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Low rise and shallow fall

In the second of his English Journeys, Edward Platt visits the Essex hinterland where he was born, a

In the second of his English Journeys, Edward Platt visits the Essex hinterland where he was born, and discovers that there’s more to this county than stereotypical manual workers and brash, self-made millionaires.

Essex was my second stop in the series of journeys around England that I began last summer, at a moment of heightened tension in the country: shortly after I arrived in Hull in August, riots broke out in many cities, and by the time I got to Essex the extent and severity of the period of "austerity" we were facing was becoming apparent and protesters were establishing their camp outside St Paul's Cathedral.

There was little to connect the two places on my itinerary except my family history: my father came from Hull, but he met my mother in London and they moved to a small village outside the county town of Chelmsford when they got married in 1965. I was born at a hospital in Chelmsford three years later. We left when I was two years old and I have rarely been back but, as I'm originally an Essex boy, I wanted to understand how the much-maligned county fitted in to modern England.

In the popular imagination, Essex is to London much as New Jersey is to New York – a grimy hinterland of industrial sites and commuter suburbs, inhabited by a brash species of manual workers and self-made millionaires. The stereotypical inhabitants of the area acquired particular significance in the 1980s, when the aspirational working-class families of Essex abandoned their Labour allegiances and helped Margaret Thatcher secure the neo­liberal consensus that dominated British politics until the crash of 2008. Or so the usual political narrative went.

The town of Basildon and its inhabitants assumed a critical importance; take Basildon and you take the country, the saying went, and it proved a bellwether constituency in every election between 1984 and 2007. It had an es­pecially significant role in the general election of 1992, when an early declaration of victory for the incumbent MP heralded the defeat of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock and the demise of socialism as a credible electoral proposition. The romance between Essex and the Conservative Party was reprised in the 1990s through the career of Teresa Gorman, the Eurosceptic Thatcher manquée who was MP for Billericay.

Basildon returned a Labour MP in all three of Tony Blair's electoral victories, and the boundary changes of 2010, in which it was merged into the hybrid constituency of Basildon and Billericay, represented another weakening of the link between Conservative Central Office and central Essex. The MP of the reconfigured constituency is John Baron, a maverick Conservative, and he believes that his constituents still embody the values that Thatcher sought to awaken in the British people. "They're straight-talking," he said when I went to see him at his office in Portcullis House, Westminster. "They don't like people sitting on the fence. They say it as they see it, and if you believe, as I do, that life is not a rehearsal, then you relish those people. And they're entrepreneurial: if they take a knock, they get up, dust themselves down, and get on with it. In this country, if you fail, it tends to be seen as something to be ashamed of, but Essex is closer to the American model – failure is a step on the road to success."

Baron's association with Essex began many years ago. He served in the British army until 1988, and when he left he bought a flat in Chelmsford because he didn't want to live and work in London and property was relatively cheap there. Countless other people have been drawn to the city for the same reasons, though the founder of its most significant industrial concern used to commute in reverse. The Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi, who came to England in 1896, lived in Bayswater but based his business in a factory in Chelmsford that hosted the UK's first publicised sound broadcast in 1920, earning the town the right to call itself "the Home of Radio".

The name Marconi was associated with Chelmsford for most of the 20th century, and one morning I arranged to meet Peter Turrall, chairman of the Marconi Veterans Association, outside the factory on New Street. Later in the day, I wandered into Chelmsford Magistrates' Court and listened to the trial of an apprentice plumber and his brother who were accused of breaking someone's nose and headbutting two policemen, but Turrall was an Essex man of a different sort. He had worked at the factory for 47 years, which was all his – and more than half of its – working life. He started as a junior draughtsman and progressed to become a director; for the last 12 years, he had the "privilege" of using Marconi's office on the ground floor, near the main entrance of the listed exterior. At one point, 6,000 people worked in the factory; nor was it Chelmsford's only significant employer – Turrall estimates that 25,000 people were employed in the town in the 1950s, when its population was no more than 40,000. Today, Chelmsford is four times the size but no more than 10,000 people work there, and Marconi's demise is emblematic of the way the town has shed its industrial past.

