Tartan Tories strike back

The Conservatives hold just one seat for Scotland in Westminster, but starting with the help of a 26

Outside the office of Peter Lyburn, Conservative candidate for Perth and North Perthshire, is a tiny private aircraft, visible from his desk in the Scottish spring sunshine. Given the geography of this vast, rural constituency - which stretches from the town of Perth, 40 miles north of Edinburgh, across swaths of agricultural land and up to the Highlands - an aeroplane might not be a bad way to get to some voters. But when Lyburn appears outside the office - a couple of rooms in the control tower of Perth's small, non-commercial airport - it is in something less ostentatious.

His saloon car parked outside, the 26-year-old candidate for the Tories' most winnable seat in Scotland bounds into the room, eating an ice cream. He is confident of his chances of winning the seat, which the SNP holds by a margin of just 1,521 votes. He and his team started their campaign early - 18 months ago, he explains - and these busy final days are being run "almost like a military operation". Today's schedule includes a visit to a Perth care home to meet Andrew Lansley, who is in Scotland for the day. "We don't want to keep the shadow health secretary waiting," Lyburn says as we head for the car. But once we arrive in town, without a map, we can't find the right street. We decide to walk, but the elderly couple we ask for directions don't know either. When, with the help of an iPhone and Google Maps, we finally work out where to go, it's so far away that we have to return to the car and drive.

Unusually young and competing for a pro­minent marginal seat, Lyburn has attracted more attention than the average candidate. But then in most Scottish constituencies, Conservative candidates don't come in for scrutiny at all: what would be the point? At Westminster, Labour has by far the most Scottish seats; the popularity of both the party and its Fife-born leader is holding up. The SNP leads Scotland's minority government at Holyrood, and presents its Westminster candidates as a necessary buffer to protect Scottish interests from "the London parties". This argument has kept it in second place in the opinion polls, though lagging far behind Labour, to which the Nationalists tend to lose support in Westminster elections. As a result, the battles being fought in SNP-Labour marginals, such as the seat bordering Lyburn's, Ochil and South Perth­shire, have become even tougher.

The Conservatives have only one Scottish MP, David Mundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale; David Cameron has conceded that most Tories north of the border have little or no chance of being elected. In some seats, they are fourth, or even fifth, in line. But as polling day draws nearer, and the widely predicted Conservative majority starts to look less and less inevitable, every marginal is becoming more important to the Tories, even in Scotland. The area that now comprises the Perth and North Perthshire seat has a long history of supporting the Conservatives: it has been SNP-held since 1995, but for almost all of the 20th century, it returned a Tory MP.

The half-decade Cameron has spent deodorising the Conservatives has had little impact in Scotland: the proportion of Scots willing to vote Tory has stuck resolutely at between 15 and 20 per cent since 2005. "Partly, it's because [the Conservatives] no longer have a strong hold in Scottish politics," explains Nicola McEwen, co-director of Edinburgh University's Institute of Governance. "If there is apathy towards Labour, ordisappointment, it's not going to benefit the Conservatives - it's going to go elsewhere, mainly. But also, one of the issues that is quite important for Scottish voters is which party can best represent them in the UK. And the Conservatives seem not to be able to do that."

Check mate

However, at this general election, for the first time since 1992, it looks as if the Tories might return more than one Scottish seat. That's not to say there has been a significant shift in Scottish politics. Nobody expects the party to win the 11 seats it has set its sights on; Peter Kellner, of the polling organisation YouGov, is more generous than most in suggesting that the Tories might feasibly add seven seats to their existing one, but points out that "gains of one or two are more likely".

Cameron himself is yet to make headway with most Scots, McEwen says. "I don't think he gets the same reaction as Margaret Thatcher, for instance, but there's no sign that he is especially popular, or turning things around for Scotland."

There is one significant change. In Scotland before 2005, not even Conservatives liked the Conservatives: the Scottish party worked hard under its leader David McLetchie to develop a moderate, "One Nation" identity at Holyrood that was distinct from Michael Howard's British Conservatives. With Cameron in charge, that divide has disappeared. "They're much more comfortable with the 'compassionate Conservative' identity being nurtured just now," McEwen says.

