Labour's new civil war

All is not well within the Labour Party. David Miliband’s backers are regrouping. The Ballsites are

On Monday 27 September, David Miliband stood dead centre on the main stage at the Labour conference in Manchester. His back ramrod straight. Here was the Lost Leader. Master of none that he surveyed. But he had come to deliver an important message. We must unite, he said. We must come together. An end to the briefings. An end to the factions. An end to the cliques. His audience rose as one.

Fast forward 24 hours. The bars of Labour 2010 in Manchester are jammed with delegates dissecting another speech, the one made by the new leader, Ed Miliband. In the bar of the Midland hotel, a former Blairite cabinet minister shakes his head and says to me: "It's a disaster." A senior Brownite mutters into his mobile: "Anti-business, weak on crime, no message." Another Gordon Brown loyalist shrugs and says: "Doesn't matter. In two years we'll have him out and Yvette Cooper in."

Across town a senior frontbencher sits down to dinner with the editorial team of a Sunday newspaper. What's his view of the speech? "If Ed thinks I'm going to follow that crap about not banging up criminals, he's got another thing coming. Life should mean life, and I'm going to keep saying it." The journalists smile. Did he know, they tease, that when Andy Coulson heard Ed praise Ken Clarke on lenient sentencing, he punched the air.

In the Radisson hotel a member of the new leader's campaign team looks at me, bemused: "We keep reaching out to people. They just keep brushing us off. They don't want to know." On the other side of the bar another Ed supporter clenches his fist in triumph: "Fuck the Blairites. How many divisions have they got?"

No briefings. No factions. No cliques.

The Labour Party has entered a post-cold-war era. The two great Blairite and Brownite power blocks have fractured. Where once there was iron certainty, now there is only doubt. "People are confused," one MP tells me. "They're used to knowing who or what they're for and what they're against. Now all that's gone. To be ­honest, they're a bit rudderless."

The politicians. The activists. The spinners. The strategists. The thinkers. The policy wonks. The organisers. The gurus. The army and camp followers that make up the great Labour tribe are emerging, blinking, into a new dawn. Some are fearful, while others are hopeful. All recognise the landscape around them has changed.

“New Labour was about marshalling everyone into Tony Blair's big tent," says the Compass chair, Neal Lawson. "That's the old politics. The new pluralism is about acknowledging there are lots of little tents. How you build those tents into a strong, progressive community is the challenge."

It's a challenge that excites him. No wonder. Compass spent the years of Blair and Brown out in the cold. Now, as he puts it, "Ed Miliband is playing all of our greatest hits."

Not everyone is impressed by the tune. On the other side of the encampment sits Progress: centrist thinkers to some, Blairite outriders to others. "Our message to Compass is, 'Good luck'," says Progress's deputy director, Richard Angell. "Have a go. If Neal thinks his leftist, statist prospectus is the route back to power, good luck to him."

The old dividing lines may be becoming blurred. But they have not been erased. This is why Ed Miliband's team are monitoring, with a vigilance bordering on paranoia, the signals emanating from the shattered bunkers of the two old great powers. How are the grizzled Blairite and Brownite veterans adjusting to the new world order?

Among the former, there is a clear sense of preparing for a long game. "We have to be realistic," says one insider. "If David had won, he would have been constructing a ten-year strategy. Unless there's a miracle, we're not going to win the next election, certainly not with an overall majority. We need to plan on that basis."

The plan, given the rancour that ­existed between the Blairites and Ed Miliband during the leadership contest, is a surprising one. "We've got to reach out," says another senior Blairite. "We've got an opportunity to shape Ed. To mould his vision. Read his conference speech. The Compass left were claiming it ticked all their boxes. But if you actually read the words, rather than try to interpret them, you see a clear message. The heir to Blair, at least in the short term, is Ed Miliband."

These overtures have been welcomed by Ed Miliband's team. "Look at the leadership election," says one lieutenant. "Ed and David supporters represent more than 80 per cent of the party. That has got to be the basis on which we build the new progressive consensus. The realignment has to start from there."

