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The new ruling class

If the polls are to be believed, the Conservative Party is heading for government in 2010, ending 13 years in the political wilderness. So who are the men, and women (yes, there are one or two), jostling for power around Prime Minister Cameron?

David Cameron, 43

Leader of the Conservative Party
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m*
Expected to inherit million-pound legacies from both sides of his family, David Cameron comes from a long line of stockbrokers. A direct descendant of King William IV, he is the fifth cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth II, and reportedly got his first job in the Conservative Research Department after one of the Queen's equerries intervened on his behalf. A former member of Oxford's notorious Bullingdon Club, Cameron - who said that the large expenses claimed on his constituency home were an "inadvertent mistake" - was described by Norman Lamont as a "brilliant Old Etonian with a taste for the good life".

* This and other wealth figures are estimates

George Osborne, 38
Shadow chancellor
Education St Paul's School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £4.3m
George Gideon Osborne stands to inherit the Osborne baronetcy of Ballentaylor in County Tipperary, Ireland, as well as a substantial share of Osborne & Little, his father's luxury wall­paper company. Not that he needs the money - he already benefits from a company trust fund, and as a backbencher commanded fees of up to £5,000 per article for the Spectator and Associated Newspapers. A former member of the Bullingdon Club, he is very much part of the old boy network, as shown by last year's scandal involving Osborne, his old friend Nat Rothschild, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and a yacht in Corfu.

Oliver Letwin, 53
Chairman of the Conservative Party's Policy Review/Research Department
Education Eton College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Despite earning £145 an hour for consultancy work at N M Rothschild & Son, Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses to replace a leaking pipe in his tennis court. He once said he would rather "go out in the streets and beg" than send his children to a London comprehensive, and during the 2001 election argued that the Conservatives should cut future public spending by £20bn a year relative to Labour proposals. His suggestion was so unpopular that he was forced to stay out of the public eye for the duration of the campaign.

Andrew Lansley, 53
Shadow health secretary
Education Brentwood School, Essex. Exeter University
Wealth £700,000
Andrew Lansley, who earns an extra £29,000 a year for 12 days' work at a marketing agency, spent more than £4,000 of taxpayers' money renovating his country home months before he sold it and flipped his expenses claim to his London flat, where he spent thousands more. Last year, Lansley caused outrage with a blog entry on the Conservative Party website arguing that a recession could be "good for us", as people could "spend time at home with their families". The potential future health secretary also has some insight into obesity, saying that "people who see more fat people around them may themselves be more likely to gain weight".

David Willetts, 53
Shadow universities and skills manager
Education King Edward VI, Birmingham. Oxford University
Wealth £1.9m
David Willetts makes £80,000 a year from 40 days' work as adviser to Punter Southall, and is also paid as chairman of Universal Sensors Ltd, but he still tried to claim £750 for a shed base and £175 for a dog pen on expenses last year.

Francis Maude, 56
Shadow minister for the Cabinet Office/ chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Education Abingdon School, Oxfordshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £3m
Francis Maude, a former director of Morgan Stanley, juggles an array of non-executive financial positions. These bring him £68,600 a year, but luckily don't require too many hours - Barclays pays him £36,700 for six days' work. Maude, who has railed against the irresponsibility of mortgage lenders, banked £100,000-plus as director of a financial services group that profited from sub-prime mortgages. Despite owning four properties, he claimed almost £35,000 in two years for interest payments on a London flat just yards from his house.

Michael Gove, 42
Shadow schools secretary
Education Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen. Oxford University
Wealth £1m
A self-proclaimed neoconservative and former journalist, Michael Gove still writes a weekly column for the Times, which pays him £5,000 a month. Gove has boasted that it takes him an hour a week to write it. This makes his hourly wage more than £1,100 - 127 times higher than the average salary in his constituency, Surrey Heath. He tops this up through contributions to other titles, including Scotland on Sunday and Building Magazine. Gove is a signatory to the Henry Jackson Society, a "project for democratic geopolitics" that advocates a proactive approach to spreading democracy, by military intervention if necessary. Last year, he described the invasion of Iraq as "a proper British foreign policy success".

