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The elephant and the lone star

The message from Barack Obama’s victory in the 2012 election was that Latino America holds the balance of power. But in Texas, it seems — despite Bush’s best efforts — that hasn’t yet sunk in to Republican minds.

Eddi Regolado still cries when he hears the national anthem: not that of his native Nicaragua, from which he fled with his family during the long civil war when he was seven, but of his new and adoptive home, the United States of America. He and his family settled in Texas in the state capital, Austin, but the citizenship process was arduous. It took Regolado nearly 20 years to naturalise but he doesn’t mind. “Every single member of my family loves the US,” he says. “We’re proud to be here.”

He works two and a half blocks north of the state capitol building in Austin – practically in the shadow of its hulking red dome – as the general manager at El Mercado, an airy and pleasant Mexican eatery. Over chalupas (a sort of stuffed taco shell salad) and margaritas, he tells me he still feels nostalgic about Nicaragua. “Going back is like going to my mother’s house. America is like, our wife. But it’s good to see Mother from time to time.”

Regolado is a Democrat. His parents are Democrats. Pretty much his whole family votes Democrat. He says Latinos lean that way because the Democrats “tend to help out more with immigration. When you’re new, from a different country – how do I put this? – a lot of families have a hard time assimilating. The Democrats help out with that. It’s not loyalty, exactly, but that’s why they tend to vote the way they do.”

He feels the Democrats are just making more of an effort to reach his community. “All the minorities, really.”

He thinks that as the Latino population of Texas increases in size, there will be a process of realisation of power for his community, a realisation that engagement with the political system can help Latinos get their voices heard. If they wake up in this way – and if the Republicans continue to alienate Regolado and his family in the way they are doing – at some point soon the Democrats could take Texas. Here’s how important this is: in a presidential election, Texas has 38 electoral college votes, the second most of any state, behind only California. If the Democrats turn Texas, that’s it for the Republicans. Game over. Lights out. Unless the Republican Party reforms beyond all recognition, there might never be a Republican president ever again.

***

Texas was annexed from Mexico by colonists from the US in the 1830s, birthing the short-lived independent Republic of Texas after a short but bloody conflict, the most famous battle of which was the Alamo in 1836. It was pretty much the last battle Texas lost, a massacre of 187 troops holed up inside a mission in San Antonio, routed by General López de Santa Anna’s army of more than 5,000. Outside the capitol building, two blocks from El Mercado, is a statue commemorating the heroes of that battle. The fight begat a rallying call that Texan patriots remember to this day: “Remember the Alamo!”

In some parts of the population, especially among the older white males and especially in more rural areas, there is a kind of inherited memory that still attaches great importance to the Battle of the Alamo. They see Texas as a white bastion, and their sense of the loss of the 1836 republic, a sense that in some intangible way they are being overrun, is a powerful political force. It most often emerges in the form of an obsession with policing the borders and finding and deporting illegal immigrants.

During last year’s presidential election, to avoid being outflanked on the right by competitors such as Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney engaged in antiimmigrant rhetoric, making much-criticised proposals about “self-deportation”. Unsurprisingly, Romney’s support among Hispanics on election day was catastrophically low, 44 points behind Barack Obama – yet he was seen as a moderate candidate by current Republican standards.

“I’m not in the crystal ball business,” says Bill White, a former mayor of Houston and Democratic gubernatorial candidate who ran against Rick Perry for governor of Texas in 2010 and who, despite losing overall, received a greater share of the vote than any Democrat in the state’s history. “But if the Republican Party continues on its present course, then they will become a minority party in Texas.”

Latinos today make up 38 per cent of the electorate in Texas, a proportion that is growing swiftly, but they are under-represented in the Republican Party; out of a GOP delegation of 95 in the Texas House of Representatives, only three are Hispanic, while Latinos form an absolute majority of the Democratic delegation: 29 out of 55. This is a good sign for the Democrats. Latino voters represent a segment of the population that is increasing sharply both in size and in political engagement, and the Republican Party seems hellbent on alienating them.

Professor Mark Jones, who chairs the political science department at Rice University in Houston, warns that the Democrats can’t just wait for the demographic shift to come to them. “If the Democrats sit back and do nothing, they’re depending on the Republicans continuing to commit the same errors they’ve been making up until now,” he says. “The worst-case Democrat scenario is, they do nothing, and the Republicans bite the bullet and kick the immigration issue. If that happens, then the Republicans can cling on to dominant status here for 20 to 30 years.”

