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The closing of the liberal mind

The folly of the masses has replaced the wisdom of crowds as the dominant theme of our politics.

All that seemed solid in liberalism is melting into air. In Europe the EU struggled for over seven years to reach a trade deal with Canada, one of the most “European” countries in the world; at the same time, banking crises are festering in Italy and Germany and the continuing migrant crisis continues to strengthen far-right parties. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn’s strengthened hold over Labour following an ill-considered attempt to unseat him has reinforced a transformation in the party that reaches well beyond his position as leader. At a global level, Vladimir Putin is redrawing the geopolitical map with his escalating intervention in Syria, while the chief threat to the repressive regime Xi Jinping is building in China appears to be a neo-Maoist movement that harks back to one of the worst tyrannies in history. A liberal order that seemed to be spreading across the globe after the end of the Cold War is fading from memory.

Faced with this shift, liberal opinion-formers have oscillated between insistent denial and apocalyptic foreboding. Though the EU is barely capable of any action, raddled remnants of the old regime – Ed Miliband, Clegg, Mandelson, “the master” himself – have surfaced to demand that Brexit be fudged and, in effect, reversed. Even as the US election hangs in the balance, many are clinging to the belief that a liberal status quo can be restored. But Trump’s presidential campaign has already demolished a bipartisan consensus on free trade, and if he wins, a party system to which his Republican opponents and Hillary Clinton both belonged will be history. Dreading this outcome and suspecting it may yet come to pass, liberals rail against voters who reject their enlightened leadership. Suddenly, the folly of the masses has replaced the wisdom of crowds as the dominant theme in polite discourse. Few ask what in the ruling liberalism could produce such a debacle.

The liberal pageant is fading, yet liberals find it hard to get by without believing they are on what they like to think is the right side of history. The trouble is that they can only envision the future as a continuation of the recent past. This is so whether their liberalism comes from the right or the left. Whether they are George Osborne’s City-based “liberal mainstream”, or Thatcherite think tanks, baffled and seething because Brexit hasn’t taken us closer to a free-market utopia, or egalitarian social democrats who favour redistribution or “predistribution”, an entire generation is finding its view of the world melting away under the impact of events.

Today’s liberals differ widely about how the wealth and opportunities of a market economy should be shared. What none of them question is the type of market globalisation that has developed over the past three decades. Writing in Tribune in 1943 after reviewing a batch of “progressive” books, George Orwell observed: “I was struck by the automatic way in which people go on repeating certain phrases that were fashionable before 1914. Two great favourites are ‘the abolition of distance’ and ‘the disappearance of frontiers’.” More than 70 years later, the same empty formulae are again being repeated. At present, the liberal mind can function only to the extent that it shuts out reality.

It is not surprising that there is talk of ­entering a post-liberal moment. The idea has the merit of grasping that the liberal retreat is not a revolt of the ignorant masses against enlightened elites; it is mostly the result of the follies of liberals themselves. But the revulsion against liberalism is not all of one piece. There is a world of difference between the May government inching its way towards a more intelligent way of ­living with globalisation and Trump’s dream of globalisation in one country. The creeping advance of anti-liberal forces across the European continent is something else again.

Accepting that this is a post-liberal moment does not imply that we should give up on values of freedom and toleration. Quite the contrary: the task at hand is securing the survival of a liberal way of life. But the greatest obstacle to that end, larger even than the hostility of avowed enemies of liberalism, is a liberal ideology that sees state power as the chief threat to freedom. Liberal societies have a future only if the Hobbesian protective role of the state is firmly reasserted. Balancing the claims of liberty against those of security will never be easy. There are many conflicting freedoms, among which political choices must be made. Without security, however, freedom itself is soon lost.

 

***

 

Nothing illustrates the decay of liberalism more vividly than the metamorphosis of the Labour Party. There has been a tendency to interpret Corbyn’s rise as a reversion to the Trotskyite entryism of the early 1980s. Some in the party – possibly including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell – may see their role in terms of converting Labour to some type of neo-Marxism. That does not explain why so many of Labour’s new members seem to want to bury the party in the form in which it has existed throughout its history.