Liam Fox, 48
Shadow defence secretary
Education St Bride's High School, East Kilbride. Glasgow University
Wealth £1m
Fox, a former GP, may lambast the public sector for its inefficiencies and "bloated administration", but he is not so thrifty himself. Despite earning £25,000 a year by lecturing for the medical educational firm Arrest Ltd (14 days' work), he claimed almost £19,000 of taxpayers' money for his mobile phone bill. A staunch Eurosceptic and strong believer in the "special relationship" with America, Fox said recently a Conservative government would be "sympathetic" to a request for thousands more troops in Afghanistan.

Andrew Mitchell, 53
Shadow international development secretary
Education Rugby School. Cambridge University
Wealth £2m
Mitchell, an ex-merchant banker racks up £43,500 every year for financial advisory and consultancy roles that involve a few hours' work each week, as well as owning shares worth up to £180,000. But it's obviously not enough - last year he claimed more than £21,000 for cleaning and redecorating his constituency home. In 2004 he asked the Commons Fees Office to pay him £2,000 a month from his MPs' additional cost allowance "until it is exhausted". Mitchell said last year that the recession was an "incredibly good moment" for the party.

Caroline Spelman, 51
Shadow communities and local government secretary
Education Herts and Essex Grammar School, Bishop's Stortford, Essex. University of London
Wealth £1.5m
Caroline Spelman co-owns Spelman, Cormack & Associates, a food and biotechnology business, with her husband. They also own three properties, including a four-storey Georgian townhouse in London, with an estimated combined value of £5m. In 1997-98, she misused the parliamentary staffing allowance to pay her nanny. The expenses revelations this year showed that she received £40,000 for bills and cleaning for her constituency home, despite her husband claiming it was their main home. In 2005, she attacked proposals on revaluing council tax. Ironically enough, for the 2007-2008 financial year she overclaimed hundreds of pounds on her own council tax.

Lord Strathclyde, 49
Leader of the opposition in the Lords
Education Wellington College. University of East Anglia
Wealth £10m
The majority shareholder in the family estate management company Auchendrane Estates, worth roughly £6m, Lord Strathclyde holds down a plethora of paid directorships for hedge funds and investment companies. One of them is Galena, the investment management arm of Trafigura, a controversial oil trader recently found to be dumping toxic waste in Africa. He said that Trafigura's other activities fell "well outside the terms of my remit".

William Hague, 48
Shadow foreign secretary
Education Wath-on-Dearne Comprehensive School, Rotherham. Oxford University
Wealth £2.2m
Earning up to £10,000 for an appearance, Hague is a stalwart of the Conservative after-dinner speaking circuit. As a non-executive director of JCB, he was paid £50,000 a year and went on to a directorship at AES Engineering, receiving £25,000 a year. He has been paid up to £1,041 an hour for his consultancy work, a wage rate 113 times higher than the average among his constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire. Hague reportedly threatened to walk out when Cameron suggested forcing the shadow cabinet to give up second jobs.

Chris Grayling, 47
Shadow home secretary
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £500,000
Chris Grayling, worth only half a million, is a real man of the people. The proprietor of four London homes, he still billed a £40,000 second-home refurbishment to the state. So in touch is the former BBC producer with the reality of life in Britain, that he compared the country's streets to those of Baltimore on the US television drama The Wire, and came up with the idea of deterring young criminals by taking away their mobile phones.

Lord Ashcroft, 62
Conservative Party deputy chairman
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Mid-Essex Technical College
Wealth £1.1bn
Lord Ashcroft, the Tories' fairy godmother, has donated millions to the Conservative Party since the 1980s, personally guaranteeing its overdraft when it was reportedly £3m in the red. He makes a habit of political donation, and has been accused of wielding undue political influence in Belize, where he has extensive business interests. He does not say whether he pays tax in the UK, and the Electoral Commission is investigating whether his company fits strict rules on overseas donations.

