Andrew Adonis. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Beyond our Berlin Wall

The way to pull down social barriers in England is through reforming education — encouraging private schools to become more involved in the state sector by backing academies. That could also spread excellence.

Two of the greatest challenges in English education today are, first, not just to reduce the number of underperforming comprehensives but to eradicate them, and second, to forge a new settlement between state and private education.

I put these two challenges together because they go together. It is my view, after 20 years of engagement with schools of all types, that England will never have a world-class education system or a “one-nation” society until state and private schools are part of a shared, national endeavour to develop the talents of all young people to the full.

The two also go together, in that academies are at the heart of the solution to both challenges. It is academies that are systematically eradicating failing comprehensives. And academies – as independent state schools – are the vehicle by which private schools can become systematically engaged in establishing and running state-funded schools.

So, just as the challenge is simple – how to unite state schools and private schools in a common endeavour – I believe the solution is also simple. Every successful private school, and private school foundation, should sponsor an academy or academies. They should do this alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, turning themselves into federations of private and state-funded independent schools and following the lead of a growing number of private schools and their foundations that have done precisely this and would not think of going back, including Dulwich, Wellington, the Haberdashers’, the Mercers’, the Girls’ Day School Trust, the City of London Corporation and the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham.

Simple does not mean easy, nor does it mean little. By sponsoring academies I don’t just mean advice and assistance, the loan of playing fields and the odd teacher or joint activity, which is generally what passes for “private state partnership”, however glorified for the Charity Commission. I mean the private school or foundation taking complete responsibility for the governance and leadership of an academy or academies and staking their reputation on their success, as they do on the success of their fee-paying schools.

The roots of the state-private divide are so deep that they reach to the very foundation of state education in England in the 19th century. Historians talk a lot about Gladstone’s Elementary Education Act of 1870, which essentially started state education. But equally significant were Gladstone’s Endowed Schools Acts 1869 and 1873, which turned the great public schools and many of the newer grammar schools previously run in a rackety way by Crown, church or local appointees, into a Victorian equivalent of today’s academies, with independent governing foundations to control their assets, management and leadership. This Victorian academy status greatly strengthened the private schools as institutions. Yet their fees, and the conservative use of their charitable assets by their new governing bodies, kept most of them largely closed to all except the upper and upper middle classes. And so they remained as the state secondary system developed in parallel, and separately, in the decades after the Balfour Education Act 1902.

There was a moment at the end of the Second World War when history might have taken a different turn. An official report, published in 1944 on the day Dwight Eisenhower reviewed his bridgehead in Normandy, said that the social division between private and state schools “made far more difficult the task of those who looked towards a breaking down of those harddrawn class distinctions within society”. Even Winston Churchill, visiting his alma mater Harrow, talked to the boys of “broadening the intake” and of the public schools becoming more and more based on aspiring youth “in every class of the nation”.

But it didn’t happen. Two generations later, the only significant changes to the private school system are that it is larger and richer, and its average educational attainment has risen to among the highest in the world.

The reason for the failure of postwar policy to overcome the private-state divide can be explained simply. Both sides of politics, and both sides of education, positively wanted the divide to continue. So, for differing reasons, they adopted a one-word policy in respect of private schools: isolation.

On the Labour side, ideological antipathy to fee-paying, and later also to selective, education bred often intense hostility. But the social and legal position of the private schools –plus, paradoxically, the personal educational preferences of Labour leaders from Attlee to Wilson and Callaghan – kept at bay any attack beyond the rhetorical, except for the withdrawal of state funding schemes for small numbers of pupils to attend private schools.

I treasure Roy Jenkins’s exchange with Harold Wilson when turning down Wilson’s offer to become education secretary in 1965. “Looking for an excuse [to decline the job],” he records in his memoirs, “I said that all three of our children were at fee-paying schools and that this surely was an obstacle to being minister of education in a Labour government. Wilson brushed this aside as being of no importance. ‘So were mine,’ he said.” Tony Blair was the first prime minister in history to send his children to state secondary schools.

