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The suburb that changed the world

In the 1980s, Silicon Valley was populated by lefties and hippies who dreamed of a computer revoluti

In Sofia Coppola's 2006 film of the life of Marie Antoinette, there is a scene where an entourage of palace jeunes filles sweeps through a ball at which the set and costumes are period, but the music and manners are straight out of a modern dance club. The proposition seems to be that an elite few were able to put a toe into the future to experience what is ordinary today.

Something like that went on in the Silicon Valley I knew in the 1980s. The debates and dilemmas that occupy a generation today appeared in miniature before there was an internet. We took our anticipation of the internet deadly seriously, to the point where it seemed already real. Thus I have experienced the internet age twice.

Experiencing the internet in reality is different - and even bizarre, because although it seemed reasonable to expect the thing to come about, it is still uncanny that the reasoning was right. It feels as though we got away with something we shouldn't have done.

The internet arrived from two directions, one top-down and the other bottom-up. Initially computers and computer networking were both developed in military and government labs. The way you experienced computation from the 1960s often reflected this point of origin, with early computer companies such as IBM exuding a grey, regimented stoniness in order to appear seductive to their patrons.

In the 1970s, a small market emerged for hobbyist computers. You could build your own little box with blinking lights that you could program by flipping lines of switches on the front panel. That's all you could do at first, but oh, the ecstasy to be able to touch your own computer, if you had an inkling of where it all could lead.

A culture grew up around these hobbyist machines centred in Silicon Valley, and spawned the personal computer market - with Microsoft launching in 1975 and Apple in 1976. The centre of gravity split: the stony grey opposite delirious hippies and faux revolutionaries.

The turbulent confluence between top-down and bottom-up continues to this day. Internet start-ups sprout like garage bands. Most die, but a few explode into national-scale empires, as in the case of Facebook. Dreary top-down institutions such as wireless carriers maintain their lofty entitlements, though occasionally they drain away, like the old music business. I used to be partisan, favouring the bottom-up approach, but now I appreciate the balance of tides, because all kinds of power should be checked.

My first encounter with Silicon Valley was at the end of my teens, which was also the end of the 1970s. The world seemed carved into zones according to the degree of magic available. The highest magic was found in nexuses of hippie exuberance such as the beach town of Santa Cruz, California, where pearlescent rainbows covered everything and even the most mediocre musicians could effortlessly invent melodies superior to almost anything heard since. Young, creative people with any sense of ambition tended to be drawn to these places like weight to gravity, but by the time I arrived the magic was receding.

The overwhelming explanation we held of our time and place was that we had been born too late to experience the one true orgasm of meaning, the 1960s. Young people who felt jilted by life because of a slight error in timing found solace in a twisted calculus of punk humour. An alternative to the Santa Cruz-type El Dorados of bohemia were the zones of brazen, barren reality: remote and violent desert towns, impoverished villages in Mexico, or tenements in New York City.

The most deficient places - condemned by hippies and punks alike - were the suburbs, the places of the conventional parent: an artificial world ruled by Disney and McDonald's.

I did not arrive at this suspect ontology naturally, having grown up in a way that was both gritty and bohemian. My father and I couldn't afford a home at one point, when I was 11, so we lived in tents on cheap land while building a crazed, geometric, spaceship-like house in a rough corner of southern New Mexico. I adapted to the flight from the suburbs because this seemed the ticket into the social world of my peers in that era. I well remember how my heart sank when I later realised that eco­nomic circumstances left me no choice but to force my old jalopy over the mountain pass that insulated dewy, arousing Santa Cruz from soul-killing, blandifying Silicon Valley, which was situated in, of all places, a suburb.

The mountain ridge that separates Silicon Valley and the town of Palo Alto from the ocean keeps out the famed fog of northern California in the summer. This has always made it an elite getaway from San Francisco, but to me Silicon Valley's light looked incomplete and made me feel remote and depressed - so close to the ocean, but without its full light.

I despaired at the time that I had failed to earn enough to be able to remain at the fulcrum of hippie truth, but I was to learn, slowly, that I was moving from one narcissistic category war to another. Instead of hippies v suburbs, I enlisted in the turf war between nerds and - well, the opposite doesn't have a name. A sort of muggle: the fool who doesn't realise that he lives in a cocoon and serves only as a battery to power the action; a person who fails to understand that the world is an information system, and that life is programming.

Having moved from one kind of nonsense to another eventually helped me learn to be sceptical of both.

