When oil mixes with water: hydraulic drilling for fossil fuels is both opening up and changing the landscape around the world. Photograph: Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
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Fracking: the new gold rush

Can shale gas and fracking solve our energy crisis?

It’s a cold but sunny January day in Brighton, and Anna Dart looks like death. Equipped with a black shroud, white skull face and tinfoil scythe, she is leading the Sussex Extreme Energy Resistance protest outside HSBC in North Street. HSBC provides banking services to the “greedy corporate” entity (Dart’s words) Cuadrilla; in pursuit of Mammon, this energy firm is going to poison the water and our food, Dart says. To reinforce the point, her fellow protesters are dressed in toxic hazard suits and are handing out leaflets that warn of the “devastating” impact Cuadrilla’s fracking will have on England. Fracking is the process by which hydraulic fracturing of shale rock produces gas and oil.

Fracking is the new GM. As with genetic modification of crops, the issues are so complex that people are generally going with their gut. And their gut tells them that it’s a bad idea to break up the ground beneath our feet just so that we can get at more gas for generating electricity.

In case you needed more proof that Cuad - rilla is an evil empire, consider this. Less than a week after the Brighton protest, at a fracking site in Lancashire, Francis Egan tried to steal my pencil. Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, wanted to draw me a graph of how the amount of gas that comes out of a well varies over time. I lent him the pencil, and a piece of paper. When we finished talking, he tucked the pencil – my best pencil, I might add – into his organiser. Not content with a plan to set Lancashire on fire with its own gas, not content to bring earthquake-related misery to Britain, the company has appointed a stationery thief as its CEO.

“I’m going to use that,” I tell him. “I’m going to tell the world you stole my pencil.”

Simon, the PR man, looks slightly worried. I can’t trust Simon either. I had coffee with three local activists earlier. Not only did they give a pantomime hiss when I said I was going to meet Egan, they said that PPS Group, the firm in charge of Cuadrilla’s PR (strap - line: “working in the tougher areas of communication”), has a history of dubious behaviour. When it comes to fracking, rumour, half-truth and paranoia are rife.

The devil wears Camper. To match the casual shoes, Egan is in blue jeans, a dark crewneck top and a black leather jacket. Inside the blue “meeting room” Portakabin at the Anna’s Road drilling site just outside Lytham, it is casual Friday. As he talks, he tugs frustratedly at his curly white hair. “All your questions have been about problems,” he says, putting down his Morrisons egg and cress sandwich and rocking back in his chair. “Not one has been about how we can make the most out of this.”

“This” is the shale gas bonanza. In September 2011, Cuadrilla announced that there is 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas trapped in the UK’s Bowland Shale, kilometres beneath the surface of Lancashire, just waiting to be brought to the surface and burned. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) asked its rock scientists – the British Geological Survey (BGS) – to rush out an independent estimate. The BGS said there was perhaps five or six trillion cubic feet.

The BGS has since revised its “back of a fag packet” calculations (in the words of Professor Michael Stephenson, head of energy services at the BGS) and DECC is about to release a fresh estimate. Stephenson won’t tell me what it is, and Egan doesn’t know. “I suspect it’s going to be higher than 200 trillion cubic feet,” Egan says. “I’m fairly confident our number was conservative.”

As it turns out, Egan might be right. In early February the Times reported that it had seen leaked figures from the BGS: the new estimate is reportedly between 1,300 and 1,700 trillion cubic feet. That’s a lot of gas, even assuming (as the BGS does) that we’ll get only 10 per cent of it out of the ground. By way of comparison, the world’s largest oilfield, the South Pars/North Dome field beneath Iran and Qatar, contains 1,235 trillion cubic feet of gas. Currently, North Sea production is at roughly 1.3 trillion cubic feet per year, so the Bowland Shale could possibly see us through the next century.

So, what are we going to do with it? One argument is that we should leave it in the ground for the climate’s sake. We are supposed to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. But let’s face it, no one is building nuclear reactors, nor has there been sufficient investment in green technologies to allow them to take the strain. It’s inevitable that we are going to keep burning gas for the foreseeable future. At least gas is cleaner than coal. And given that we import 1.8 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, often from autocratic states, if we’ve got our own, why not burn it?