On the Tory side, there was an equal and opposite isolationism. Most Tory ministers and MPs went to private schools and sent their children to them. They still do. So long as Labour kept the dogs off, they had no desire to court controversy by proposing any role in the state system for private schools and their foundations. Better to let sleeping dogs lie.

So much for the politicians. The leaders of state and private schools were – and many of them remain – similarly isolationist. It was an article of faith among the leaders of the comprehensive movement that private schools were not only socially divisive but also, in their educational practice, largely irrelevant. This is still a pronounced view, even among academy head teachers. They say, to paraphrase: “What can that lot who just spoon-feed the children of the rich ever know about education in Hackney and Knowsley?” As for the heads of the private schools, many of them have been only too eager to agree, especially when the suggestion is made that they might manage academies.

Pressed further, they often say it’s not about ordinary children v privileged children but about non-selective schools vselective schools, an argument made by Sir Eric Anderson when provost of Eton. I found this richly ironic, given that Eton until recently was basically an allability comprehensive for the rich and titled.
 

Writ large

Those on the left, and in the state sector, who see the private schools as an irrelevance need only look at their huge footprint in almost every national elite, from politics and business to the media, sport and the arts. The Cameron- Clegg coalition is an Eton-Westminster coalition. (Westminster School accounted for two of the five Lib Dem ministers in cabinet until Chris Huhne’s resignation, and the rest of the cabinet is practically a roll-call of the other leading private schools.)

To those in the private schools and their governing bodies who are reluctant to embrace academies, I appeal to their professionalism and their charitable missions. It was excusable to stand apart from state-funded education when the state did not want them engaged in the first place. But that is the isolationist politics of the past. With the academies programme, supported across the political divide, they have an opportunity to engage in state-funded education without compromising their independence, renewing for the 21st century their essential moral and charitable purposes.

Depressingly, the politics of private-state school reform is still too often seen in terms of cash transactions. On the left, the conventional wisdom is that charitable status gives an unfair subsidy to private schools which ought to be ended, while some private school leaders and governors, whenever it is suggested that they might sponsor academies or otherwise support state education in a non-tokenistic way, retort that their parents are already paying twice for education, through their taxes and their school fees, so why should they pay a third time over? Some say they would rather “give up” charitable status than be expected to do this.

Both these approaches are misconceived, for they fundamentally misunderstand the position of private schools as charities. “Charitable status” is not a badge that can be awarded or taken away from the assets of private schools by the Charity Commission for good or bad behaviour. Nor could the government do this, nor even parliament, unless charitable assets nationwide are to be held liable to random nationalisation. Rather, it is fundamental to their being, like blood in a mammal.

The assets of Eton, Westminster, Winchester and the rest are vested in their present trustees and managers on the understanding that they be deployed for charitable purposes. Private school charities can no more “give up” charitable status than they can have it stripped from them. If they do not wish to continue as charities, or if they are unwilling to perform genuine charitable endeavour, then their highly valuable charitable assets should be passed into hands willing to do so. If the governors of Westminster School, for instance, then want to set up a separate, non-charitable trust solely or very largely concerned with the education of those able to pay their fees of £31,000 a year, that is up to them.

The charitable purposes of these institutions could not be clearer. William of Wykeham established Winchester for the education mainly of poor scholars, and only a small number of “noble commoners”. Henry VI set up Eton for poor scholars. Charterhouse was established by Sir Thomas Sutton, the wealthiest commoner in England, for – yes, more poor scholars. Elizabeth I endowed Westminster School for the same purpose; to this day it is an integral part of Westminster Abbey. John Lyon set up Harrow in 1572 as a free grammar school for the education of boys of the parish of Harrow.
 

Conscience and duty

I could go on through the statutes, charters and founding deeds of hundreds of private schools. It shouldn’t take the Charity Commission to challenge private school foundations about their charitable mission. Their trustees and governors should look to them constantly as a matter of conscience and duty.

With each passing decade many of these schools have become more, not less exclusive, and for generations now few of them have done anything bold to reconnect with their charitable purpose. Most of them are seeking to provide a few more bursaries. Yet it is hard to argue that this is enough, when they could also be running academies whose central purpose is the mission for which their assets were intended in the first place.

