KALPESH LATHIGRA
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Charlotte Church: "We underestimated how angry white men are"

The singer on Donald Trump, grass-roots rebellion and why Jeremy Corbyn can't win.

This interview is from the New Statesman's Christmas issue. Take advantage of our special offers and get a subscription for yourself or a loved one this Christmas.

In London’s Roundhouse in October, at a concert by the Chicago singer Ezra Furman and his band the Boy-Friends, punters got a strange support act. Charlotte Church in a kaftan, surrounded by a sprawling troupe of musicians, singing a full-throated version of R Kelly’s vintage make-out anthem “Bump n’ Grind”. Then she did “Killing in the Name”, the anti-racist rap-metal assault by Rage Against the Machine. Then “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails: “I want to f*** you like an animal”.

When these colourful tunes were released in the early 1990s, Church was wearing an Alice band and singing “Pie Jesu” for the Pope. Between kissing the venerable ring, having her phone hacked and appearing on Blue Peter and its equivalents around the world, there wasn’t much time for R Kelly, which is perhaps why she’s doing it now. Despite the ecstatic reaction, the act – which she does at festivals and in late-night cabaret slots – remains defiantly fringe.

“It is dramatic, it is nonsensical, and it is engineered to be as much fun as is humanly possible,” she says. “Which in the modern world is becoming far more necessary.”

We meet in Dinas Powys, the village just outside Cardiff where Church lives, at a small delicatessen with scaffolding on the front. She has a big navy-blue wraparound coat and a stretchy dress underneath, which she adjusts now and then with a snap. There’s a copy of this paper on the table with an artist’s impression of Donald Trump on the cover, and she will jab at it intermittently throughout the interview, in a wordless gesture that says: This has changed everything.

As someone whose political opinions have developed in the public eye, Church takes interviews seriously. Her brain fires off in several directions at once but her words are carefully chosen. Occasionally, she thinks she’s got herself down a theoretical cul-de-sac (“Brain! Come on!”), stops for a second and backs out again. She has a rare habit of admitting she has changed her mind about things. At the same time, she is fearless. During a trip to New York in 2001, aged 15, she said that the heroism attached to the firemen who were on duty during the 9/11 attacks was distasteful: “They went from here in society to celebrities. They are even invited here to present television awards, which I just don’t agree with.” At 17 she hosted Have I Got News for You, successfully rebuffing digs about her fortune, with some youthful gaffes thrown in – she didn’t feel she should have to pay 40 per cent tax to a government she hadn’t been able to vote for.

Have I Got News for You is a piece of piss compared to Question Time!” she cries. “Question Time is horrendous. I don’t think I’ll do it again. The last time was right here in Cardiff, two years ago and the audience was completely right-wing.”

Before doing the programme, she says, “I squirrel myself away for a week and jam-pack all the knowledge I possibly can – just interesting things I didn’t know before.” One of those things was a report in the US scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which drew links between the civil unrest in Syria and climate change: a five-year drought had pushed rural communities into the cities, compounding the existing refugee crisis and pushing up food prices.

“I thought it was important to bring up because all these things have connections, and we’re going to start seeing that more and more,” she says. “And I got absolutely annihilated for it afterwards! Then a couple of weeks later, Prince Charles said something about it, then Nasa – and then of course it was OK.”

After her Syria comments, the Sun ran six pages under the headline “Voice of an Angel, brain like an Angel Delight”. It was a continuation of an old narrative that leaves Church – who turned 30 this year – with one foot in another, grimier era: that of a press which sent bugged wreaths to Freddie Mercury’s funeral and tapped the phones of missing schoolgirls. For the tabloids, Church’s trajectory from angelic child star to pent-up teenager was too good to ignore.

In 1999, when she was 13 years old, she was invited to sing at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding to Wendi Deng on his yacht in New York Harbour. Church and her mother, Maria, were offered a choice: £100,000 for the gig, or favourable press for the next few years. Mother and daughter wanted to take the money: her manager at the time, Jonathan Shalit, went for the second option. The favourable press, she tells me, lasted “precisely two years”.