Turrall retired in 1998, and the following year Marconi embarked on one of the most ­catastrophic restructurings in British corporate history. It had merged with GEC in 1968, and in 1999 it sold its defence arm to British Aerospace, renamed itself Marconi plc and began acquiring telecoms businesses. In 1996, the firm had £2.6bn in the bank; within six years, it had accumulated £4bn of debt. At the height of the dotcom bubble it overpaid for its acqui­sitions and it didn't know how to run them. As Turrall said, the company was unable to do what the new management wanted, "which was sell mobile phones effectively". When the market had been at its most exuberant, the company was worth £34.5bn, but in the depths of the slump that followed, its valuation fell to just over £50m and its debts became unsustainable. It was broken up and sold off and the New Street factory closed in 2008.

“When you've invested 47 years of your life in a company and you see the office boarded up, it's very, very sad," Turrall said. The property developer that bought the factory and got ­permission to turn it into homes, offices and a hotel went bankrupt in 2009 during the fi­nancial crisis, and the building has remained empty ever since. On the northern side of the site, moss and weeds have begun to bloom on the concrete banks of the dank green moat that once supplied its machines with water.

Yet Marconi hasn't disappeared altogether from the town. The research laboratory that it established in 1936 in Great Baddow, a village south of Chelmsford, is still running, now owned by BAE Systems, the company formed when British Aerospace bought Marconi's defence business. Great Baddow has since merged with Chelmsford, and the BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre lies along its southern limit, between an industrial estate and the open fields that stretch towards the A12.

The building was a nondescript 1930s block with low red-brick walls, metal windows and stone pillars flanking the front door, but once I got beyond the lobby, I found myself at the beginning of a corridor that seemed to have no end. "It's a series of mirrors," said one of the two amiable guides who showed me round, adding: "You're three feet tall by the time you reach the end of it." The Alice in Wonderland reference seemed appropriate for a business that displays copies of a magazine called Land Warfare International in its reception area, and describes the process of designing and manufacturing weapons as "tailoring solutions to individual customer needs".

The showroom to the side of the long corridor displayed some of the devices developed at Great Baddow or one of the other BAE Systems R&D bases around the country, such as liquid body armour, "radar-absorbent material" and "over-the-horizon radar" ("the earlier a target can be detected, the more effectively it can be prosecuted"). Some had civilian applications – the computer system in the prototype of a land-based drone might one day become standard in cars, and the system of "video analytics" that can predict "antisocial behaviour" could be used to survey a building's "perimeter" or to monitor "parking violations". Great Baddow has also supplied the European Space Agency with communications systems and worked with the British Olympic Association on various sports.

Yet such activities are a fraction of the business done by BAE Systems. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), more than 95 per cent of its income derives from the sale of "fighter aircraft, warships, tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery systems, missiles, munitions" and other military equipment. One of the purposes of my trips around the country was to explore the demise of the industrial sector that my father spent his career financing, and so I knew I should recognise the value of highly skilled technical jobs that places such as Great Baddow provide. Yet I also knew that the worth of the armaments trade is disputed; it accounts for 1.2 per cent of the total value of UK exports, and even that figure is only sustained with significant taxpayer investment. What's more, any calculation of the economic value of the arms trade is inevitably incomplete – a widget has a productive life that a jet fighter self-evidently doesn't, and a true accounting would have to include the many forms of destruction that the firm's products cause.

Even John Baron – an ex-soldier who shares the widely accepted view that the British economy must be rebalanced towards manufacturing, and whose constituency includes another Marconi offshoot in the form of a defence electronics company called Selex Galileo – believes that Britain must conduct itself with more discretion in the global arms bazaar. In 2003, Baron resigned from his position as a shadow health minister because he opposed the war in Iraq, and he was one of the few MPs (and the only Conservative) who voted against the campaign in Libya last year. He concedes that he is "out on a limb" on the question of foreign intervention, yet he makes the unarguable point that our fondness for removing selected dictators is hardly consistent with successive governments' role in promoting and subsiding

the arms trade. "What rules are we living by?" he said when I met him in Westminster. "The Prime Minister made an important speech to the Kuwaiti parliament in February this year saying there is an issue between interests and values, and perhaps too often in the past we have focused on the interests – yet at the time, he was leading an arms delegation. There has got to be an element of consistency."