But, Jones says, if the Republicans don’t rid themselves of their anti-immigrant rhetoric, even if Democrats continue to sit back and do nothing, the state could shift sooner than that: perhaps within 15 years. “The third scenario, the best-case scenario for Democrats, is that Republicans continue the same way – adopting a very hard line on immigration; allowing that to dominate the image of the party – while Democrats get their act together and do a good job of mobilising and registering Hispanics. Then we could see a shift even sooner: in, say, eight years.” That means Texas would flip to the Democrats more or less “by the end of the decade”.

***

In the 2010 census, Texas had grown sufficiently to merit the addition of four seats in Congress – the number of federal senators is fixed at two per state regardless of size but the House of Representatives uses a metric based on population. That growth was almost exclusively in the Hispanic population.

However, it is important to note the differences within that community. National political strategists have usually lumped all Hispanic interests together, but this is wrong. Even at a casual glance, the Mexican-American population is very different from the Cuban Americans, who lean more conservative. Most of the Republican Party’s highprofile Hispanic candidates: Marco Rubio in Florida, Ted Cruz in Texas – candidates on whom the party pins its hopes for winning over the entire Latino community – are Cuban-American and will struggle to win over the Hispanic voting bloc en masse. To win the primary for his Senate race, Cruz ran to the right on many issues that the Latino community finds troubling, promising to build a wall at the border, for instance, and to triple the size of the border patrol. This has not found him favour with many Latino voters. Eddi Regolado, for one, says that he thinks they would be much more likely to support a white Democratic presidential candidate such as Hillary Clinton than someone like Cruz or Rubio.

“It’s interesting in Texas that the reputation of the state is [that] it’s overwhelmingly Republican,” says Joe Holley, the political editor of the Houston Chronicle. “And yet every one of its big cities are Democratic.” To some extent, Texas has always been a oneparty state, and it was actually a Democratic stronghold from the Reconstruction era – the 1860s and 1870s – right up until the 1980s, as Holley explains. It gradually began to change in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and by the 1990s Texas was still a one-party state, but that was now the Republican Party.

Now, once again, the demographic change is slowly loading weight back on the other side of the see-saw.

“This is sort of, in kind of a quirky way, the second Texas Revolution,” says Holley, smiling. “And this time, the Mexicans are going to win.”

***

Jon Greene teaches English as a foreign language in downtown Houston, and he invites me to sit in with him on the course. It’s a chilly Thursday night, the last lesson of the term. There are ten people here, some young and some old, all Hispanic. Immigration is a sensitive subject in Texas, so the status of the students – illegal or legal – is off the table, as are names. I will lend some of the classmates a nom de guerre for the purposes of this article. The class is split about half and half between those of Mexican and El Salvadorean origins. Most say they came to America looking for work, or as children with their parents doing the same. A few of the El Salvadoreans say they came fleeing violence; a civil war raged in El Salvador from 1979 to 1992.

Many are educated professionals in their country of origin but struggle to find work in the US – one, Sofia, a lawyer back in Mexico, has been working as a babysitter. Many of the students are here because speaking English helps in the search for work, but many are also here to help them communicate with younger, more integrated members of their families. Cristina, who came to the US in 1980, is one of the latter: her daughter is an opera singer and her son is a trainee journalist, and for both of them their first language is English.

I ask a few questions about politics. Greene, their teacher, had warned me that the English of some of the students was pretty basic, but we make impressive progress as the class warms to the subject.

After introductions, we go around the room namechecking highprofile Hispanic politicians. Many of them talk about Adrian Garcia, the popular sheriff of Harris County in metropolitan Houston. Rick Perry, the Republican governor, gets short shrift, but the Castro brothers – Joaquin and Julián, the former the new congressman for the 20th district of Texas and the latter the mayor of San Antonio, whose keynote speech at last year’s Democratic National Convention gave him a public profile across the country – are warmly approved. Maria cites the appointment to the Supreme Court of Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican, as another sign of a Hispanic political awakening.

“This is the first time a black person stands for president,” says Juana, from Mexico. “Maybe next time, a Hispanic?”

“Maybe a woman, too?” Cristina shoots back. Grins of female solidarity dart across the room. Some of the men – somewhat unwisely – giggle. Sofia the lawyer snaps at them in Spanish, and the debate descends into a lively row.

I ask if any of them is a particular fan of the Republican Party. That makes everyone go quiet. There is a long silence, broken by a cough. Cristina shakes her head slowly. How about Romney? “He don’t like the Hispanic people,” says Rafael, one of the younger El Salvadoreans. There are murmurs of agreement. “I vote for Democrats. I’m a Democrat,” Cristina says. The other classmates nod their assent.

