen (and for many women it does not) I will feel a “failure” as a mother. Yet were I a surrogate, such a “failure” would make me a success. Indidivual women are not in control of such things – if we were, conditions from the “baby blues” to postpartum psychosis would be things we could simply think our way out of – yet in a recent case involving a surrogate forced to hand over a baby to a couple who claimed this was what she had agreed to in advance, one got the impression that this woman had indeed been expected to manage her emotions more effectively. In wanting to keep full custody the baby she bore – and behaving defensively and aggressively as a result – she had done something wrong, yet, as Katha Pollitt wrote in 1987 regarding the Baby M case in the US, “when Mary Beth Whitehead signed her contract, she was promising something it is not in anyone's power to promise: not to fall in love with her baby”.

In disputes such as these, it is surely not simply a question of who would be the best parent or set of parents. There may be people in the world who could raise my own children more effectively and with just as much compassion as I am doing, but the love I have for my children is accepted as absolute unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. Is this something that could ever be signed away in advance? (According to Sensible Surrogacy, it depends on the country you go for. The UK might be a grey area but for surrogates in India, the answer is yes and there can be no turning back. Those in Thailand are permitted some legal leeway – some small loophole allowing for emotion – but thankfully “to ensure that the Thai surrogate maintains the terms of the agreement, all her compensation is withheld until she has given full rights to the Future Parents and they are on their way home”. Which, one presumes, sorts out the whole “love” issue to everyone’s satisfaction.)

As the Dolce and Gabbana responses showed, the sexual, racial and economic disempowerment of surrogates can be effectively played off against the disempowerment of those who do not conform to so-called “traditional” family structures. In much the same way that the sex trade can be positioned not as a marker of women’s subordination, but as one in the eye for bigoted puritans, surrogacy can be positioned as a challenge to those who see the “natural” family as Mummy, Daddy, missionary positioned-conceived baby. Yet legally things are not so straightforward. It is not just that access to paid surrogacy is contingent on economic advantage. In the UK, the law regarding surrogacy ultimately favours couples, particularly heterosexual and all-male ones. The legal solution of a parental order following the birth of a child by a surrogate is not available to single people (despite the fact that single people are permitted to adopt). While lesbian couples can apply for parental orders, this is made more difficult by the fact that at least one person must be a genetic parent (meaning “straight” surrogacy, bypassing egg donation, cannot be an option).  It is for this reason, one presumes, that Surrogacy UK only provide prospective parent application packs to heterosexual and male same-sex couples. I doubt it is intentional in some deep, conspiracy theorist way (indeed, I doubt that much to do with patriarchy is), but the structural implications of this are that yet again, the exploitation of female reproductive labour is directed towards the continuation of male family lines and two-parent families. Looked at from this perspective, surrogacy is not as much of a challenge to traditional family values as one might have thought.

The current legal structure also, inevitably, reinforces the age-old tradition of downplaying women’s contribution to the creation of life while exagerrating men’s. As female academics from various disciplines, such as the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling and the anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy have pointed out, narratives of human reproduction are not based purely on objective scientific observation. They interact with cultural beliefs and can be gendered in such a way as to bolster ideas of male agency and dominance versus female passivity and subordination. Aristotle believed that women merely supplied matter that the active male principle formed into a human being. Women might have been the ones who gestated and gave birth, but they were merely potting soil for the male seed.

In Mother Nature, Blaffer Hrdy describes how seventeenth-century scientists “thought they saw a miniature man, a little ‘homunculus,’ through their microscopes, folder up inside a human sperm, waiting to be deposited inside the womb […] Even though mothers contributed egg cells, they were viewed as passive vessels, awaiting the life force conveyed by males.” We may scoff at such things today, but in 2015 Nick Loeb, the ex-partner of Sofia Vergara, still describes the frozen embryos formed from his sperm and Vergara’s ova as “the two lives I have already created”. Taking things a step further, Loeb argues that “a man who is willing to take on all parental responsibilities” should be “entitled to bring his embryos to term even if the woman [meaning the supplier of the eggs] objects”. Entitlement is one thing, but capability is quite another. By “bring his embryos to term” Loeb means “pay someone with a womb to perform the magic that transforms embryo to living, breathing child”. However rich a man is, he cannot purchase that capability in its own right. Yet female reproductive agency, once rendered invisible by patriachal quackery, is now undermined by the belief that everything can be bought by the highest bidder (and as ever, those with the most to bid tend to be male). 

Those who provide sperm make an obvious contribution to the creation of new life. Theirs is not, however, an equal one. Those who gestate, birth and suckle babies do far, far more. Yet ironically, providing sperm is all it takes to be said to have fathered a child. Meanwhile, the verb “to mother” encompasses a far broader range of activities than “just” supplying an egg. Pregnancy could almost kill you but still you won’t have proven you’re a “proper” mother. Alas, it has long been the case that under patriarchy, if one wants female reproductive labour to be recognised at all, such recognition will take the form of discrimination against women as a class.