BAE Systems might reply that it has always been perfectly consistent. According to CAAT, it routinely equips countries that the UK Foreign Office's Human Rights and Democracy report considers as having "the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns". It has also been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for "political corruption" in its dealings with many different countries. The gravest allegations concern its relationship with Saudi Arabia: the British government cancelled the SFO's investigation into the vast al-Yamamah deal on the predictable grounds that it would endanger Saudi Arabia's participation in "the war on terror". But in March 2010, in a case brought by the US department of justice, a district court judge in Washington found BAE Systems guilty of "deception, duplicity and knowing violations of law . . . on an enormous scale" and fined the firm $400m, or £257m – "one of the largest criminal fines in the history of DoJ's ongoing effort to combat overseas corruption in international business and enforce US export control laws".

That it no longer makes landmines or cluster bombs is the best that can be said for it. Yet my two guides saw no reason to apologise or explain; they regarded these inventions as "toys for boys" and said that the stigma of the corruption charges did not permeate to Great Baddow. One told me that he had always wanted to work at the centre. As a boy, he could see the radar transmitter tower that stands in the grounds from his bedroom window, and he wanted to emulate his grandfather who had served in the RAF during the Second World War. Such consistency might be preferable to the doublethink that fetishises the martial valour of old campaigns while deploring their contemporary equivalent, yet it seemed a shame that there had been no other businesses that dominated the horizons of his childhood. By the time I left Great Baddow, I had come to the conclusion that the presence of the last outpost of the Marconi empire in Chelmsford was more corrosive of Essex's moral status than any number of brawling plumbers.

Essex is a large and varied county. Its western half is inevitably shaped by its proximity to London: there is green belt land where development is prohibited and the untouched expanse of Epping Forest straddles the metropolitan boundary, but elsewhere the capital's tendrils stretch into the countryside. Commuter towns such as Chigwell and Woodford are part of the agglomeration of interwar suburbs, and in the postwar years another kind of urban overspill led to the creation of the "new towns" of Harlow and Basildon. Yet the perception of Essex as a modern, essentially suburban creation is hardly consistent with the existence of Colchester, England's oldest recorded town, and the capital's influence fades as you travel east. "Because Essex begins somewhere among back streets in London's eastern suburbs, some people think it has no mystery, but
I know that Essex is a huge mysterious county, with God knows what going on in its remoter valleys," wrote J B Priestley, in English Journey, the account of his travels round the country in 1933. It is England's driest county, and one of its flattest. Its north-eastern reaches are "Constable country" – that fine picture of English rural life called The Hay Wain was painted at a ford on the River Stour, which forms the border between Essex and Suffolk – and the nature writer Robert Macfarlane counts its south-eastern coast among England's "wild places".

Macfarlane is fascinated by a naturalist called John Baker, who spent the decade between 1953 and 1963 tracking the peregrines of coastal Essex as they travelled across a "mixed landscape of woodland, field, sea wall, mudflat and salt marsh". Baker came to know south-east Essex intimately, Macfarlane writes, "its boulder clays and river gravels, its cricket-bat willows and hazel coppices. He moved, once winter arrived, along 'the bone-white coral of frosted hedges', and through 'black hard winter woods'." In Baker's eyes, "the Essex landscape – never more than 150 metres above sea level, only 50 miles from London, heavily farmed – was as inspiring and elemental as the Pamirs or the Arctic". He published The Peregrine, his classic account of his pursuit of the falcons, in 1967, and 40 years later Macfarlane retraced his footsteps, beginning in "a long thin skein of broadleaf wood" called the Wilderness, which lies east of the village of Woodham Walter, near Maldon on the Blackwater Estuary. Macfarlane was going in search of the "beyond world" that exists at one remove from "our world of tarmac and cars and pesticides and tractors", and when I looked at the map to place his journey, I was surprised to discover that the wood he had selected as his emblematic wilderness was only three miles from the village where I was born.