The News of the World ran 33 stories on her from hacked voicemails alone. Her pregnancy was announced after a call with a doctor was intercepted. Her relationship with the rugby player Gavin Henson, the father of her two children, was scrutinised. Her mother got wind of a piece in the News of the World alleging that her husband had had an affair – and she attempted suicide. Church appeared at the Leveson inquiry in 2011, which is where she traces the start of her political engagement. She went on Question Time in Swansea ­afterwards. An elderly woman in the audience suggested that a person stronger than her mother might have been able to handle the limelight.

 

***

 

Church clearly bears the scars from those days, and says that she has always attracted abuse for being outspoken, wealthy and, more recently, for being Welsh. She notes that since the Brexit vote, some of her Twitter trolls have relinquished their anonymity: the little “eggs” that appear in place of profile pictures have been replaced by photographs and names.

A couple of years after Leveson, Church was asked to do a BBC John Peel Lecture on women in pop, at a time when Miley Cyrus’s twerking butt was driving much of the world’s news. She identified the figure of Miley as an “untouchable sex-bot”, saying that there was no clear career trajectory for the teenage female pop star coming into adulthood, short of removing her clothes. Her own inevitable transition from Opera Charlotte to Sex Charlotte came in the form of her 2005 hit “Crazy Chick”: “Won’t you lay me on your leather couch/I got a lot I need to talk about”. It seems innocent now.

She talks nostalgically of the women singers she listened to as a teenager – Erykah Badu, India Arie, Jill Scott, Sugababes, TLC, All Saints, Alicia Keys. There was an understated toughness to their image, naturally boyish and relatively non-sexualised. If a girl band turned up dressed in combat trousers today there would be countless dissections of their “message” online.

“The rise of identity politics has fed in to all of this nonsense,” she says, “and I’m not saying that identity politics is a bad thing; it exists because there are factions within society which are still struggling. But in another way, it is divisive. You might all believe in the baseline thing – feminism, for example – but when so many types of feminism are pitted against each other it becomes segregated, and it can cause disunity even though everybody really wants the same thing.

“Those acts back in the day got through to all girls, and all boys, in primary schools – without any analysis of the fact that the girls in TLC were actually quite strong, and not over-vulnerable. Now, a band like that would elicit so much analysis, and loads of people find it impenetrable.”

High-level identity politics is hopeless, she thinks, when trying to counter a right-wing message that is clear and brutal.

“They say it’s the voice of the liberal elite – but call a spade a spade: a lot of the time, it’s just academic writing. What the right wing managed to do, both here and in America, was get beyond all of that, put things into simple messaging. A lot of the time it was bullshit, but apparently now that doesn’t matter.” She jabs at the picture of Trump again.

“Obviously we underestimated how angry white men are,” she says. “All forms of bigotry – whether it’s homophobia, miso­gyny, racism – are about fear of being in the minority. And if you hold the majority position – ie, white males throughout his­tory – you fear losing control. We need to find ways to make people feel like they aren’t losing control.”

Then, on a roll, she expounds a theory she says may be “mad”.

“The alt right in America, they’ve made themselves victims,” she says. “And some of this victim stuff might be to do with the over-sexualisation of women. When you think about porn, and advertising, you’ve constantly got these dudes feeling urges all over the shop, and a lot of the time, for whatever reason – maybe they’re socially awkward – they are not attaining those levels of women, and that’s making them embittered and frustrated.

“I don’t want to excuse these people, but what’s the root cause? We really need to start thinking about things in a far more psychological, human way. If you can’t ­control consumerism, then have the same the other way round: I’d rather not have page three, but if we’re going to, let’s have page two – do you know what I mean? An attractive, scantily clad dude.”

Church first came to the public eye sitting in an armchair at the age of 11, opposite Jonathan Ross on ITV’s Big Big Talent Show – and introducing her auntie Caroline Cooper, a wannabe singer with a voice a bit like Beverley Craven’s. Church had sung “Pie Jesu” down the phone to Richard and Judy a few weeks earlier. Ross got her to do a few bars. She hit high Cs without batting an eyelid. Her aunt, she says, was furious.