Something like a blueprint for the shift of power in the party was set out in Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, first published in 1961. Miliband’s attack on the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) anticipated the Corbynite strategy with uncanny prescience. Cautioning his comrades on the left who wanted to use Labour as a vehicle for socialism, Miliband wrote in a 1972 postscript to the book:

 

The kind of political changes at the top which a good many socialists hope to see one day brought about in the Labour Party, and which would signify a major ideological shift to the left, would presumably, given the nature of the political system, have to be engineered from within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But to say this is surely also to indicate how unrealistic that hope is. It is unrealistic because it ignores the perennial weakness of the parliamentary left. That weakness is not accidental but structural . . . There have been some exceptions: a few Labour MPs have, so to speak, slipped through the net. But they have remained isolated and often pathetic figures, bitterly at odds not only with their leaders but with that large and permanent majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party which entirely shares its leader’s orthodox modes of thought.

 

Ralph Miliband condemned the PLP as an obstacle to fundamental change and looked to a mass movement outside Labour’s core structures. But history has proved more fertile than his imagination. In a strangely poetic turn of events, an anti-parliamentary party of a kind he believed Labour could never become was brought into being, more than 40 years later, when, by changing the membership rules, Ed Miliband created a historic opening for one of
its most isolated and insignificant figures. Promoted by moderates as a modernising move, on a par with Tony Blair’s revision of Clause Four, this accidental reform has altered Labour structurally and irreversibly. Corbyn’s rise to power could not have occurred if the party’s moderates had not been so devoid of new thinking. They realised that Ed Miliband’s social-democratic moment had failed to arrive and knew that Labour faced an uphill task in becoming electable again. But all they had to offer were empty slogans that reeked of the past. As a result, Labour has become unelectable in any foreseeable future.

Anyone who imagines the party’s electoral fortunes could be revived by a new leader – a charismatic figure from across the water, perhaps – has not taken the measure of the change that has taken place. Although parts of Labour remain outside Corbyn’s control, including much of local government – most importantly, Sadiq Khan’s London – the chief power base of any future leader of the party will be the mass movement that Corbyn has built. Realigning Labour with the electorate can only be done against the opposition of most of the party membership. In these conditions a campaign of the sort Neil Kinnock waged against Militant is no longer feasible. Internecine warfare will continue and may intensify, but Labour’s moderate tendency has no chance of regaining control.

In one sense, Corbyn’s Labour is the practical realisation of Ralph Miliband’s dream. Yet it is not a party Miliband would recognise easily. Labour has become not a retro-Trotskyite sect, but a contemporary expression of formless discontent. Trotsky was a vain and pitiless figure, who crushed a workers’ rising in Kronstadt in 1921 and rejected criticism of the practice of hostage-taking that he implemented during the Russian Civil War as “Quaker-vegetarian chatter”. But, even at his worst, Trotsky could not have proposed anything as inane and intrinsically absurd as retaining Trident submarine patrols while removing the missiles’ nuclear warheads, as Corbyn did in January.

The party Corbyn has created is not easily defined. Aside from the anti-Semitism that is a strand of its make-up, it has no coherent ideology. The legacy of Marxism is notable for its absence. There is no analysis of changing class structures or any systematic critique of the present condition of capitalism. Such policies as have been floated have been plucked from a blue sky, without any attempt to connect them with earthbound facts. The consensus-seeking values of core Labour voters are dismissed as symptoms of backwardness. As for the concerns about job security and immigration that produced large majorities in favour of Brexit in what used to be safe Labour areas, the Corbynite view seems to be that these are retrograde attitudes that only show how badly working people need re-education.

Corbyn’s refusal to specify any upper limit to immigration at the last party conference in Liverpool illustrated his detachment from electoral realities. But far from being a debilitating weakness – as it would be if Labour were still a conventional political party – this rejection of realistic thinking is the principal source of his strength in the new kind of party he has created. From being a broad-based institution that defended the interests of working people, Labour has morphed into a vehicle for an alienated fringe of the middle class that finds psychological comfort in belonging in an anti-capitalist protest movement. While a dwindling rump of trade union barons continues to act as power-broker, Labour’s northern fortresses are crumbling.

The defining feature of Corbynite Labour is not an anachronistic utopian socialism, but a very modern kind of liberal narcissism. Looking two or three general elections ahead, the party could well reach a membership of over a million even as it struggled to elect a hundred MPs. The party’s role would then be one of permanent opposition, without the privileges that go with being an alternative government.