Lyburn is the perfect example of a Scot "energised in the party by David Cameron". He is such a textbook Cameroon, he could have been generated in a lab somewhere deep inside CCHQ. "We need to focus on the bottom 10 per cent of society," he tells me. "David Cameron calls it progressive ends by conservative means, and I agree with him 110 per cent."

He's a local candidate, having grown up on a farm outside nearby Coupar Angus, and has the requisite green credentials, after three years working for a recycling firm owned by the Scottish multimillionaire entrepreneur Angus MacDonald. Indeed, on his first foray into politics as the Scottish parliamentary candidate for Dunfermline West in 2007, Tatler magazine tipped him as a future environment secretary - as well as "top Tory totty". "He looks like a Conservative candidate," remarks the Scottish political commentator David Torrance. "He's got this mass of very Tory hair."

Lyburn is trying to sell the notion of a refreshed Conservative Party, with new candidates like himself. "What we're trying to get across to people is -look at our list of 11 seats. If you're in one of them, don't think you're the only person in your street who thinks the way you do," he says. Yet he denies there is any stigma attached to voting Tory in Scotland.

Lyburn tells me that his previous political campaign in Dunfermline shook the "stereotypical Tory boy" out of him. But at a public meeting that evening in the village of Scone, he tells a polite and attentive gathering of 25 or so that "there is a real and present danger of young people growing up without a 'get out and work' attitude". He relates his own experiences: if his dad hadn't got him up in the mornings to help out around the farm, he would have stayed in bed. Apparently this is the sort of discipline broken Britain needs.

Lyburn is hoping that Scots will respect the "grown-up politics" of Budget rebalancing - including significant cuts to the public sector, which employs a quarter of Scotland's workforce. He may be right, in a sense: despite Alistair Darling's Budget announcement that spending in Scotland is to fall by £400m, 60 per cent of the country's voters still back a Labour government. But the SNP is targeting both the Tories and Labour with one line: "More Nats means less cuts."

Perth's SNP MP, Pete Wishart, is presenting an even less complicated message on the doorstep. Dressed in a coat with a faint check - Black Watch, the regiment founded in the area and reduced to battalion status by Labour, with Conservative support - he tells people repeatedly: "It's us or the Tories in this constituency." Several respond: "Anybody but the Tories."

In this part of the town, there is support for just about everyone else. A few say they're SNP voters; about as many seem unlikely to vote at all. A middle-aged Labour supporter, recently made redundant by Network Rail, agrees to think about the SNP as a tactical anti-Tory vote, while another of about the same age, a builder, is agitated about Perth's Polish population. But it is the BNP's world-view, not the Conservatives' promised cap on immigration, that has caught his eye. "They aren't right on everything, but they've got the right idea on some things. Haven't they?"

Wishart may be working to keep the Conservatives out of his constituency, but he says the SNP's ultimate goal, independence for Scotland, would be served well by a Tory government in Westminster. "It would be an absolute disaster for Scotland," he says, but "this provides other opportunities and contexts. There is a big constitutional question for David Cameron if he is returned as prime minister with only a few MPs for Scotland. [But] I'm not bothered if Brown or Cameron wins. I want Perthshire to win, that's my agenda."

Like the Liberal Democrats, the SNP argues that the two main parties are the same: "They're both committed to cutting Scotland's budget."

Officially, the SNP could hardly be seen to support a Conservative government at Westminster. During general elections, independence takes a back seat, and it would be perverse for the Nationalists to campaign as Scotland's "local champions" while backing a party with so little Scottish support, especially now that Cameron has ruled out the possibility of negotiating with the SNP in return for support in a hung parliament. But a Labour win - or even a good return - may have grave consequences for the SNP. There will be a Scottish parliamentary election next year, and a positive general election for Labour, which has just one seat fewer than the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, should lead to a boost at Holyrood.

Dodging left and right

A hung parliament, meanwhile, would allow the SNP to "Scotland-proof any piece of legislation", as Wishart puts it. But while the SNP is popular - more so than it was in 2005 - it looks unlikely to add many, if any, seats to its present haul of seven. Appealing to the anti-Tory vote is the more obvious route to popularity.