Former Blairite advisers have been in discussion with Stuart Wood and Greg Beales, Ed Miliband's chief communications and policy aides, about assisting in the development of strategy. There have been "clear the air" talks with members of David Miliband's campaign team. "Take someone like [the shadow defence secretary] Jim Murphy," says a fellow shadow cabinet member who worked with Ed Miliband on the leadership contest.

"When we were doing ­liaison between the campaigns, he was vicious. Incredibly difficult to work with. But since the election he's been a different person. He's been making a conscious effort to build bridges."

Not all relations are so harmonious. A number of Blairite ministers, such as Hazel Blears, Ben Bradshaw and Pat McFadden, were offered shadow ministerial rolls but refused them. There are policy tensions, especially in areas such as law and order and deficit reduction. "It's all very nice reaching out," says one former Blairite minister, "but it can't just be a choice of either silence or division. You can't just say, 'I'm going to kill New Labour, but don't worry, I'll be personally nice to you.' If I articulate an alternative policy prospectus, I don't want to see that dismissed as an attempt to drag people back to the past."

But the greatest concerns within Ed Miliband's team focus on the Brownites. Or rather, the Ballsites. Definitions are important. The old Brownite faction fractured during the transition to No 10 and split further over the leadership election. Ex-Brownite supporters, such as Douglas Alexander, who worked for David Miliband, and the New Statesman's former owner Geoffrey Robinson, who endorsed him as his second preference, went in one ­direction. The former chief whip Nick Brown ­endorsed no one. Younger Brownites such as Tom Watson and Michael Dugher worked for Ed Balls but moved in behind Ed Miliband at a crucial moment in the contest. Balls himself steadfastedly refused to back either of the two front-runners. Keeping track of where these disparate groups are moving is a priority for Team Ed. "People like Tommy [Watson], Michael and Ian Austin are good guys," says one member of the shadow cabinet. "We think we can do business with them". But what of Balls and Cooper? "They're the past. They're history."

The animosity that exists between Ed Mili­band's team and Balls is raw and pal­pable. "Ed Miliband's team are terrified of Ed Balls and Yvette," says one Brownite insider. "They think they're going to come and try to kill him. And the reason they think that is ­because they will."

Ed Miliband's first shadow cabinet appointments brought this animosity into the open. The decision to withhold the shadow chancellor portfolio from both Balls and Cooper was seen as an act of war. "Stuart Wood was ringing round journalists desperately trying to find out how hard Ed and Yvette were briefing against the appointments," says one friend of the most powerful married couple in politics. "It was embarrassing. If you're going to shaft Ed and Yvette, do it. But don't complain when there's a reaction."

There was a strong reaction. "They're already organising," says one shadow minister. "Yvette has been contacting all the teams identifying one member to be her link person. The cover is she's doing it as part of the women's brief. But everyone knows she's building a base."

Another insider, who is respected by both the Miliband and Balls camps, is more circumspect. "Yes, there was briefing. Ed and Yvette were genuinely upset. But we're at the start of a complex process. Both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are having to radically reassess the nature of their relationship. That's going to take time. The danger is that good intentions are deliberately misinterpreted the wrong way. Both of them are up for a dialogue."

According to some members of Ed Miliband's team, the decision not to appoint Balls as shadow chancellor was political, not personal. They say he effectively talked himself out of the shadow chancellor role with his increasingly aggressive positioning on the deficit. "He just kept pushing it further and further," says one insider. "We didn't have any choice."

But they reject suggestions that the current deficit-reduction strategy reflects in any way the "Balls Plan". "Balls just isn't on the same page. This is Alan [Johnson's] and Ed's plan. It's nothing to do with Ed and Yvette."

For Balls, there was anger at the way Ed Miliband distanced himself from the government's record during the leadership campaign. "As the campaign went on, Ed [Balls] became more and more frustrated," says one senior aide. "Ed Miliband was acting as if what happened in government had nothing to do with him. It looked like he was dumping on Gordon just to get elected. Ed B didn't like it."

Others are more nuanced. "You have to remember there was a time when Ed Balls was Gordon's go-to guy and Ed Miliband was doing the photocopying," says one senior Brownite. "In the short term, that's hard to take. It needs a readjustment on both sides."