Her parents had been planning to put her through music college before the TV shows and record deal came. She sang love duets with 60-year-old opera singers, performed at George W Bush’s inauguration and sat a GCSE at the White House. “By the time I was 16, I said, ‘Eugh, I’m dead, I hate this, I want to go home.’”

As a child, remarkably self-possessed, she would say that she was a pretty normal kid, and everything was fine. “And it sort of was . . .” she says. “But I just wanted to be with my friends, to hang out on street corners and drink vodka and go to underage nightclubs. That’s what I wanted to do.”

She got what she wanted – quit classical music, ended a six-album deal at 20 and started releasing pop stuff, with limited critical success. But you sense there have been many milestones missed because of the accelerated course of her early life. A few years ago she talked about wanting to study quantum mechanics at university, but today she says: “I did want to, but then life gets in the way, doesn’t it?”

The funny thing about watching old clips of Church on television is that the audience doesn’t break into rapturous applause within six seconds of her opening breath as listeners would today. She was the prototype of the reality-TV pop star but she missed the whole X Factor thing by half a dozen years. She tells me that she’d probably have done it, “because I love singing and I think I’m really good at it”. She guffaws. But she is not a fan of the show.

“They’re completely immoral, the way that they treat people on there. The deals these people go into afterwards are scandalous. They sign their life away for three years, and even if you don’t win, you’re not allowed to release anything . . . It exploits people, and it’s incredibly formulaic, and there’s no real artistry. The initial sparks you see in people are completely homogenised out of them by the time they’re doing the live shows.”

Church has assembled these strong opinions because she was asked to be an X Factor judge. “I went for the meeting because I was curious. I asked how much artistic control I could have over my artists, and they basically said none.”

Her plan was to infiltrate the X Factor system in an ironic way, “make a shed tonne of money and do some good at the same time”. She would use her technical know-how to give direction – “rather than saying some inane shit which doesn’t mean anything. I’m a vocalist, I’ve trained for years; I know what to say to somebody about their tone, if they’re sharp or flat. If you don’t say stuff like that, it’s not helpful, and it’s not helpful to the wider public. These people are supposed to be experts. So, I thought I’d go in and bring something to it that was a bit kinder, a bit nicer, but also a bit more informative. But I couldn’t. I found that out from just one meeting.”

The idea of a grass-roots overthrow of the TV talent shows seems appropriate to the 2016 Church, who says that this year, there are bigger things to be angry about than party politics. She was an outspoken critic of David Cameron (“gross”) but when I ask her what she thinks of Theresa May, she says, “Well, she’s not saying anything, is she? This is an authoritarian government, essentially, that’s what it’s turning into. Philip Hammond says he’s going to abolish the Autumn Statement – he’s just not going to do it any more? They’re using Brexit as an excuse to say they can’t show their hand because they’re in the middle of negotiations. Meanwhile you’ve got every EU politician saying, ‘There is no deal, there are no negotiations.’ I’m pretty opposed to May on everything. She is not democratic and she’s keeping the country in the dark.”

 

***

 

On 21 November at the Cornwall pub in Grangetown, south Cardiff, just near the football ground, Church hosted the inaugural night in a series called Charlotte Church’s Pub Politics, tickets priced at £2.75. The series was inspired by Brexit: Cardiff voted 60 per cent Remain, while 52.5 per cent of Wales overall was Leave.

“We need to try and understand the psychology of why people are feeling the way they are,” she says. “I want to find ways in which people can express themselves in situations like a pub, where they feel comfortable, and have their opinions challenged, but not in a super-duper academic way, because people then feel diminished by that, and then will go on the defensive.

“Cardiff is a pretty left-wing city, and the crowd at Pub Politics included a lot of left-wingers and some centrists. But there was one guy there, probably in his early sixties, that’s his local, and as soon as the conversation turned to anything about minorities, he had a lot to say, and loudly.