The same tactic is in use in neighbouring Ochil and South Perthshire, another large, rural constituency. But here - a seat that Labour holds by a mere 688 votes, and that the SNP considers to be its top target - it's not the Nationalists who are using it but the incumbents, who are fighting their campaign on a UK platform.

However, the SNP's Annabelle Ewing is out fighting her own negative campaign. In the streets of central Alloa, which have been thrown into chaos by a major redevelopment project, her focus is the failures of the local Labour council, which has fallen £9m into debt. Swaddled in an enormous yellow overcoat, Ewing is a consummate politician - perhaps unsurprisingly: she is the daughter of the former SNP president Winnie Ewing, and her brother is an MSP.

As we stroll through the Continental food market in the town high street, Ewing stops to speak only to shoppers, not stallholders, most of whom are from outside the constituency, so "they're not voters".

What she has to say plays, mostly, very well. Closures of public toilets and local halls have angered residents, and many of them are quite prepared to leave the blame where Ewing lays it, at Labour's door, although one elderly lady interjects "and the SNP at Holyrood". A passer-by in a baseball cap with a Scottish flag on it tells Ewing that he doesn't believe in independence: it's not the English he's worried about, it's "the Arabs and the Yanks". But he speaks warmly about George Reid, a former SNP MP and MSP for the area, and as he walks off he tells her: "Aye, I'll vote for you. That's not a problem."

Ewing emphasises the SNP's support for business and its rejection of Labour's planned National Insurance increase - "another burden that small business, in particular, does not need". The SNP has long stressed it is the party of Scottish enterprise, although its leader Alex Salmond, once an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, has had to abandon his vision of Scotland as part of an "arc of prosperity" stretching from Ireland to Iceland. In this constituency particularly, it may be a canny card to play. Like Perth and North Perthshire, Ochil includes a large pocket of Tory voters, who may choose to vote tactically for the SNP to keep the Labour incumbent, Gordon Banks, from holding on to the seat. Asked about the party's ideological positioning, Ewing dodges the question of left or right: she is concerned only with "protecting Scotland's interests".

Promises, promises

Meanwhile, Banks is taking an approach oddly reminiscent of Pete Wishart's. "I don't care what the SNP do, I don't care what the Tories do," the MP says. "What concerns me is my tactics." And those are ultra-local. In keeping with most of Labour's national pledges, he is offering his constituents more of what he has given them so far: he promises to be "as open and available as I have been over the last five years", pointing out that he maintains two constituency offices - one in Alloa, one in Crieff - to make things easy for them.

An unscientific sample of voters in nearby Clackmannan, a historically Labour-supporting area of the seat, suggests it may not be enough. Surrounded by a team of canvassers in bright red Scottish Labour cagoules, Banks makes an argument that is the same as the SNP's in Perth: can you stand to see the Tories win?

A woman on her way out into the evening sunshine tells him that "Labour have let me down so far" - on housing, on immigration - and adds, "I've written to yourself." Banks talks to her at length about her worries, then reminds her that a vote for the SNP is an open back door for the Tories. "I didn't like what they did under Maggie," she concedes.

As we walk on, Banks explains that this argument is not what it was. A woman in a football shirt takes one look at Banks and tells him she won't be voting - she is "not very impressed generally" by politicians. One campaigner approaches to say that they've just met a Tory. "Not a very nice one," he adds glumly, shifting the shoulder bag of leaflets resting against his hip. Tory voters, Banks remarks with resignation, "are no longer reluctant to tell you so".

But perhaps there is a positive side to this for Labour. With the peculiarities of Scottish politics, it is possible - just - that the tiny uptick in the Tories' Scottish reputation could work in Banks's favour. The Conservatives are now claiming to have the backing of 50 Scottish companies and business leaders over National Insurance - including that of Lyburn's former boss Angus MacDonald. If the Scottish Tories recast themselves as the party of Scottish business, the Conservative candidate for Ochil and South Perthshire may drain away a few of Ewing's votes. And if that happens, Gordon Brown may just find himself with one seat to thank David Cameron for.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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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