We have only to look across the Atlantic to see the benefits. Gas from geological deposits of shale has revolutionised the US energy market. An abundance of shale gas has turned the US from a gas-importing nation into one that could soon be exporting the stuff. That’s partly because there is so much of it that the price has dropped through the floor; it’s becoming hard to make a profit as a fracking company just in the US.

The hub for this 21st-century gold rush is Texas, where a deposit known as the Barnett Shale could yield landowners as much as 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. “The Barnett Shale is pretty much the same as what we have in the north of England,” Stephenson says. “It’s the same age, and the same kind of rock.”

So, the theory goes, it probably has a lot of gas in it. Not that it’s straightforward to get at. The gas is trapped within the structure of the rocks at depths of up to five kilometres. You can drill down to the shale to open up a pipeline, but it’s not like opening a bottle of fizzy drink; the methane doesn’t suddenly flood upwards. That’s why you have to frack.

Fracking involves pumping a drill hole full of “fracturing fluid”, a mix of water, sand and chemicals that breaks up the rock to release gas. The gas flows into the pipe bore and rises to the surface, where it is collected into onsite tanks. Inevitably, it’s not that simple. You might have some gas, but you’ve also got millions of gallons of contaminated water coming up with it. When the Environment Agency analysed the “flowback” from one of Cuadrilla’s wells, it compared the contamination with permissible contamination levels of water from the mains. Arsenic was up to 20 times over the limit. There was 90 times the acceptable level of radioactive materials, 1,438 times the permissible lead levels and 2,297 times as much bromide as is allowed.

“It’s non-hazardous,” Egan says, straightfaced. “It’s not going to be a danger to anyone’s health.” He is pulling at those curls again. To be fair, that’s the Environment Agency’s assessment, too, because they classify flowback not as mains water, but as industrial waste. And compared to some industrial waste it is non-hazardous.

“The flowback is toxic; there’s no doubting that,” says Joseph Dutton, an energy policy researcher at the University of Leicester. “But then so is raw sewage. So is wastewater from food processing plants. The fact is, the technology exists to handle and clean it.”

It’s contradictions such as “non-hazardous” toxic waste that have created such a furore around fracking. Most of us live as if the gas we burn for electricity, heating and hot water comes from the fossil-fuel fairy. We don’t want to be confronted with the unsavoury facts about how it is produced. But we live in a new era: this extraction, if allowed, is going to take place in this country.

The Anna’s Road site lies a kilometre from one of Lytham’s largest housing estates. Ignoring the complexities and contradictions of our fossil-fuel addiction is a luxury that the residents of Lancashire no longer have. Their first concern is the ground beneath their feet. On 1 April 2011, Cuadrilla’s fracking operation caused an earthquake in the Blackpool area. Cuadrilla prefers the term “seismic event”, but let’s not argue over words just now. There was a second, smaller quake on 27 May. The BGS performed a study and said the epicentres were 500 metres from Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall well at Weeton, just outside Blackpool. Cuadrilla eventually conceded that the events were probably caused by its fracking and downed tools while the government commissioned a report into the risks.

The quakes were tiny: magnitude 2.3 and 1.5. “There have been several quakes bigger than that since – and no one reported them,” says Richard Davies of Durham University’s Energy Institute. Unless you live in Leicestershire, for instance, you probably don’t know that the Loughborough area has already suffered three similar quakes this year, with crockery-rattling magnitudes 2.4, 1.5 and 2.9. These were naturally occurring seismic events, probably caused by ground shifting around the county’s warren of mines.

“If we wanted to stop fracking on the basis of seismicity, we’d have to stop a lot of other things, too,” Davies says. “Mining and drawing geothermal energy, for instance. Compared with everything else, seismicity is fairly unimportant in fracking.”

Egan is realistic. He has finished his sandwich and has moved on to a tub of ready-cut melon. He peels back the film, stabs a piece – rather malevolently – and thrusts it into his mouth. “The seismic thing is a useful stick to beat the industry with,” he says. “It’s important that it doesn’t happen again.”

This makes a pleasing, if ironic, contrast with the local activists’ viewpoint. Pam is almost praying for another earthquake. “If it happens again it’ll be all over for Cuadrilla,” she says. There’s a lot of spark to Residents Action on Fylde Fracking (RAFF). Though all the RAFF committee members are retired, there is no lack of fight. “We’re so up for this,” says Ian, sipping a latte. Pam tells me about their exploits in lobbying the county council and organising packed information evenings at local village halls. Ian interrupts the flow of fighting talk to comment on the coffee shop’s background music. “Ooh, Chet Baker,” he says. “I love this.” So does Pam; she has the album, she says. I’m having coffee with the activist wing of Saga.

