Martin O’Neill
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How nostalgic literature became an agent in American racism

From To Kill a Mockingbird to Gone With The Wind, literary mythmaking has long veiled the ugly truth of the American South.

Alongside this summer’s debate over the meanings of the Confederate flag, sparked by the Charleston shootings, another story about the history of American racism flared up. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, revealed further discomfiting truths, this time about the background to one of the nation’s most beloved fictional standard-bearers for racial equality.

In Watchman, Atticus Finch is discovered, twenty years after the action of Mockingbird, fighting against desegregation during the civil rights era. The shock readers have felt is akin to finding an early draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Orwell defends surveillance in the name of national security – but stumbling upon a segregationist Atticus Finch should not surprise readers who know their history. In the end, he proves just as problematic a symbol as the Confederate flag, and for exactly the same reasons: both flew in the face of civil rights to defend white prerogative in the South. And both were gradually romanticised through the process of revision, wrapping America in comforting white lies.

Like our euphemistic habit of calling Jim Crow laws “segregation” rather than apartheid, all of this partakes in a time-honoured communal practice of deracination through whitewashing, through popular fictions of innocence such as Mockingbird and ­popular histories such as folk tales about the innocence of the Confederate flag. America keeps willing its own innocence back into being, even as racist ghosts continue to haunt our nation’s dreams of the pastoral South, a society whose fantasy of gentility was purchased at the cost of brutal chattel slavery and its malignant repercussions.

An essential aspect of the history of American racism is also the history of its deliberate mystification. Many Americans continue to accept an idealised view of the antebellum and Jim Crow South, which emerged as part of a national romance known as the Lost Cause, a legend that turned terrorism into a lullaby. In the aftermath of the South’s crushing defeat in the civil war, southerners began trying to reclaim what they had lost – namely, an old social order of unquestioned racial and economic hierarchies. They told stories idealising the nobility of their cause against the so-called War of Northern Aggression, in which northerners had invaded the peaceful South out of a combination of greed, arrogance, ignorance and spite. Gentle southerners heroically rallied to protect their way of life, with loyal slaves cheering them all the way. This Edenic dream of a lost agrarian paradise, in which virtuous aristocrats and hard-working farmers coexisted peacefully with devoted slaves, pre-dated the war: merging with Jeffersonian ideals of the yeoman farmer, it formed the earliest propagandistic defences of slavery. One of the most powerful broadsides against this spurious fantasy was launched in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a north-eastern preacher’s daughter who had lived in border states and seen what really happened to ­fugitive slaves. The South responded to Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a furious denunciation of Stowe’s knowledge and motives, insisting on the benevolence of their “peculiar institution” – an especially sordid ­euphemism that recast plantation slavery as an endearing regional quirk.

Once institutional slavery was irrevocably destroyed, nostalgia prevailed, and southerners began producing novels, ­poems and songs romanticising the lost, halcyon days of the antebellum era. Reaching their apotheosis in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in 1936, and its film version in 1939, they have become known as the “moonlight and magnolia” school of plantation fiction, exemplified by the novels of Thomas Nelson Page, whose books, such as In Ole Virginia (1887) and Red Rock (1898), helped establish the formula: devoted former slaves recount (in dialect) their memories of an idyllic plantation culture wantonly destroyed by militant northern abolitionists and power-crazed federalists. A small band of honourable soldiers fought bravely on the battlefield and lost; the vindictive North installed incompetent or corrupt black people to subjugate the innocent whites; southern scalawags and northern carpetbaggers descended to exploit battle-ravaged towns. Pushed to the limits of forbearance, the Confederate army rose again to defend honour and decency – in the noble form of the Ku Klux Klan.

This thoroughly specious story is familiar to anyone who knows Gone with the Wind, but Mitchell learned it from Page and other novelists, including Mary Johnston and Thomas Dixon, Jr. Dixon wrote a series of books celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, of which the most notorious remains The Clansman (1905), for the simple reason that ten years later a director named D W Griffith decided to adapt it into a film he called The Birth of a Nation. Released exactly a century ago, it faithfully follows the same narrative blueprint. This was neither an accident nor a coincidence: Griffith was himself the son of a Confederate colonel (memorably known as “Roaring Jake”) and had listened to legends of the Lost Cause at his father’s knee. Reading The Clansman, Griffith said, brought back “all that my father had told me . . . [the film] had all the deep incisive emotionalism of the highest patriotic sentiment . . . I felt driven to tell the story – the truth about the South, touched by its eternal romance which I had learned to know so well.” That “truth” was a story in which the cavalry that rode to the rescue of an imperilled maiden was the KKK, saving her from a fate worse than death at the hands of a white actor in blackface. Griffith had considered hiring black actors for the film, he told an interviewer in 1916, but after “careful weighing of every detail concerned”, none of which he imparted, “the decision was to have no black blood among the principals”, a phrase that says it all by using the so-called one-drop rule to justify racist hiring practices in a film glorifying racism.