For women, reproductive difference has long been tied to economic dependency, sexual exploitation and social exclusion. Male scientists used to argue that women’s reproductive role made them unfit for anything else. As Blaffer Hrdy puts it, the assumption was that “because females were especially equipped to nurture, males excelled at everything else.” More recently, the neurosexism of the late 90s and early noughties has pushed an insidious “different but equal” line, with popular works such as Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference suggesting that women’s reproductive history has led to a situation in which most female people – regardless of whether or not they ever become mothers themselves – are “hardwired” for empathy (and lower-paid care work) in a way that most male people are not. It doesn’t take a genius (nor indeed the possession of a “male brain”) to see how this works to perpetuate longstanding inequalities between men and women, not just in economic terms but also through all the ways in which women are expected to perform the emotional donkeywork in informal relationships extending far beyond those between mother and child. No wonder, to quote Blaffer Hrdy, “biology itself came to be viewed by women as a field sown with mines, best avoided altogether,” or, as the feminist legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman writes, “the idea of mother as a specifically gendered concept is cast by some feminists as particularly threatening to women’s sense of individuality […] discussions about motherhood are likely to be labelled ‘pronatalism’ and condemned as harbouring the subtext that all women must mother.” As new mother Ari puts it in Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth, “Heaven forbid it might be true that female bodies are different”:

Heaven forbid we admit that living in these female bodies is different. More terrible and more wonderful. Because, what? We might lose the vote? Because we might get veiled, imprisoned? Best deny it, deny it, make it to the Oval office, win, win, win.

For some feminists there is much appeal in insisting that all things are equal in human reproduction. The truth, however, is that they are not, and never will be until we take the physical, emotional and social context of women’s lives as seriously as we take those of men.

In her 1995 work The Neutered Mother Albertson Fineman explores ways in which liberal feminist calls for gender neutrality in parenting play into the hands of fathers’ and men’s rights groups, creating a theoretical equality which, due to its failure to account for women’s “material and psychological circumstances,” ends up reinforcing male control of families and marginalising single mothers in particular. Although in general fathers do not spend as much time caring for children (and those who do have been shown to spend more time on play while Mummy still deals with the less glamorous side of things), the idea that they could has been used, not to make men more responsible, but to downplay the specificity of what women are actually doing in practical and biological terms.

The idea that biology has historically led to women being granted more rights over children is, as feminists have long pointed out, a myth. Until the mid-nineteenth century fathers were automatically assumed to have possession over their children. It was not a corresponding assertion of maternal rights, but a move towards favouring “the best interests of the child” which led to more mothers being awarded custody. As Susan Maushart comments, “ironically and inaccurately, we now describe as ‘traditional’ those judges who persist in reflexively granting custody to mothers”. To assume that mothers should have rights relating to childrearing based on the contribution they make – as opposed to “naturally” ordained responsibilities – is not traditional, but revolutionary.

This is relevant to surrogacy because, as Pollitt pointed out in relation to Baby M, “it is a means by which women sign away rights that, until the twentieth century, they rarely had: the right to legal custody of their children, and the right not to be bought, sold, lent, rented or given away.” One could of course argue that to have a right and sign it away is different to never having had it at all. Nonetheless, the conditions under which women sign away their assumed “rights” – which, in the broader context of reproductive justice, are on shaky ground to begin with – cannot be ignored.

I do not think the surrogates who apply to Surrogacy UK are all victims of false consciousness. I don’t necessarily disbelieve them when they argue that being a surrogate can be an positive, empowering experience. While the word “empowering” itself may have fallen out of favour in feminist circles, it seems to me that such an act of physical creativity and emotional generosity could, in another world, fall within feminist definitions of maternal power – the power not to dominate, but to nurture and share. Perhaps some interactions between intended parents and surrogates already come within touching distance of this. Nevertheless, the world we live in is one in which for the majority of women, gender-based economic and reproductive coercion are the norm. One witnesses this at the extreme end in the pregnancies of schoolgirls kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram, but even in places where women are considered economically and physically secure, abortion is rarely considered a basic right. A woman’s positive choice to reproduce is treated as public property. She will be judged and found wanting – for being too young, too old, too independent, too poor, for being employed or unemployed, for belonging to the wrong ethnic group, for having the wrong partner or no partner at all. For a minority of women, a combination of the availability of contraception, changes to employment legislation and class privilege have made reproductive choice a meaningful reality. These women are the exceptions to the rule. We cannot claim individual women can choose to be generous with their reproductive capacities until such a time when, in reproductive terms, all women are truly free.

How much of a right should pregnancy give a woman over a baby? What does it count for? I am not sure but I can’t help feeling that our current thinking, with its impulse towards gender neutrality and the insistence that female reproduction is neither inherently different to nor more costly than its male counterpart, is flawed. Having the ability to gestate new life does not make you a perfect parent. It does not impart some great, mystic wisdom. It doesn’t even make you a nicer person. Nonetheless, going through pregnancy and giving birth are, like being born and dying, essential, untouchable, personal experiences. As Ari puts it, “there’s before and there’s after. To live in your body before is one thing. To live in your body after is another”. It ought to be possible to state that biology is not destiny, insofar as women are varied human beings and not carers by default, without erasing vast swathes of female lived experience and the needs that arise from it. But where should we go after that? Wherever it is, we must do so listening to all sides of every story, thinking beyond artificial separations of the world of the mind and the creations of the flesh.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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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