My father used to divide the county along a north-south rather than an east-west axis: he used to say that the A13 was the barrier between the industrial and post-industrial zones on the edge of the Thames Estuary and the villages further north. Even though he worked at the Coryton oil refinery, he and my mother chose to live in a village near Chelmsford. Bicknacre lies five miles east of Great Baddow on the southern edge of Danbury Common, one of the largest areas of commonland in Essex. When I left BAE Systems, I went in search of the house where I spent the first six months of my life. I found the street easily enough. I parked in the middle of the lane beside the footbridge spanning a small, sunken stream and walked up the road, checking the names on the doors. I passed Garlands, Puffins and Copperfield, but I couldn't see one called Mariner, or the lifebelt that used to hang beside the front door. A man getting out of his car by the lawn where joke-shop police tape roped off a white plastic skeleton suspended from a tree in honour of Hallowe'en told me it was at the far end of the lane, and eventually I identified it as the bungalow without a name.

It didn't look like it did in our old family photos. The front had been extended by a small porch with stained-glass windows and fake carriage lanterns, though the path that used to run past it to a farm seemed unchanged and the fields beyond remained undeveloped. The side-window of the heavy Ford pick-up parked beside the front door was embossed with a peeling decal of a buxom squaw, and a baseball cap with "Native Pride" stamped on the peak was lying on the dashboard. There was a miniature headdress hanging from the rear-view mirror and another in the window of the caravan stationed on the hardstanding at the side of the house, but no chief or shaman came to the door.

From the Wilderness, Macfarlane had travelled east towards the reclaimed expanses of the Dengie Peninsula, where "woodland and field frayed away to salt marshes, and the salt marshes gave into miles of shining mudflats", but I drove south, towards the industrial heartlands where my father used to work. The land immediately south of Bicknacre was so flat that it might have been floodplain, or reclaimed land, though the Thames Estuary was still above 15 miles away. It took me 20 minutes to reach the small town of Hadleigh. As I turned off the busy high street, the flats and houses disappeared and the land fell away to reveal the river. I passed a field overhung by a fluttering canopy of birds and drew up at the beginning of a muddy footpath beside the Salvation Army's outpost at Hadleigh Farm. The Salvation Army bought the land here in 1891 and established a "farm colony" for "the benefit of men who, through misfortune, need a helping hand".

It had already established a city colony in Whitechapel, and its founder William Booth hoped that its rural counterpart would be the "second rung on the ladder" for "the submerged tenth" – "all and any who have been shipwrecked in life, character, or circumstances".

It built dormitories, a hospital and a chapel, and five years later a visiting journalist found "one of the finest market gardens in England", with "all the elements of an industrial and agricultural community". In 1990 it reopened as "an employment training centre", though the news that it will host the mountain bike trials in this year's Olympics confirms how its relationship with London has changed – once seen as a place apart where the wrecked lives of Londoners could be redeemed, Hadleigh Farm has become another recreational resort.

The castle stood 200 metres up the track, on the last crest of high ground before the land began to fall to the river – "the last low rise, the last shallow fall", as the poet Lavinia Greenlaw, who grew up in Essex, put it in a prose poem inspired by Constable's sketches and paintings ("Nearing forty, he found himself at the mouth of the estuary").

Hadleigh Castle was built in the 1230s for the 1st Earl of Kent; it was later requisitioned by the crown because of its strategic location and it formed part of the dower of several English queens, including three of Henry VIII's wives. Black plastic bags, presumably filled with dog­shit, hung from the railings at the entrance, and as I entered the jagged ring of craggy turrets two red-hulled tankers were crossing in the middle of the pale expanse of water. To the east, a line of houses struck up the slope above Southend and, to the west, beyond the dense grid of streets on Canvey Island, a wavering flame hung above a cluster of towers and spires that looked like a version of the Emerald City.

Coryton was less alluring close up. A week later, I drove back along the raised carriageways of the A13, past the wind turbines at the Ford plant in Dagenham, and turned on to the dead-end road called the Manorway, which runs past the former refinery at Shell Haven and terminates at the gated entrance to Coryton. Even the car parks were barred, so I drew up at the roadside and walked over to the fence that sealed the dense complex of interlocking structures and smoking chimneys that contrives to process ten million tonnes of fuel a year.