Palo Alto was nicknamed "Shallow Alto" by the hippie hackers, who felt that living there was a sell-out, a sign of failure. And yet, one by one, we gave in and entered an alternate, infinitely better-funded elite club. The place was much more than a suburb, naturally. A little more than a century earlier, there had been a Native American culture there, but it was murdered and erased, so little more can be said. Layers of mutually indifferent histories were then overlaid on to this, awaiting the final washout by Silicon Valley culture.

A trace of the Spanish colonial period remained in the odd old adobe mansion; evidence of black immigration from earlier in the 20th century lay in the shocking, violent twin to Palo Alto, East Palo Alto; fruit orchards swept to the horizon in some directions and utilitarian grids of simple wooden buildings testified to the well-ordered conception of railroad towns and military bases.

But the hackers would take over. What a strange society nerds make. In 1996 Oliver Sacks published a book called The Island of the Colour-blind, about a place where so many people cannot see colour that it becomes the norm. In the same way, the society of computer nerds is nerdy not in comparison to a centre, but as a centre. Our nerdy world, which from an outsider's perspective might seem slightly askew, even tilted a touch into Asperger's syndrome, was and is our centre. The rest of the world seemed hysterical, irrational and confused by the surface aesthetics of things, somehow failing to grasp the numerical, causal, core truth underpinning events and the problem-solving purpose of reality.

I kept my concerns about the light of Palo Alto to myself and "passed", which was, happily, not hard for me. Certain kinds of math and programming come on strongest when you're young, and I could program the hell out of a computer in those days. Then and now, technical credibility is the ultimate membership card in Silicon Valley, and it is one of the reasons I still love the place. The billionaire company starters - and I won't name names because it's all of them - still get a little insecure and feel a need to preen when they're around top hackers.

The overlap between the late stages of hippie bohemia and the early incarnations of Silicon Valley was often endearing. There was a sense of justice in the way that males who had been at the bottom of the social ladder in high school were on track to run the world. Greasy cottages with futons on the floor, with dustings of pot and cookie crumbles rubbed into cheap oriental rugs, a carnage of forgotten dirty clothes in the corner, empty refrigerators and tangles of thick grey cables leading to the huge computer monitors and the hot metal cabinets where the silicon chips crunched. Asymmetrical, patchy beards, shirts part tucked, prescriptions for glasses powerful enough to find life on a distant planet. This was the new model of hippie nerd, supplanting the ascetic fellow with the pocket protector.

There were precious few girl nerds at the time. There was one who programmed a hit arcade game called Centipede for the first video game company, Atari, and a few others. There were, however, extraordinary female figures who served as the impresarios of social networking before there was an internet. It still seems wrong to name them, because it isn't clear if I would be talking about their private lives or their public contributions: I don't know how to draw a line.

These irresistible creatures would sometimes date alpha nerds, but mostly brought the act of socialising into a society where it probably would not have occurred otherwise. A handful of them had an extraordinary, often unpaid degree of influence over what research was done, which companies came to be, who worked at them and what products were developed.

That they are usually undescribed in histories of Silicon Valley is just another instance of what a fiction history can be. The advent of social networking software and oceans of digital memories of bits exchanged between people has only shifted the type of fiction we accept, not the degree of infidelity.

In retrospect, I cringe to think how naive and messianic the tech scene became amid all the post-1960s idealism. The two poles of San Francisco Bay Area 1960s culture - psychedelic hippies and leftist revolutionaries - became the poles of early computer culture.

In 1974, the philosopher Ted Nelson, the first person to propose and describe the programming of something like the web, published a large-format book composed of montages of nearly indecipherable small-print snippets flung in all directions, called Computer Lib/Dream Machines. If you turned the book one way, it was what Che Guevara would have been reading in the jungle if he had been a computer nerd. Flip it upside down, and you had a hippie-wow book with visions of crazy, far-out computation.

In fact, the very first description of the internet in any detail was probably E M Forster's The Machine Stops from 1909, decades before computers existed: "People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine." It might still be the most accurate description. How Forster did it remains a mystery. Later, in the 1940s, the engineer Vannevar Bush wrote "As We May Think", an essay imagining a utilitarian experience with a computer and internet of the future. Bush's essay is often cited as a point of origin, and he even delved a little into how it might work, using such pre-digital components as microfilm.