The Birth of a Nation was a national phenomenon, becoming the first film ever screened at the White House, in March 1915, for President Woodrow Wilson. Born in Virginia, raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was the first southern president since before the civil war. He attended Johns Hopkins University with Thomas Dixon, who became a political supporter of his; Wilson also appointed Thomas Nelson Page his US ambassador to Italy. Many members of his administration were equally avowed segregationists; their influence reverberated for generations. Wilson’s history books were quoted verbatim by Griffith in some of The Birth of a Nation’s titles, including: “‘The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.’ – Woodrow Wilson”.

Wilson does not, however, actually seem to have said the quotation most frequently attributed to him, that The Birth of a Nation was “like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true”. The source for this appears to be Griffith, who told a 1916 movie magazine: “The motion picture can impress upon a people as much of the truth of history in an evening as many months of study will accomplish. As one eminent divine said of [moving] pictures, ‘they teach history by lightning!’” They can teach myths the same way, as Griffith’s film regrettably proved. Northern white audiences cheered it; black audiences wept at the malevolence it celebrated; it prompted riots and racist vigilante mobs in cities across America, and at least one racially motivated murder. Together, Griffith and Dixon worked to elevate a regional legend, designed to save face after a catastrophic loss, into a symbolic myth accepted by much of the nation.

 

***

The Birth of a Nation helped to invent the feature film. It also helped to reinvent the Ku Klux Klan, which enjoyed a huge resurgence following the film’s release, spreading up through the north-east and Midwest. The Klan had a strong presence on Long Island in the 1920s, for example, which is why F Scott Fitzgerald made Tom Buchanan a believer in “scientific racism” in The Great Gatsby, a story set there in 1922, the same year in which Thomas Nelson Page died while working on a novel about the Klan called The Red Riders.

Four years later, a young writer named Margaret Mitchell began her own tale of the Lost Cause, a story that follows the same pattern, to the extent of describing Scarlett O’Hara on its first page in coded terms as a woman with “magnolia-white skin”. Gone with the Wind became a global sensation when it was published in 1936. Mitchell’s ideas of southern history were deeply influenced by Dixon’s racist ideology, although she was considerably more knowledgeable about the workings of plantation slavery than is often recognised. In fact, the great majority of antebellum southern planters (some 75 per cent) were what historians class as yeoman farmers (growing primarily for domestic use, selling only a small portion of their crop), not aristocratic owners of vast plantations. Such farmers often did not even own a slave, but rented or borrowed one or two during harvest time. But although the Hollywood version dispensed entirely with Mitchell’s sense of history (and her considerably more interesting take on historical sexism), it retained her racism, despite the stated intentions of its producers. The film of Gone with the Wind contributed greatly to the gradual displacement and dislocation of the historically specific time and place that had given rise to the antebellum plantation myth. Ben Hecht’s famed floating preface to the 1939 big-screen version labours at making the story timeless, a legend dissipating in the mists of history:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South . . . Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow . . . Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave . . . Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilisation gone with the wind . . .

as history recedes into ellipses.

Yet even this feudalist imagery has a specific history of its own, forming another crucial part of the popular culture of the Lost Cause. It was Mark Twain, whose works remain one of our most powerful literary antidotes to the toxin of moonlight and magnolia, who most famously named its source: the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott “did measureless harm”, Twain insisted in his 1883 Life on the Mississippi, “more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote”. Scott’s bestselling romances filled southerners’ heads with enchanted “dreams and phantoms . . . with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society”. In fact, Twain concluded acidly, “Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” This is only slightly exaggerated: Scott’s novels were as popular in early-19th-century America as were the films of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind a century later. It is certainly thanks to the popularity of novels such as Ivanhoe and Waverley that the cult of the “clan” was distorted into the Ku Klux Klan, with its bogus orders and knights. Scott’s novels may even have given rise to antebellum America’s use of the medieval word “minstrel” to describe itinerant blackface musicians; the OED offers no logic for the coinage, but its earliest citation is from 1833, when the mania for Scott’s work in the American South was at its highest. The feudal fantasy of “gallantry”, “cavalier knights” and “ladies fair” is a powerful one, not least, doubtless, because it gives America a sense of a much older past than it has, merging our history with a faux-feudalism in which slaves are rewritten as serfs, bound by devotion to the land and the family they serve.

***

But even as Gone with the Wind was in its ascendancy, another national narrative was slowly gaining traction. Black writers including W E B DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright were vigorously challenging the dominant racist narrative, while white southern writers such as Ellen Glasgow and, especially, William Faulkner, also began debunking and complicating this facile tradition. Faulkner took from the Lost Cause legends that he, too, had heard as a child in Mississippi, some much darker truths about memory, history, distortion, perspective. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is probably his greatest meditation on the processes of myth-making and how they intersect with national history, writing a Homeric epic of America. Absalom came out in 1936, the same year as Gone with the Wind, and in many ways can be read as a corrective to it, shaking off the dreams of moonlight and magnolia to show the Gothic nightmare underneath.