My father had got a job at Coryton because he wanted to work for an American company and to gain experience of industry – two mid-century ambitions that now seem quaintly old-fashioned – but he didn't enjoy it much. He was bored and underemployed, and he spent a lot of time going to interviews for other jobs.

Coryton has since passed from Mobil via BP to a Swiss-based business called Petroplus, which until recently operated seven refineries in northern Europe. It comes under the Port of London, which has expanded ever further east in search of deeper water as ships have grown in size, and it is one of the busiest refineries in England. In October 2010 a group of protesters called the Crude Awakening shut it down for seven hours by locking themselves to "immobilised vehicles" on both sides of the carriageway and preventing lorries from leaving. "This place, this whole industry, must become a thing of the past," a spokesman said.

The group's attempt to break our dependency on oil was no more than symbolic, but the global recession has had a profound effect on Coryton's ability to function: last month Petroplus Chemicals announced that it would file for insolvency, after failing to reach agreement with its creditors to extend deadlines for loan repayments. The administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers, say that the plant will continue to operate as normal, though job losses are expected. There are fears, too, that the bankruptcy will trigger increases in petrol prices and lead to shortages in the south-east.
Surprisingly, the presence of the refineries has not been an unmitigated disaster for the surrounding environment. P&O, the company that bought Shell Haven, will be obliged to compensate for the construction of a new container port on the site by creating tidal mudflats on both sides of the Thames, and the activities of another oil company on a site on the other side of Vange Creek have led, serendipitously, to the creation of what has been called "England's brownfield rainforest".

Canvey Island has been occupied intermittently since Roman times, though Dutch engineers constructed the first sea defences in the 16th century. It is divided roughly in two: since the 1950s, the grid of residential streets that I had seen from Hadleigh Castle has spread across the eastern half of the land, but the western half is a hybrid of fields, marshes and industrial sites. In the 1960s, a company called Occidental Oil made plans to build a refinery in Canvey Wick, which lies between Vange Creek and the Charfleets Industrial Estate, and it prepared the site by installing storage tanks, building a vast deep-water jetty and spreading river dredgings across the marshes. Yet the refinery was decommissioned in 1973 and the land was left untouched for 30 years. The local kids who adopted it as a motorcross circuit helped to prevent trees and shrubs from taking over by churning up the earth, however, and a rich variety of habitats has emerged.

When a quango called the East of England Development Agency (Eeda) bought the land in 2002, in the hope of building a business park on it, environmental surveys discovered that it had "more biodiversity per square foot than any other site in the UK". It is home to many rare insects, including the shrill carder bee, found in only a handful of locations in Britain, as well as two species – a ground beetle and a weevil – that are unique to Canvey. It also hosts a large variety of grassland plants and various kinds of orchids.

In 2005, 93 hectares in Canvey Wick were given the status of a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), but the designation has not put an end to the debates about its future. The RSPB is planning to open a nature reserve covering 17 hectares in its southern part, but the supermarket chain Morrisons, which owns the site, intends to retain the rest. There is still a plan to build a sustainable business park, incorporating "brown roofs", rough grassland and "bee banks", on a ten-hectare site to the north but, given that the government intends to shut down Eeda by March, it isn't clear when or how it will be realised.

In theory, there is no public access to Canvey Wick, but I walked down the half-finished road, turned on to a path that led across the fields
to the abandoned jetty and climbed through a hole in the fence at the bottom of the slope below the sea wall, a reminder of Canvey's precarious estuarial location. The wall was built after the floods of 1953, in which 58 people on the island drowned. Canvey has pumps that can work faster than the tide, local people told me. It also has a pub called the King Canute and some elderly islanders refer to events "before the flood" and "after the flood", confirming its emblematic importance.