But Ted Nelson was the first person, to my knowledge, to describe how you could implement new kinds of media in digital form, share them and collaborate. Ted was working so early - from 1960 onwards - that he couldn't invoke basic notions such as storing images, and not just text, because computer graphics had not been described yet. (The computer scientist Ivan Sutherland saw to that shortly.)

Ted was a talker, a character, a Kerouac. He was more writer than hacker, and didn't always fit into the nerd milieu. Thin, lanky, with a sharp chin and always a smile, he looked good. He came from Hollywood parents and was determined to be an outsider because, in the ethics of the times, only the outsiders were "where it's at". He succeeded tragically, in that he is not as well known as he ought to be, and it's a great shame he was not better able to influence digital architecture directly. He lives today on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, one of the other luminous, numinous nodes of Bay Area geo-mythology.

The hippest thing in the late 1970s and early 1980s was to form a commune, or even a cult. I remember one around the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco which fashioned itself as the Free Print Shop. Members printed lovely posters for "movement" events in the spectral, inebriated, neo-Victorian visual style of the time. (How strange it was to hear someone recommended as "part of the movement". This honorary title meant nothing beyond aesthetic sympathy, but there was an infantile gravity to the word "movement", as though our conspiracies were consequential. They never were, except when computers were involved, in which case they were more consequential than almost any others in history.)

The Free Print Shop made money doing odd jobs, it included women and it enacted a formal process for members to request sex with one another through intermediaries. This was the sort of thing that seemed the way of the future and beckoned to computer nerds: an algorithm leading reliably to sex! I remember how reverently dignitaries from the Free Print Shop were welcomed at a meeting of the Homebrew Club at Stanford and other such venues where computer hobbyists shared their creations.

Ted had a band of followers or collaborators; it would have been uncool to specify what they were. They sometimes lived in a house here or there, or vagabonded about. They broke up and reconciled repeatedly, and were perpetually on the verge of presenting the ultimate software project, Xanadu, in some formulation that would have been remembered as the first implementation of the internet. Xanadu was a manifesto that never quite manifested.

If my tone has not been consistently reverent, please know that I am not cynical when it comes to my praise of Ted Nelson's ideas. As the first person on the scene, he benefited from an uncluttered view. Our huge collective task in finding the best future for the internet will probably turn out to be like finding our way back to where Ted was at the start.

In his conception, each person would be a free agent in a universal online market. Instead of separate stores of the kind run by Apple or Amazon, there would be one universal store, and everyone would be a first-class citizen, both buyer and seller. You wouldn't have to keep separate passwords or accounts for different online stores. That's a pain, and it guarantees that there can't be too many stores, thereby re-creating the kind of centralisation that shouldn't be inherited from physical reality.

This is an example of how thinking in terms of a network can strain intuition. It might seem as though having only one store would reduce diversity, yet it would increase it. When culture is privatised, as has happened recently online, you end up with a few giant players - the Googles and Amazons. It's better to put up with the rancour and pain of a single community, of some form of democracy, than to live in a world overseen by a few forces you hope will be benevolent. The stress of accommodation opens cracks from which brilliance emerges.

Ah, there it is - my idealism, still in your face after all these years. Silicon Valley remains idealistic, if sometimes narcissistic. We refer to uprisings in the Middle East as "Facebook revolutions" as if it's all about us. And yet, look. We code and scheme through the night, and then genuinely change the whole world within a few short years, over and over again. What other bunch of oddballs can say that?

Much has changed. Silicon Valley now belongs to the world. In a typical nerd cabal you will find recently arrived Indians, Chinese, Brits, Israelis and Russians. What is strangest in the recent waves of young arrivals in Silicon Valley is that they tend no longer to be downtrodden geniuses rejected in the playing of social status games, but sterling alpha males. Legions of perfect specimens seem to have grown up in manicured childhoods, nothing scrappy about them. When children started to be raised perfectly in the 1990s, chauffeured from one play date to the next, I wondered what world they would want as adults. Socialism? Facebook and similar designs seem to me continuations of the artificial order we gave children during the boom years.

Now we are entering a period of diminishing middle classes and economic dimming. What will Silicon make of this? Poorly conceived computer networks played central roles in many of our more recent troubles, particularly the 2008 financial crisis. Such tactics as high-frequency trading just pluck money out of the system using pure computation and without giving anything back.

Can we adjust the world, make it happier, merely by reprogramming computers? Perhaps. We continue to twiddle with human patterns from our weird suburb. Maybe, if we are able to echo the ancient idealism of those early days, we will do some good as the software grows.

Jaron Lanier is the author of "You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto" (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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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