***

The following day, as the storm cloud that has been hanging over Houston for days finally breaks into torrential rain, I drive out to an adjunct tower block near the Rice University campus to meet Steve Murdock, the director of the Hobby Centre for the Study of Texas, a professor of sociology, a former official state demographer for Texas and, before that, the director of the US Census Bureau.

Murdock, as his background would imply, is a man who loves his data. My interview with him involved the prolonged viewing of no fewer than 120 charts and visualisations showing projections of the Hispanic populations of Texas and the US. As he says to me with a grin when I sit down: “You have to watch out for a demographer – they always want to show you data.”

The numbers are staggering. In the age group 65 and over, there are many more Anglos – a Southern slang term for non-Hispanic whites – than Hispanics: 67.6 per cent to 20.5. But as age descends, the ratios switch over. In the 35-to-39 age group they are about equal and by the time you get to the under-fives there are considerably more Hispanics than Anglos – 50.6 per cent to 31.7 per cent. In total, Hispanics account for 48.3 per cent of the under-18s in the state and that figure is rising. By the time the current cohort of children is of voting age, Hispanics will be the majority in Texas.

“You really have, in the US, two populations,” says Murdock, as lightning streaks the sky outside: “an ageing set of non-Hispanic whites, whose fertility has been below replacement for over 20 years, and a young and growing minority population.”

Texas and other states that have had high levels of Hispanic immigration, such as California, are some decades ahead of the curve, yet the census data shows a similar trend in the US as a whole. “[What we’re seeing is] one of the largest changes to occur in US history in terms of broad changes in ethnic composition,” Murdock says.

He shows me another graph, this time of projections of the US population out towards 2050. It shows a dramatic shift. The non-Hispanic white population rises just seven million, from 196 million to 203 million. The Hispanic population, however, nearly quadruples, from 36 million to 133 million. The difference in percentage change is enormous. In Texas, the projection is even starker. Assuming zero net migration, the population of Texas will be majority Hispanic – just – by 2030. Assuming the same net migration as in the years 2000-2010, that will happen before the end of the decade, and the projection is that by 2050 Texas will have nearly three times as many Hispanics as Anglos – although, because that figure includes the under-18s, the switch-over from minority to majority in terms of the electorate will happen a little while later. Murdock is the first to note that long-term projections can be shaky – there is a wide margin of error at play – but according to even his most conservative estimates, the change is inevit able. “Demographically,” he says, “we’re not looking with much question at what the future is going to be.”

***

Demographics are different from politics. While the former may be changing swiftly and unstoppably, working out how this will affect the latter is a more complex endeavour. By no means should we take it for granted that a rising Hispanic population will lead to a corresponding rise in the Democrat vote – and the Democrats have been blasé in their approach to Texas.

I ask Mark Jones at Rice if that attitude on the left is matched by a disbelief on the Republican side that they could ever lose Texas. “I think the Republican pragmatists get it,” he says. “Even privately, some of the right wing gets it; they just don’t want to say it publicly. But the problem they run into is convincing those people who vote in primaries, some of the real activists, who either don’t believe it – they just don’t see a linkage between their rhetoric and the Hispanic vote – or who believe Latinos are all hooked on welfare and they’re never going to win them over.”

Maria Baños Jordan is the executive director of the Texas Latino Leadership Roundtable, a group that aims to foster and encourage leadership and political engagement in the Latino community. She is of mixed Hispanic origin. Her father was a Cuban refugee who came to the US in the early 1960s after the rise of Fidel Castro; her mother was a Mexican immigrant. They met in Houston.

“I grew up in the change, in the time where Houston started to really just explode, and the population started to become more diverse. When I was a little girl, I was the only Latina in my class. So I know what that felt like, and I know what it felt like to be questioned about your culture, and your behaviours and your tradition.”

Today, by contrast, the public school system in Texas is overwhelmingly Hispanicmajority, a reflection of the changing demographics. In Houston, non-Hispanic whites account for just 7.8 per cent of enrolled students. Hispanic students account for 61.9 per cent. Jordan’s organisation, in parallel, has taken off in a big way in recent years. “The feel in Texas right now,” she says, “is that the state is ripe for more Latino leadership.”

I wonder why an established, resident and maybe second- or third- or even fourth-generation immigrant population still gets angry about legislation affecting new or illegal immigrants. “The immigration issue is such an emotional one,” Jordan says, “especially when there are so many families that are intermarried, whether documented or undocumented, or first-generation or second-generation.

“It’s not black-and-white. We all have close friends or relatives that have issues with immigration. We’re dealing with it on a daily basis, so we are very tied to it. And we know that the law’s the law, but we need to see respect and dignity brought into the conversation. And it just hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”

“To be honest,” says Eddi Regolado, “illegal immigration will never stop. People would rather take their chances than stay. A fence is not going to keep people out. This country was founded by immigrants. There has to be a way to help people.”