As for the idea that these great schools and foundations are not capable of making a success of academies with a more challenging pupil intake, it is a comic proposition. The governing body of Eton is chaired by the former Conservative minister William Waldegrave. Its members include three professors, three knights, five PhDs and a Prussian princess. Westminster School’s governing body is chaired by the Dean of Westminster – John Hall, the former chief education officer of the Church of England who was the driving force behind the Church’s decision to set up more than 30 academies. His fellow governors include the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, three professors, two canons, two knights, one baron and one dame.

Almost every private school governing body in the country is a catalogue of the very great and the very good, locally or nationally, including business, religious and educational leaders.

The notion that these organisations, if they have the will to do so, cannot command the resources and the expertise needed to run a successful school or schools in less advantaged areas – if that were true, England would indeed be Greece, about to default on its whole society and not just its state borrowing.

However, there is no need to argue by assertion. The leaders are there. Dulwich is spon - soring an academy in Sheppey. Wellington is sponsoring an academy in Wiltshire. The King Edward VI Foundation is sponsoring an academy in Sheldon, east Birmingham. All these academies replace failing comprehensives. The Girls’ Day School Trust has converted two of its outstanding private schools, in Liverpool and Birkenhead, into state academies. And five substantial academy chains – built up by the Mercers’ Company, the Haberdashers’ Company, the Woodard Corporation, the United Church Schools Trust and the City of London Corporation – have grown out of the management of historic chains of private schools, leveraging this expertise and experience in education to service academies alongside. With vision and leadership, there could be hundreds more academies sponsored by private school foundations.

It would also be good to see successful independent day schools convert to become academies. It was one of my main objectives for the academies programme, as minister for schools, that it should be a vehicle for a modern version of the “direct grant” scheme, which until its abolition in the 1970s made it possible for leading independent grammar schools to be state funded without charging fees. I had in mind a simple model. The private school would become an academy, fully retaining its independent management and character but without fees for any pupils. It would exchange academically selective admission for all-ability admission, with a large catchment area and “banded” admissions so as to ensure a fully comprehensive ability range. There would also be a large sixth form, underpinning continued very strong academic performance.

A direct-grant sector on these lines is gathering scale. I encouraged and oversaw the transition of five historic fee-paying secondary schools to academy status (William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester, the Belvedere School in Liverpool, Birkenhead High School, and Colston’s Girls’ and Bristol Cathedral schools in Bristol). All five are still performing strongly as academies, while expanding their intake and greatly broadening their social range. The Cameron government has continued this policy. Liverpool College and the King’s School, Tynemouth – both highly successful independent day schools in localities that suffer from high levels of deprivation – have recently decided to become academies.

With government encouragement, there could soon be 50 or 60 more “direct grant” academies. Over time, these direct grant academies could sponsor new academies, replicating their ethos and success within the system.

I recently visited the Petchey Academy, one of the five such schools in Hackney, east London, sponsored by Jack Petchey, a great East End philanthropist. His academy isn’t just about examination results; it is about education for character, for community and for citizenship. This is done brilliantly, in one of London’s most deprived communities.

The staff were particularly keen that I should see debating teams from Years 10 and 11 debate before the whole of both year groups. The debaters were articulate and well prepared, just like the pupils in all those private school debating societies.

The motion they were debating was: “This House would abolish the private schools.” It was carried by two to one. All the old arguments were aired. Unfairness. Privilege. Elitism. Afterwards, I asked the girl who had led the charge whether she had ever visited a private school. “Of course not,” she said. “Why would they want to have anything to do with anyone from around here?”

Why indeed. It is time to bury the past and build a better future.

Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer and served as schools minister from 2005-2008. For a unique New Statesman reader offer on his new book, “Education, Education, Education” – just £8 (rrp £12.99), signed and with a personalised inscription – visit bitebackpublishing.com and enter the promotional code: NSEducation.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

Andre Carhillo
Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496