 

***

 

The claim that what has emerged from Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party is an inchoate and extreme type of liberalism may seem perverse. He and his followers never cease to inveigh against neoliberal economics – a blanket term that seems to include every market economy in the world – even as they show a consistent bias in favour of tyrannies in their protests against military action, their anti-war campaigns focusing solely as they do on the policies of Western governments. It might seem that Labour under Corbyn has abandoned liberal values altogether, and there are some who talk of a new left-fascism.

Yet this is too easy an analysis of the change that has taken place. Corbyn’s Labour is no more crypto-fascist than it is Trotskyite. In some respects – such as his support for unlimited freedom of movement for people – it embodies a hyperbolic version of the liberalism of the most recent generation. In others, it expresses what liberalism has now become. There have always been many liberalisms, but the mutation in liberal thinking over the past few decades has been deep and radical. From being a philosophy that aimed to give a theoretical rationale to a way of life based on the practice of toleration, it has become a mindset that defines itself by enmity to that way of life.

Corbyn’s “inclusive” attitude towards Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA fits in with a left-liberal world-view that supports ­anti-colonial struggles in a general embrace of identity politics. Fashionable nonsense about cultural appropriation may not matter much, as it has been largely confined to increasingly marginal universities. However, it expresses what has come to be seen as a liberal principle: the right of everyone to assert what they take to be their identity – particularly if it can be represented as that of an oppressed minority – by whatever means are judged necessary. If free speech stands in the way, the practice must be discarded. It terrorism is required, so be it. This represents a fundamental shift in liberal thinking.

The overriding importance given to rights – a selective reading of them, at any rate – is one of the marks of the new liberalism. In one form or another, doctrines of human rights have been around for centuries, and a conception of universal rights was embodied in the UN Declaration of 1948. But rights became central and primary in liberal thought only in the 1970s with the rise of the legalist philosophies of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, which held that freedom can be codified into a fixed system of interlocking liberties that can be interpreted by judges. On the libertarian right, Friedrich Hayek proposed something similar with his constitutional proposals for limiting democracy.

Protecting liberty is not just a matter of curbing government, however. Rolling back the state in the economy and society can have the effect of leaving people less free – a fact that was recognised by liberal thinkers of an earlier generation. Maynard Keynes understood that free trade allowed consumers a wide range of choices. He also understood that freedom of choice is devalued when livelihoods face being rapidly destroyed on a large scale, and partly for that reason he refused to treat free trade as a sacrosanct dogma. He never imagined freedom could be reduced to a list of rights.

The move to rights-based liberalism has had damaging effects in many areas of policy. A militant ideology of human rights played a part in some of the worst foreign policy disasters of recent times. The ruinous military adventures of the Blair-Cameron era did not fail because there was not enough post-invasion planning. They failed, first, because in overthrowing the despotisms of Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi they destroyed the state in both Iraq and Libya, leaving zones of anarchy in which jihadist forces could operate freely. More fundamentally, they failed because human rights cannot be imposed on societies that have never known them and where most people may not want them.

Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal will provoke spasms of righteous indignation. Liberals cannot help believing that all human beings secretly yearn to become as they imagine themselves to be. But this is faith, not fact. The belief that liberal values are universally revered is not founded in empirical observation. They are far from secure even in parts of continental Europe where they were seen as unshakeable only a few years ago. In much of the world they are barely recognised.

That liberal values belong in a particular way of life was the central theme of the ­essays collected in my book Post-Liberalism (1993). Modern liberalism is a late growth from Jewish and Christian monotheism. It is from these religious traditions – more than anything in Greek philosophy – that liberal values of toleration and freedom have sprung. If these values were held to be universal, it was because they were believed to be ordained by God. Most liberals nowadays are secular in outlook, yet they continue to believe that their values are humanly universal.

It has never been clear why this should be so. A common response conjures up ­Enlightenment values against the demon of relativism, somehow forgetting that modern relativism emerged from the Enlightenment. Others invoke cod-theories in social science which claim that only liberal societies can be modern. Francis Fukuyama’s thesis is the best known, but they all assert that globalisation is producing a worldwide middle class that is demanding political freedom, as the European bourgeoisie is supposed to have done in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In fact, the European middle classes threw in their lot with authoritarian regimes as often as they supported freedom and democracy, and the same is true at a global level today. Much of the middle class in Russia appears wedded to a combination of consumerism and nationalism, and in China most seem to want nothing more than rising living standards and freedom in their private lives. In the United States, on the other hand, unchecked globalisation is destroying the middle classes.

