Married to the cause

The first National Women’s Liberation Conference was a thunderous affair. Forty years on, Clancy Sig

When I made a decision to get married (or, to be more precise, find a wife), I had no one in particular in mind. I put the problem as analytically as possible to friends who I hoped knew me better than I knew myself. At last, the feminist scholar Catherine Hall suggested that, to avoid wasting more time, I should focus on a woman suitable to my political history, and it logically followed that the first stop should be the next weekend's debut National Women's Liberation Conference at Ruskin College in Oxford. So, on a cold and drizzly late February day in 1970, off I went.
“Women in labour keep capitalism in power. Down with penile servitude!" ran graffiti on the college walls.

I have never been so excited or scared as during that thunderous, exuberant, foot-stamping meeting at Ruskin - not even when I was caught in a New Orleans police shoot-out or swarmed by drunken Everton supporters while wearing Liverpool colours. Although some later observers claimed that a fair number of men were sprinkled among the 500 or so women, I doubt there were more than a few. Perhaps I miscounted because, like me, they were trying to make themselves invisible.

Many of the women at the conference, drawn from Marxist history workshops and local discussion groups, had that certain look I was scouting: middle-class, straight, a kind of academic intensity, long hair, ankle-length velvet coats, sometimes over crocheted miniskirts, faces flushed with exaltation and obstinate assurance. I listened to their demands from floor and platform - for equal pay, abortion on demand, community-controlled nurseries - with only half an ear, because I had to stay alert for my wife-to-be.

My mother, a flame-haired union organiser and single mother in the American Midwest, had habituated me to smart, militant women with a mouth on them, as had snarly, defiant movie queens of my youth such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. But the buzz at Ruskin - and then at the Oxford Union, where the conference was moved to accommodate a large crowd - was so awesome, it almost knocked me down. It was like being at the Finland Station in 1917 when Lenin's train chugged in to kick-start the October Revolution.

Trouble and strife

I'd had this feeling before, riding along with the brave young hearts of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee in rural south-west Georgia on their dangerous midnight voter registration drives, and later while I worked for Malcolm X's Black Power movement in Detroit. In the most intense and transforming moments of the civil rights struggle, with the front-line fighters risking their lives to break the colour line, you felt yourself losing aspects of your whiteness - ironically, at the same time as angry members of the movement were demanding that "whitey" be banished.

So it sounded eerily familiar when women at the conference insisted that any males present, especially journalists, should be kicked out. My bacon was saved when Mary Holland, a former colleague of mine on the Observer, successfully argued to keep us few men.

Happily, in the face of scornful denunciations of the male patriarchy from the platform, and despite the palpable rage that ran like an electric current through the hall, I met very little personal hostility down on the floor. Some women even seemed to take pity on me: "You poor lad." They seemed to know instinctively what it was like to be shoved aside and made fun of at meetings.

Two things happened as a result of the Ruskin conference - many women who had considered themselves mad came away feeling sane, perhaps for the first time in their lives; and I found a wife-to-be. I was slouched in my chair, a nervous spy in not entirely friendly territory, guiltily examining my macho, male psyche so at odds with the atmosphere in the hall, when this stunning brunette smiled - actually smiled! - at me. "Don't take it personally," she said in a deep, rich voice. "I wish we were as tough as we talk." My heart swelled.

Thus, I became a camp follower of women's liberation, a reprobate drawing energy from other people freeing themselves from my bondage. Entering a serious relationship with a smart, fully committed feminist who had her sense of humour intact was an adventure in acclimatisation and self-censorship. Watch where your eyes stray, guard your mouth. Because my parents had had a passionate and turbulent relationship that ended badly, I was determined to make a better job of it. With this secret proviso to myself: under no circumstances would I, could I, make myself over into a "liberated man". Some of the post-Ruskin "new men" I would run into, lovers and husbands trying their best, struck me as enfeebled by guilt. And the one meeting of a men's support group I attended in a gloomy Camden Town Hall was so grimly depressed that it reminded me of a back ward in an asylum I'd once worked in. Being a "new man" did not come naturally to me.

Because I didn't possess XX chromosomes, by definition I couldn't be an equal partner in an all-women's movement. This was a loss - along with my unfortunate XY male chromosomes, I'd inherited an activist's instinct. But it was also a relief as, selfishly, I needed all my time to write. On the other hand, I could not not participate. So I did the next best thing: pry and peek in the best private-eye tradition. When Jill held male-excluded, consciousness-raising meetings at her place (where I'd moved in), I would place an empty water tumbler to my ear and press it against the wall to pick up gossip through the plaster.

Mixed in with the discussions of how to help the cleaning women's campaign for higher wages and plans to disrupt the oncoming Miss World contest was exuberant chat about orgasms and penises. My ears burned when, amid whoops of laughter, they exchanged Chaucerian tales of their men's sexual shortcomings in some anatomical detail. How I envied the women's free and easy sisterhood - most men in my experience didn't do this.

Eavesdropping on women can be devastating to a healthy male ego. Their sexual sniping hurt less (though it stung) than their blithe ignoring of men. Although there was much talk about the male patriarchy, they simply weren't all that interested in us as men.

I was lucky because Jill had a coolly ironic view of the women's movement while also being intensely committed to it. Even so, I had to tread cautiously. Some of her friends took such a hard line that one of them angrily slapped her face because she had chosen to live with a man. Self-defence karate tested my nerve to the max. One night at a north London gym, another guy and I watched from the sideline as "our" women, in sports bras and shorts, violently threw each other around, practising kung fu-style kicks and parries, part of their assertiveness training.

Jill, kicking high and punching the air, was glowing with exertion and exhilaration. The man and I grinned nervously at each other. Session over, the women streamed into the locker room to change, and my new friend and I started to leave. But his girlfriend, stripping naked, just laughed: "Don't be such fogeys, you two. Stay." We didn't know where to look . . .

Ugly beauty

A lot of the women I met through Jill and the women's movement were tough, difficult and, like my mum, sassy. But such is the moth's love of the flame that I was enchanted - in the original sense - by their uprising power and sheer joie de vivre. It was fun being around them, absorbing their positive vibes, borrowing their energy.

Best of all, Jill and her friends demanded nothing of me. I was nearly invisible, and at that early stage of the "second wave" there wasn't much of a party line. It took getting used to, this being ignored and looked through as if I wasn't there. But then came a surprise: if nobody cared what a man felt or thought, not really, I was free to concentrate on what they thought, and this turned out to be liberating.

I made plenty of missteps, of course. Jill hated it when I mentioned her attractiveness. "You still don't get it, Clancy. Being called 'beautiful' is just another put-down." The flour bombs and rotten fruit hurled at the stage during the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall in London were only weeks away.

Today, I live in a different time on a different planet called Los Angeles. Most of the women I meet, and often those for whom I work, are skilled professionals who are the spiritual daughters and granddaughters of the Ruskin College revolution and its American counterparts - if only they knew it. They take coolly, forgetfully, for granted what the women in that draughty old hall in February 1970 spoke up for, some for the very first time in their lives. But I remember. Did my shallow immersion in the women's movement change me? No, not much. Did it change my outlook? Fundamentally.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist.

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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