Ed Miliband's team acknowledge that Balls and Cooper pose a threat to their man but believe it is containable. "How many votes did Ed Balls get in the leadership election? OK, Yvette topped the shadow cabinet poll, but when you have to vote for six women, that's not that hard to do. They're just being driven by ego. They're trapped in the past."

The calculation Ed Miliband is making is that there's little appetite within the party for a return to personality-based agitation. That and a belief that the junior former Brownites are genuine in their desire to build a constructive relationship with the new leader. But one observer counsels caution: "People like Tommy, Ian and Michael want to work with Ed Miliband. But they're essentially tribal. If it comes to a war, they'll line up behind Ed and Yvette."

Some jockeying for position is inevitable in the aftermath of a change of political leadership. But, as a rule, structures are quickly created to channel and control those pressures. An impression is developing that Ed Miliband has not yet managed to put those structures in place. "It's clear Ed's team did not have a strategy for victory," I am told by one David Miliband supporter. "They operated purely on the basis of a series of tactical decisions. It's one of the things that have eaten up David the most. He feels he's lost to someone who had no clear idea why he wanted to win."

Even those around Ed Miliband acknowledge that they are on a steep learning curve. "You've got to understand the scale of the problems we've inherited," one shadow cabinet member tells me. "This is a party that's going through a healing process. The scars of the Blair and Brown years run deep. Ed's still a novice rider and he's trying to get to grips with a very large horse."

Some see the criticisms as little more than expressions of bitterness from David Miliband and his supporters. "David had his opportunity," I am told by one MP. "The MPs, the party and the machine were in his pocket. He blew it. He should get over it."

But among other sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party there is nervousness. "There's a sense of a vacuum developing," says a shadow minister. "People are looking for leadership and direction. And at the moment they're not getting it." Another shadow minister laughed at his team's disorganisation during their first Commons questions. "I got up to say something and sat down again. Can't remember what it was . . . It's all a bit of a joke."

Old stagers who lived through the Blair and Brown years are astonished at the extent of the autonomy being granted to the shadow teams. Policy development is being managed internally. Centralised control is minimal. One shadow minister confirmed that none of the teams had received instructions from the leadership on the need to avoid uncosted spending commitments until Alan Johnson demanded it.

“People are just going to have to get used to this," says one shadow minister who did not back Ed Miliband but is warming to his approach. "The days when things were just handed down from on high are over. We're being given responsibility. We need to be mature and run with it."

Some of the differences are generational. Not everyone has embraced the new politics, especially the rapid promotion of elements of the 2010 intake. "It's insane. They should refuse," says one veteran of the 1992 election, on hearing of the junior shadow ministerial appointments. Most members of Generation Ed report few problems. "It's working pretty well," says the shadow culture minister Gloria del Piero. "People have been helpful and supportive. After the election defeat there's a real sense of everyone pulling together."

However, anxiety runs deep. Ed Miliband's supporters claim to have been shocked by the hostility they received from Labour officials in the wake of his election victory. Ninety per cent of party staffers, whose votes were treated like a mini constituency, voted for David Miliband. "It was unbelievable," says one campaign worker, "they acted like we had no right to be there. Ed's going to have to clean house."

In order to help begin that process, Ed Miliband's team are reaching beyond the party. Caroline Badley, who masterminded Gisela Stuart's surprise victory in Birmingham Edgbaston, Nick Lowles, who leads Hope Not Hate's successful push against the BNP, and London Citizens, who worked closely with David Miliband's campaign, have all been asked to contribute to a campaigning template for the new leadership team. But again, tensions are surfacing.

London Citizens' aggressive organising model, built on church-based community activism, has met with resistance. "These guys burst in, hijack a meeting, demand everyone signs up to their agenda and talk down anyone who disagrees," says one veteran campaigner. A conference fringe meeting degenerated into rancour after London Citizens activists repeatedly called on Ed Miliband to endorse their organisational model and refused to let him leave the meeting until he had done so.