They’ve been dismissed as “nimby bumpties”, the “aboriginals of Lancashire” and “crazy tree-huggers”, but they are not cowed by the name-calling. They see themselves as well-informed citizens exercising their democratic right to question the actions of their local representatives. And they get results. Through their efforts (and, they would politely insist, the effort of many others), Lancashire County Council has told the government it wants “industry-specific regulation” of fracking, with frequent on-site inspections, rigorously enforced regulations and “considerable sanctions” for any breach of the rules. “We consider that a triumph,” Ian says.

So they should: the UK Energy Research Centre says there is “fierce public opposition” to fracking. Egan denies this; most people, he says, haven’t made up their mind. That may be because, for most people, it doesn’t matter what they think. For the people of Lancashire, though, it most certainly does.

Lancashire is sitting on what Egan calls “one of the largest gas discoveries ever made anywhere”. It is at this point that he starts telling me off for focusing on the negatives of getting gas out of the ground. So I ask him what’s in it for the people of Lancashire. His reply is a simple “Jobs, I hope”, and hardly rings with confidence. Especially given the wording of some of Cuadrilla’s planning applications: “Locally, the benefits of such a hydrocarbon exploration project are small.” Should the exploration be successful, “the employment of a small number of local people, depending upon the size of production operation, may result”.

“I don’t agree with that,” he says. The CEO is six months in post and clearly thinks he knows better than the people who drew up the firm’s planning applications. Egan notes my surprise and embarks on a motivational lecture. “I think Lancashire needs to be much more proactive,” he says. In his view, it’s not Cuadrilla’s job to make this work for Lanca - shire. “This isn’t Cuadrilla’s gas. This is the country’s gas. UK plc and Lancashire plc should be looking at this and saying, ‘How do we make the most out of this resource?’ Not: ‘Is Cuadrilla going to create jobs for us?’

“This is an opportunity for Lancashire. We can facilitate it. It needs some kind of co-ordination or drive, but if you look at Aberdeen or Houston, it isn’t, ‘What is this they’re doing to us?’”

Calming down a little, Egan explains that, if they want them, the people of Lancashire can have jobs as plumbers, electricians, engineers, accountants, architects and truck drivers. “Drilling is just high-class labouring,” he says, waving at the world outside the Portakabin. “These are basically construction sites.” Indeed. And, as with construction sites, things sometimes go wrong. My tour ends with us standing on a squash-court-sized bed of concrete in front of a neat, round, waterfilled hole. “This is where we’re going to drill next,” says Bob, the site manager. I casually point to the capped-off hole next to it.

“Is that the hole where you lost some stuff?” I ask. Bob nods. There is the briefest of pained winces as he remembers the equipment that dropped off the drilling rig. They could have carried on, he reckons, but the orders from on high were to fill and close the hole.

So far, Cuadrilla has drilled four holes in Lancashire and abandoned two. The other abandoned hole is at Preese Hall, where the “seismic event” deformed the well’s concrete casing. Though it didn’t break, and Cuadrilla re-cemented the deformed section, this is the nightmare scenario – a well that breaks, leaving fracking fluid or methane to find its way into aquifers and, eventually, the food chain. In the United States, there are claims that fracking has caused methane to leak into the water supply: the internet is awash with footage of people igniting their tap water with a cigarette lighter. The Fylde coast depends on tourism and agriculture, and the local people are justifiably concerned that their land and water sources remain uncontaminated. They want the government to protect them. So far, however, the government is not on their side.

In all the furore over fracking, the UK government might just be the least rational, most entrenched activist of all. It has chained itself to the idea that fracking is a route to lower gas prices. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Tory energy minister John Hayes have all talked of shale gas reducing household energy bills. Matt Ridley, the techno-optimist scientist and author, and Lord Browne, the former chairman of BP and the Cabinet Office lead non-executive (who coincidentally is also the chair of directors of Cuadrilla), have made similar claims. The only dissenting voice in the government comes from Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, who has made more effort than most to keep the enthusiasm under control.