Hispanic-American support for the Democrats is not fixed; historically, it has fluctuated from election to election. Latinos came out in force in 2012 for Obama – 71 per cent of them voted Democrat, according to the Pew Research Centre, a level of support surpassed only in Bill Clinton’s 1996 race against Bob Dole, in which 72 per cent voted Democrat. But the Bushes, George and George W, clawed back a large part of the percentage point gap among Hispanics, so much so that where Obama was 44 points clear of Romney, George W Bush’s support in 2004 was just 18 points shy of John Kerry’s – still a big gap, but a much healthier margin.

Leonard Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, was partly responsible for this. He was George W Bush’s head of Latino outreach and later worked in the Bush White House as a strategist. It was Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, who first got him involved with garnering Latino support, and that was from the very beginning of the primary season, at the Iowa straw poll.

By contrast, Romney didn’t have anyone working on speaking to Latinos until much, much later in the campaign – by which time, Rodriguez tells me, it was “way too late” to push for any possible victory.

Even though Hispanics in Texas voted in higher numbers than was expected in 2012, and even though they voted overwhelmingly for Obama, there’s still a question as to when they will reach optimal force and influence and, more pertinently, whether the vote will be so dissipated when that happens that it will become no more or less significant than the Italian vote or the German vote. Republicans are hoping that, as the Latino community becomes more assimilated, it will vote less on immigration and more on social and economic issues – issues that Republicans hope they can use to strike a chord with Latinos as a socially conservative Catholic community that places high emphasis on family values. But those same values will also mean Hispanics identify Republicans as being “not for them” long after they have assimilated.

Bush continued to be sensitive to Hispanic Americans throughout his campaign, saying in a speech during a campaign stop in Texas in 2000: “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande River . . . People are coming to America because they are moms and dads trying to feed their children. As long as people are coming to feed their families, our country must be mindful that they’re human beings as well.” Just imagine a Republican candidate winning in the primaries today after giving a speech like that.

It didn’t stop after Bush’s victory, either. In 2001, one of his first actions as president was to change the custom of a new White House administration inviting the Canadian leader to be the guest at its first state dinner: Bush’s first state dinner was with the president of Mexico. “Compassionate conservatism” was to be at the heart of his administration’s domestic policy, and that meant credible immigration and domestic reform. At last, here was a conservative willing – even eager – to reach out to the Latino community.

“And then,” Leonard Rodriguez says, “we got hit with 9/11. No longer was that [domestic and immigration reform] agenda we’d been working on a top priority . . . since then, [Republicans have] been hijacked by this very right-wing, anti-immigrant dialect, and that’s one of the things the party’s been struggling with ever since.”

Maria Baños Jordan says that when Romney started to speak out against immigration and talk about imposing “self-deportation”, she “immediately know it was over. It showed that, whatever advice he was receiving, he was absolutely out of touch with what was happening across the nation.

“It was sad, in the sense that I felt that there were many Latinos waiting for someone to step up and speak to them with respect and in a way that translated, and at that point it was obviously not going to happen. And I don’t think he ever recovered.” T here is no doubt that it is the Republicans’ stance on immigration that is destroying them. At present, there is little discernible sign of interest in the party in doing anything about it.

Rodriguez is deeply saddened by this. “If you look at the structure of the Republican Party, I doubt they’ll go back to what Bush was trying to teach them, even when the party gets its leadership together. They’ll go back to the bad habits. I don’t expect that there’s going to be any Hispanic personnel in the next Republican Party.”

***

Towards the end of my time in Texas, I finally make the pilgrimage to San Antonio to see the Alamo. The shape of the old building – actually the original chapel, where the women and children took shelter – is instantly familiar. Outside, schoolchildren, most of them Latino, are gathering. A preacher, old and bearded and spitting vigorously, harangues the crowd. It is December but it is still very hot outside. A sign says “Welcome to the Alamo: the shrine of Texas liberty”.

Inside, it is cooler. Tourists study the displays of banners and scale models of the battle that are scattered about. I speak to one, a US army veteran and third-generation Mexican American who is visiting with his family. I ask what this place means to him, and he nods over his shoulder at the elderly white couple gazing at a glass case with Davy Crockett’s leather pouch in it.

“To a white Texan, it means everything,” he says. Then he asks if I can quote him anonymously. Yes, I say, absolutely.

“Me personally?” He leans in towards me conspiratorially. “I don’t give a shit about this place.”

Nicky Woolf is a contributing writer to GQ and reports for the New Statesman from the United States

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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