Just twenty years later, a young woman who had been born in the year Margaret Mitchell began to write Gone with the Wind, named Nelle Harper Lee, produced her own version of the story of America’s struggles with its racist past. To Kill a Mockingbird takes place between 1933 and 1935 (just before Gone with the Wind was published), during which time Atticus Finch tells his young daughter, Scout, that the Ku Klux Klan was “a political organisation” that existed “way back about 1920” but “couldn’t find anybody to scare”, relegating the Klan to ancient history, instead of a mere dozen years before Lee’s story.

Nor is it any coincidence that Mrs Dubose, the racist old lady addicted to morphine, forces Jem Finch to read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to her as a punishment: there are more encoded traces of Lost Cause history in Mockingbird than many readers have recognised. Mockingbird resists this history on balance, but it also participates in collective myth-making, most significantly in its depiction of lynching as a furtive, isolated practice in the dead of night. It would be pretty to think so. In Lee’s version, a lynch mob is dispersed by the innocent prattle of the child Scout, who unwittingly reminds its members of their basic “decency”. In fact, by the 1920s, lynching in the South was often publicly marketed as a tourist attraction, in a practice historians now refer to as “spectacle lynching”, which took place in the cold light of day, with plenty of advance warning so people could travel from outlying areas for the fun. There were billboards and advertisements letting tourists know when and where the lynching would take place; families brought children and had picnics; postcards were sold and sent (horrific images of which are easy to find online). Burning at the stake was common; victims were often tortured or castrated, or had limbs amputated, or were otherwise mutilated first; pregnant women were burned to death in front of popcorn-crunching crowds. This was so well established that in 1922 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times with the headline “The shame of America”, demanding, in underscored outrage: “Do you know that the United States is the Only Land on Earth where human beings are BURNED AT THE STAKE?” It went on to outline a few salient facts: between 1889 and 1922, 3,436 people had been lynched in America. Of these, “only 571, or less than 17 per cent, were even accused of rape”. Eighty-three of the victims were women, which further undermined the myth that rape led to lynching.

Lee’s picture of lynching in To Kill a Mockingbird is not merely sentimental, but an active falsification: it participates in a wider American story seeking to minimise, even exonerate, the reactions of white southerners to African Americans’ claims to equal rights under the law. It functions as a covert apology, suggesting that lynching was anomalous, perpetrated by well-meaning men who could be reminded of common humanity – when, in fact, members of lynch mobs in the 1920s posed for photographs in front of their victims. But Atticus Finch stands up to racism, and Scout persuades Cunningham and the rest of the lynch mob to go home. This is why it matters that an earlier version of Atticus advocated segregation: it shows that the process of revising Mockingbird was a process of idealisation, promising readers that systemic racism could be solved by the compassionate actions of noble individuals.

This is the consolatory promise of individualism, that the nation can be redeemed collectively by isolated instances of benign action. The romance of individualism has always been how America manages injustice and unrest, how it pastes over irre­concilable differences and squares imaginary circles: the heroic figure who temporarily, occasionally, overcomes all structural and social impediments is taken as communal evidence that these obstructions don’t exist, or aren’t very obstructive. It is, of course, a deeply Christian idea: the redemptive individual who expiates collective sin, the original lost cause, sacrificed for the good of all.

The doctrine of individualism is further tangled up in yet another exculpatory logic: that of states’ rights. The remnants of this rationale also surface at the end of Go Set a Watchman: Atticus Finch argues that segregation is really a matter of states’ rights, and Jean Louise, his now adult daughter, though nauseated at his racism, accepts the legitimacy of that argument. What right has the federal government to insist that the people within its borders adhere to its laws, or even to the principles (truth, justice, equality, democracy) they purport to uphold? Some might conclude from reading this passage that, like paradise, causes are invented to be lost. The idea of the Lost Cause redeems a squalid past; it is an act of purely revisionist history, disavowing the notion that slavery or racism had anything to do with the civil war and its vicious, lingering aftermath. Glorifying that history as “gallantry” is not merely dishonest: it is ruinous.

Dismissing all of this as ancient history, or mere fiction, is not the solution, it is part of the problem. As Faulkner famously observed and this brief account shows, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. The word “legend” comes from the Latin legere, to read. Many insist that the stories we consume endlessly are harmless entertainment, but that, too, is part of the mystification, pretending that these legends did not arise precisely to veil an ugly truth with moonlight, to smother with the scent of magnolia the stink of old, decomposing lies.

Now listen to Sarah Churchwell discussing the fiction of the American South with the NS's Tom Gatti:

An American in London, Sarah Churchwell is an author and professor of American literature. Her latest book, “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby”, is published by Virago.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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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