This notion seems to have arisen from a naive application of US shale gas economics to the UK. UK shale gas will be sold into a gas market that is connected to the European market and the one for liquefied natural gas coming out of Africa. “It’s going to be a drop in a bucket,” says Jim Watson, director of research at the UK Energy Research Centre. “You’d have to discover huge amounts to have an effect on the global price.” That’s because, in order to get the best price for it, the gas goes into the central pool rather than being piped straight into a power station.

Cuadrilla reckons that its shale gas could “eventually” meet a quarter of UK demand – because it doesn’t know when production will start, or how it will scale up, it’s impossible to be more specific – but admits that’s not going to make a big difference.

“I don’t think we ever said it would be enough to change the gas price,” Egan says. In many ways, it doesn’t matter. The message is out there: cheaper gas through fracking is already a familiar energy trope that will help win public support.

The other issue is regulation. Having commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to compile a report on the risks of fracking, the government chose to ignore the main call from these bodies: for strong regulation before fracking proceeds.

The UK’s oil and gas regulations are not sufficient to cover fracking operations and there is little to no inspection regime in place. Residents Action on Fylde Fracking made a Freedom of Information request to the Health and Safety Executive in June last year and discovered that it had made just two visits to inspect Cuadrilla’s sites. Mark Miller, who directs the company’s operations in Lanca - shire, told the group that the HSE was inspecting for worker safety only – that hard hats and high-vis vests were worn; well integrity was not on the agenda.

“No one has ever checked the cement bonds of any of the four wells,” Pam says.

This comes as no surprise to Dutton. The Royal Society report highlighted well integ - rity as the most likely point of failure and recommended that the inspection regime for checking the wells be made the “highest priority”. But, Dutton says, DECC and HSE simply don’t have the resources to develop and implement a regulatory framework. “For me, that’s exactly what the environmental groups should be going on about,” he says.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of UK fracking is that so many educated people think the safety issues will take care of themselves. “We’ve got such good regulation in this country; it’s pretty unlikely we’d have a problem,” Stephenson says. The Commons select committee on climate change, which the Tory MP Tim Yeo chairs, shares his confidence. “We believe it is possible to construct a regulatory framework which will make fracking environmentally safe,” Yeo told me. “We’re quite good at that in this country.”

This national pride in Great British Regulation would be a lot easier to swallow if it wasn’t being raised at a time when we’ve discovered that up to 1,200 people may have been killed at the Stafford Hospital, and that thousands of supermarket beef dishes are composed largely of horse meat.

The age of austerity has cut the funding of supervisory bodies to the bone – bad news for those concerned about fracking regulation. The HSE’s inspectors for gas and oil installations are set up for the offshore industry and are based in Scotland, and have no funding or expertise to carry out onshore inspections. “They told me they don’t have the petrol money for making random visits to Lancashire,” says Mike Hill, a chartered engineer and Lytham resident who has spent years working in the oil and gas industry. “If you know no one is checking – and with fracking we do know no one is checking – the temptation to cut costs is too big to resist.”

Hill has delivered talks at academic conferences on shale gas, and he also advises Pam, Ian and Anna. He refuses to join RAFF – he’s not anti-fracking, he says, just pro-regulation. Of course the industry cuts corners where it can, he tells me. It’s not evil, exactly; it’s just that the safest way of doing things sometimes costs more money than companies with profit-hungry shareholders are willing to spend – especially when there’s no risk of being found out.

Francis Egan assures me that Cuadrilla has nothing to hide and no interest in cutting corners. “The HSE can come any time they like,” he says. “All that stuff you read about? We’re not doing any of it.” Cuadrilla will get one of its fracking sites up and running and people will finally see the truth, he reckons. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s what it looks like,’ and over time it will just become accepted.” He is convinced that fracking is seen as a danger because it’s new; that’s why coal is more accepted, even though it’s dirtier. It’s better the devil you know.

Michael Brooks is the author of “The Secret Anarchy of Science” (Profile Books, £8.99)

Update: 26 March. An earlier version of this piece stated that Mike Hill was retained as a technical advisor by Lancashire County Council. In fact, he acted as a "technical advisor" (unpaid) to the Fylde Council Task and Finish Group, who were looking into Cuadrilla's activities. He is no longer in that role.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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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