Dominic Grieve, 53
Shadow justice secretary and shadow attorney general
Education Westminster School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £3.1m
A barrister and QC, Dominic Grieve supplements his income with shareholdings in 13 firms, most notably with £240,000 worth of shares in companies operating in Zimbabwe. Apparently £3.1m doesn't go very far towards keeping a second home - Grieve was forced to bill the government £18,668 in maintenance costs last year. A traditionalist who has voted against bills promoting gay rights, he has praised the Victorian era for its "sense of moral values".

Philip Hammond, 53
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury
Education Shenfield School, Brentwood, Essex. Oxford University
Wealth £9m
Hammond enjoys a lucrative directorship at Castlemead Property, in which he has shares worth £4.9m, but that didn't stop him claiming £23,075 - £8 short of the maximum - for his second home in London. He now promises to oversee swingeing cuts in public spending in an emergency post-election budget. He has said it is "absolutely not the case" that public-sector workers are dreading cuts, feeling instead a "sense of liberation".

Owen Paterson, 54
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary
Education Radley College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Paterson, married to the 4th Viscount Ridley's daughter, owns a large country estate in his North Shropshire constituency (he voted strongly against the hunting ban). He is a member of the Cornerstone Group, which published a report describing the NHS as "Stalinist" and calling for it to be replaced.

Jeremy Hunt, 42
Shadow culture, media and sport secretary
Education Charterhouse School. Oxford University
Wealth £4.1m
Hunt is paid £1,000 a month for two hours of business advice to Hotcourses Ltd, an educational guide publisher, and enjoyed a £245,181 dividend payment from the company in 2006. He still felt hard-pressed enough to submit an invoice for 1p for a 12- second mobile phone call.

Gregory Barker, 43
Shadow minister for energy and
climate change
Education Steyning Grammar School, West Sussex. Royal Holloway, University of London
Wealth £3.9m
Gregory Barker, a former adviser to the Russian billionaire and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, reportedly made millions when he sold his stake in a recruitment advertising firm, and continues to rake in cash as director of Flare View, a property investment company, and as an adviser for Pegasus Capital Advisors. He made a £320,000 profit in just over two years by using the second-home allowance
to buy and sell a house in the exclusive borough of Chelsea, in central London.

Philip Dunne, 51
Conservative whip/deputy chairman
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £5m
Dunne, a super-rich backbencher has had a 20-year career spanning investment banks in London, New York and Hong Kong, as well as Ottakar's bookshop, which he co-founded. The son of Sir Thomas Dunne, the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, he has done all this while looking after the family farming estate.

Brooks Newmark, 51
Conservative whip
Education Bedford School, Bedfordshire. Harvard University. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m
Yet another Conservative MP with a high-flying background in the world of finance, Brooks Newmark held a senior role at Lehman Brothers, and spent eight years at a British merchant bank. He now owns the investment firm Telesis Management and has shares in two other investment firms, from which he gets undisclosed payments.

Zac Goldsmith, 34
Conservative parliamentary candidate
Education Eton College (expelled). Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies
Wealth £300m
Son of Sir James Goldsmith and his third wife, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Frank Zacharias Robin Goldsmith is an environmentalist and socialite. An odd combination, perhaps, but both grandfathers were Conservative MPs, so he is walking a well-trodden path.

Michael Spencer, 53
Conservative Party treasurer
Education Worth Abbey, West Sussex. Oxford University
Wealth £250m
A close friend of Cameron's, Spencer owns a 21 per cent stake worth £474m in the money broker Icap, which he set up in 1986. He was caught up in controversy last year when it emerged he had pledged his stake in the investment bank Numis as security for a loan, a legal grey area. When he did sell his shares, he made only £16m - a third of what he would have gained in 2006 when shares were at their peak. It's a hard life.

Research by Samira Shackle, Stephanie Hegarty and George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

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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