Yet the height of the sea wall informs one of the paradoxes of life on Canvey: its encircling parapet closes off all views to the horizon, and many of the islanders have turned their houses upside down, placing living rooms above bedrooms to alleviate the claustrophobia. I had spent the morning in the interior of the island without catching a glimpse of the river, and as I climbed the slope towards the sea wall, a metal door on the platform of the jetty was banging in the breeze. It was one of those days when an unusually high tide sends islanders to the phone to rebuke the council for not closing the flood barriers – the wind had stirred the grey-green water into choppy waves that were slapping against the sea wall four or five feet below the parapet, and the line of boats moored midstream was bucking briskly back and forth. The jetty stretched into the middle of Vange Creek before turning south and running towards the main channel of the Thames. Oil storage tanks blossomed like mushrooms on the far bank.

The stiles at the entrance to the footpaths that led into the interior of the reserve were closed, so I followed the sea wall to the south-west tip of the island and a pub called the Lobster Smack. It's said to feature in one of the climactic episodes of Great Expectations when Pip attempts to help his patron Magwitch escape down the Thames. It also has other, more recent claims to fame – one local man told me that its car park was the venue of both the last legal cockfight and the last legal bare-knuckle fight in the UK. A colony of single-storey prefab holiday homes and modern semis clustered beneath a group of storage tanks on the south coast, and as I walked back along Hole Haven Road, I passed a man in a skull-and-crossbones headscarf picking sloes from the bush opposite the entrance to the oil plant. Two hundred metres further on, I reached the other end of the almost completed road that local people have labelled "the road to nowhere".

“It's costing £18m and people think it's a waste of money," Councillor Dave Blackwell of the Canvey Island Independent Party said when I went to see him at his garden centre on the edge of the Charfleets Industrial Estate. He argues that there is no need for the business park, either, given that almost a third of the units on the estate are empty. Blackwell has been campaigning to save Canvey Wick for ten years, and he spends many summer mornings photographing wildlife on the site. Now 64 years old, he regrets the way that Canvey has developed since he was a boy, when most of the island was farmland. "You can't live in the Dark Ages," he said. "People have got to have homes. But Canvey's reached saturation; we can't cope with the amount of people we've got now, and the council wants to build another 1,000 homes."

There is only one respect in which Canvey Island hasn't changed – it used to be "the East Enders' playground" and because 95 per cent of its residents came from east London it has retained something of the old East End spirit. However, a friend of mine who used to work as a barrister at the courts in Chelmsford and Southend once offered the anecdotal observation that 90 per cent of the convicted criminals in Essex come from Canvey. Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple's film about Dr Feelgood, the island's best-known rock band, described the place as "busted and broken" – a violent, hard-drinking wasteland.

Blackwell concedes that Canvey has problems, especially "antisocial behaviour", but he insists that it is no worse than anywhere else. He used to be a Labour councillor but he didn't like being told what to say and do by a central organisation, and he was so determined to assert the island's distinctive identity that he founded the Canvey Island Independent Party (CIIP) in 2004. "People were fed up with the mainstream parties and they needed someone to fight for Canvey," Blackwell said. "People are looking for something outside mainstream politics. Our councillors live locally, they know everyone, and they know what the local problems are. There are no politics."

The CIIP now holds ten out of 11 seats on the town council and 16 of Canvey's 17 seats on Castle Point Borough Council: it is one of the most prominent of the local parties that have begun to emerge as a consequence of disillusionment with Westminster politics – and another of the man-made ecosystems that have flourished on this reclaimed island on the edge of the Thames. "My ambition is for Canvey to run itself and
determine its own future, rather than relying on other people," Blackwell said. "I hope I've created a party that will last for years and do something good for the people of Canvey."

As I walked back to Benfleet, I wondered what such localism meant in the context of Canvey, which might claim to be an island socially and politically but cannot say the same economically – most islanders commute to work in London, and it is indubitably part of the global trade in oil and gas which has shaped its landscape.

I passed the flood barrier that marked the boundary of the island and began to ascend the low rise that led to the station. The boats beached in the muddy creek in the foreground and the shadows of the cars moving back and forth on the tree-lined road that is the main bridge to the mainland were beginning to blur into the darkness, and in the distance the steady flicker of the flare burner gave no indication of the financial difficulties that would soon beset Coryton's most recent owners.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. "City of Abraham", his book about Hebron, will be published by Picador in September.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lucky Dave

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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