If the liberalism that has prevailed over the past generation was a falsifiable theory it would long since have been abandoned. There is no detectable connection between advancing globalisation and the spread of liberal values. Liberals resist this because it empties their lives of significance. For them, liberalism is a surrogate religion, providing the sustaining illusion that their values express the meaning of history.

These may seem arguments far removed from everyday politics, but they have important practical implications. Liberal societies cannot depend on history for their survival. They need to defend themselves, and here the cult of rights needs deflating. Human rights may have value as symbolic barriers against the worst evils, such as genocide, slavery and torture. Where they are not backed by state power, however, ­human rights mean nothing: less than nothing, in fact, if they encourage people to believe they will be protected when (as in Srebrenica and now in Aleppo) the power to protect them is lacking. Human rights cannot serve as a template for world order. When they are used to promote evangelical military campaigns they endanger the way of life they were meant to protect.

 

***

Popular revulsion against established elites has produced some curious responses. There is constant talk about reason being junked in an emotional rejection of experts, as was supposed to have happened in this year’s EU referendum campaign. Yet the record hardly justifies any strong claims on behalf of those who claim special insight into economics or politics. Much of what has passed for expert knowledge consists of speculative or discredited theories, such as the sub-Keynesian ideas that support quantitative easing as a permanent regime and the notion that globalisation benefits everybody in the long run. When rattled liberals talk of the triumph of emotion over reason, what they mean is that voters are ignoring the intellectual detritus that has guided their leaders and are responding instead to facts and their own experiences.

What British voters are not doing is repudiating the society in which they live. For some critics of liberalism, what is needed is a rejection of individualism in economics and culture. This is the message of John Milbank and Adrian Pabst in The Politics of Virtue (reviewed by Rowan Williams in this paper on 14 October). The book promotes a neo-medievalist vision of organic community that would be familiar to Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton, whom Milbank and Pabst cite approvingly. Post-liberalism of this kind is, in my view, a dead end in politics. Most people in Britain do not want to live in organic communities. They are not nostalgic for an imaginary past, and show little fondness for the claustrophobic intimacy of unchanging, homogeneous neighbourhoods. They want what Thomas Hobbes called commodious living – in other words, the amenities of modern economy – without the chronic insecurity that is produced by unfettered market forces. Rather than rejecting market individualism, they are demanding that it be constrained. They would like to inhabit a common culture but are happy for it to contain diverse beliefs and lifestyles.

A post-liberal society is one in which freedom and toleration are protected under the shelter of a strong state. In economic terms, this entails discarding the notion that the primary purpose of government is to advance globalisation. In future, governments will succeed or fail by how well they can deliver prosperity while managing the social disruption that globalisation produces. Obviously it will be a delicate balancing act. There is a risk that deglobalisation will spiral out of control. New technologies will disrupt settled patterns of working and living whatever governments may do. Popular demands cannot be met in full, but parties that do not curb the market in the interests of social cohesion are consigning themselves to the memory hole. The type of globalisation that has developed over the past decades is not politically sustainable.

To expect liberals to comprehend this situation would be unreasonable. For them, it is not only the liberal order that is melting away, but any sense of their own place in history. From being the vanguard of human progress, they find themselves powerless spectators of events. But they insist that the solution to the crisis of liberalism is clear. What is needed is more of the same: a stronger infusion of idealism; an unyielding determination to renew the liberal projects of the past. The notion that any of these projects needs to be revised or abandoned – global free trade, say, or the free movement of labour across national borders – is unthinkable. The only thing wrong with past policies, they will say, is that they were not liberal enough.

Adamant certainty mixed with self-admiring angst has long defined the liberal mind and does so now. Yet beneath this, a different mood can be detected. All that really remains of liberalism is fear of the future. Faced with the world they thought they knew fading into air, many liberals may be tempted to retreat into the imaginary worlds envisioned by left-leaning non-governmental organisations, or conjured up in academic seminars. This amounts to giving up the political struggle, and it may be that, despite themselves, those who embodied the ruling liberalism are coming to realise that their day is done.

John Gray’s latest book is the new and enlarged edition of “Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings” (Penguin)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind

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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