Maurice Glassman, the academic and god­father of British community organising, and someone so well connected that he worked ­simultaneously on both Ed and David Miliband's leadership campaigns, says people have to be open to a new way of working. "You ­cannot overstate the extent to which Labour has lost the ability to organise," he tells me. "Yes, we can mobilise. Get out the vote at elections. But then, once the election is over, it's all left to deflate like an old balloon."

Another reform Ed Miliband is considering is the introduction of a directly elected party chair. Again, the driving force behind the proposal is Compass. "The top priority for us and for the new leader must be party reform," says Compass's general secretary, Gavin Hayes. "We need a root-and-branch review of all areas of Labour's structure."

Party chair is the big prize. "This person will be the commander-in-chief of the grassroots, elected by individual members," Hayes says. "Ed isn't going to have time to be worrying about the nuts and bolts of party organisation. That's why we need this role."

But the putative commander-in-chief faces opposition from an influential quarter. "The unions won't go for it," says one source. "It'll be seen as a Trojan horse. If you get one member, one vote for an elected party chair, why not leader? In the unions' eyes, once you lose the electoral college, that's the link broken."

During the leadership election, David Mili­band told Jon Cruddas, the influential Labour MP for Dagenham, that he would introduce a party chair but only if it was by the election of individual members. Cruddas warned against this but agreed to approach the union general secretaries. They were firm in their opposition. It was a non-starter. Cruddas told Mili­band that even if he, Miliband, won, he'd refuse to stand.

What of the Lost Leader himself? Is he committed to uniting behind his younger brother, who many believe betrayed him. In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was no hiding his bitterness. "He was in a dark place," says one friend. "It was very difficult for him to take." But he has apparently returned from holiday in Italy reinvigorated. "Had he fought and lost, that would have been it," says a senior former campaign aide. "But the way he sees it now is that he won the party, won the MPs and won a decent share of the unions, even with their machine against him. He's not just going to walk away."

Another former aide concurs: "When I heard he'd put out that statement about building an organising base and doing some policy thinking, I didn't think anything about it. Then I went back and had another look. Policy development in education, environment and foreign affairs. His own activist model. Campaigning in the Scottish, Welsh and local elections. It was a pretty clear statement of intent."

“David's rediscovered his excitement in politics," says Lisa Tremble, his former communications director. "He's looking forward to the new challenges. He's not going anywhere."

The consensus of those close to David Miliband is that he does not believe the election defeat fully extinguished his chances of becoming Labour leader one day. He sees himself as the "under the bus" candidate, were political misfortune to befall his brother. They insist, however, that there are no plans to nudge Ed towards the curb.

Within the wider Blairite circle, there is residual sympathy for the manner in which David Miliband fought and lost his campaign. There is also a feeling among some that he needs to accept reality. "I don't think any of the candidates who lost last time around are ever going to be leader," says one former Downing Street adviser. "Over the short term there isn't going to be a vacancy. Medium to longer term, I think Jim Murphy is our standard bearer, with Alan Johnson riding shotgun."

Perhaps. But the one certainty is there are no longer any certainties. Everything is in flux. John Prescott's "plates" are shifting once again. When David Miliband made his plea for unity, it was undoubtedly sincere. But everyone seeks unity. The Blairite outriders. The Ballsites. The Milibites. The problem is not a desire for unity; the problem is lack of agreement on what to unite around. "Frankly, I wish Ed Miliband hadn't run," says one MP. "We should have had a straight battle between David and Ed Balls. One final reckoning. A fight to the death. Then the Blair/Brown struggle would have been resolved once and for all."

As it is, there is no resolution. Most people have not yet picked sides. They don't want to. They are the Ednostics, watching and waiting to see how their new leader faces up to the trials ahead of him. That represents an opportunity for Ed Miliband. But also a threat. There is some space. But also a void. If he doesn't fill it, others will. "He's got a window [of opportunity]," says one MP. "But he's got to use it. It's not ­going to be open for ever."

The tents have been erected, the campfires lit. They are either shining a light on a new political community or pinpointing the location of a series of enemy encampments. One MP's assessment is stark: "We're either on the threshold of the new politics or we're on the brink of a civil war."

No more briefings. No more cliques. No more factions.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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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