“And so much of it, as with this dude [jabs Trump], is schoolroom stuff. How easily offended he is, and how volatile. How do you deal with a child who is angry?”

She has never met the president-elect: says she hopes she would have declined to do so “because he is such a tool. Mind you, I sang at George Bush’s inauguration . . .”

I ask her why people find it so much easier to believe that immigrants are responsible for their financial hardship, rather than austerity. “Because austerity’s far more complicated, and all this has been engineered: It’s his fault, he’s come over here, he’s taken your job, and there’s all those mosques going up round here, and where’s the churches, even though you don’t go to church . . . It’s mania, hysteria. But it’s good these things had come to the surface. It’s very common to be mildly racist. We need to help people with those fears.”

One of the questions raised by the pub politics panel was: do we want our politicians to play dirty?

“Is that Corbyn’s problem?” she asks me. “That he’s not willing to play dirty like everybody else?” In summer 2015 she threw her support behind him, shared a platform with him at anti-austerity marches and spoke alongside Owen Jones and the CWU union general secretary. She said there was something inherently virtuous about JC, the anti-Farage: “One of the few modern politicians who doesn’t seem to have been trained in neurolinguistic programming.” Then in the Welsh Assembly election in May she voted for Plaid Cymru rather than Labour’s Carwyn Jones. “I still also support Corbyn,” she tweeted, with irritation. “Razzzzzz people.”

Today, six months later, she tells me: “I think he can’t win. The best thing for him to do is to train somebody up under him, who can be a new fresh face but who has the same politics that have always been Labour’s. Because there is another option – to neoliberalism, and to being right-wing. That option is the one your fathers and mothers took before you. They didn’t vote this way. They were for the trade unions, and workers’ rights, and you can see it all unfolding in front of you.”

Why can’t Jeremy Corbyn win?

“I don’t think it’s anything to do with him. I think it’s everything that the press has created. You hear something more than seven times and then you believe it – that’s how advertising works. He’s a relic, he’s a nutter, he’s a left-wing lunatic.

“I just think that there needs to be somebody there who is not Jeremy Corbyn. It’s gone too far, and they’re not going to stop. They’ve made up their minds, they have their narrative, and that will always be. Just as they made my narrative: brain of an Angel Delight.”

Education is still a big concern for Church. She is home-schooling her children, seven-year-old Dexter and nine-year-old Ruby, with a group of other parents. She tries various unconventional tools for learning, including virtual reality. “I have failed at lots of things in my career and in my life in general, but I’ve kept going, because as soon as you’re stuck on one thing – whether it’s your political beliefs, the party that you support – you stagnate,” she says.

“I’m not going to go around for Plaid Cymru or for Labour, door to door, telling people how they should vote. I’m going to go and try and speak to people in different ways. I’m trying to understand why people are feeling the way they are. Because it feels good, that’s why. It feels really good.”

She plans to record an album of her bombastic underground music, too. It will be called V, she says, and will feature dozens of collaborators. As we stand up to leave the café with the scaffolding, Church tells me she is also planning to take up martial arts. The other day in Cardiff town centre she saw a man verbally intimidating a beggar. As she approached to see what was going on, he changed his line, saying, “Do you want to come and get a drink, mate?” The beggar left with the man. “If I knew how to defend him, and myself, I would have followed them round the corner, and if the guy had tried anything I’d have been able to help,” she says.

“As I’m getting older, I’m starting to realise just how wilful I am. I never used to think I was – but whatever I want to do, I do, which puts me in an incredibly lucky position. I’ve got a real bob on myself. But I think it’s really important to, because the world is harsh. I’ve always given myself a pat on the back. I just think, if I set my mind to it, I can do anything.”

Apart from standing for Labour in Cardiff. “Because I will never do what I’m told,” she says. “Besides, I get to work in the creative arts. Which, considering most jobs are going to be automated one day – maybe even in parliament – is where I’m staying.”

Charlotte Church performs her Late Night Pop Dungeon at the Tramshed in Cardiff on Tuesday 20 December

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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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