Emmanuel Todd: the French thinker who won’t toe the Charlie Hebdo line

by Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, 28.08.2015. A great article about
Charlie Hebdo, as he is seen by Emmanuel Todd. I would like to publish
this article not to forget the attacks in Paris, and at the same time
not to forget islamophobia and antisemitism in Europe.

After the horror of the Paris
attacks, everyone agreed that the ensuing street rallies were the best of
France. Then a leftwing historian called them a totalitarian sham – and his
critique of ‘zombie Catholicism’ has outraged a nation.

“You are Charlie”
by the sun and soaked by the rain, the tattered paper signs still cling to
the statue of Marianne, the woman who symbolises all that is beautiful about
French liberty, in Paris’s Place de la République. “Never again,” reads one,
eight months after two million people amassed here to mark
the horror of January’s terrorist attacks – on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had caricatured the
prophet Muhammad, and a Paris kosher supermarket – that left 17 people dead.
volunteers returning week after week to carefully preserve the posters and
relight the candles, the monument to the republic has become an unofficial
shrine not just to those who were killed, but to the spirit of the post-attack rally itself.
Paris hadn’t seen a gathering of this size since the libération from
the Nazis in 1944. The four million people and 50 heads of state who took to
the streets across France after the attacks were seen as taking part in a
show of national unity and resilience, defending not just liberty, equality,
fraternity, but tolerance.
then, the so-called “spirit of 11 January” – the date of the street rallies –
has been seized upon by politicians as shorthand for all that is best and
still great about France. While the aftermath of the attacks has been
bitterly contested, no one questioned the street rallies themselves, which
were seen as sacrosanct: the one positive sign in one of France’s grimmest
But then a
leading French intellectual, the leftwing historian and sociologist Emmanuel
Todd, lobbed what he called his own “magnificently crafted Exocet missile” at
the nation, with a book arguing that the street rallies were a giant lie. The
rallies, he argued, were not what they claimed to be – an admirable
coming-together of people from different ethnic, religious and social
backgrounds standing up for tolerance – but an odious display of middle-class
domination, prejudice and Islamophobia. To Todd, they represented “a sudden
glimpse of totalitarianism”. These “sham” demonstrations, he claimed, were
made up of a one-sided elite who wanted to spit on Islam, the religion of a
weak minority in France. The working class and the children of immigrants had
been notably absent, he said. The most enthusiastic demonstrations, he
decided, had occurred in the country’s most historically Catholic and
reactionary regions, an affirmation of the middle class’s moral superiority
and domination, and their Islamophobic quest for a scapegoat.
Todd’s massively contested and controversial
book, Who is Charlie? – which is published in
English next week – instantly became a bestseller and caused one of the
biggest intellectual slanging matches of recent years, even by bruising
French standards. It was slated as “a polemical ego trip”; Todd was accused on the
front page of the daily Libération of“blasphemy against 11 January”. The paper’s
editor, Laurent Joffrin, told the Guardian that Todd’s book was not just
“absurd, insulting and false” but “gratuitous controversy and harmful”. Todd
made every major TV show and magazine cover and was dubbed “the disturbing
intellectual”. The Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, took the
unprecedented step of writing a furious critique of the book in Le Monde accusing
Todd of “self-flagellation”. Todd in turn likened Valls’s blind optimism
about France to that of Marshal Pétain, the leader of France’s
collaborationist Vichy regime in the 1940s.
Who is
Charlie? is now being published across the world with a preface warning that
in all western societies “a Charlie lies slumbering” – a horrific event that
cleaves society apart and sees the highly educated and well-off stick their
heads in the sand.
Sitting in
his flat looking out over the Paris rooftops, wearing frayed jeans and
espadrilles, Todd admits he’s now France’s public enemy number one. But he is
unrepentant. He says he feels liberated for speaking out. “It’s
extraordinary,” he says. “You put out a book that says France had an attack
of hysteria on 11 January, and that book immediately sparks an attack of
hysteria. It’s a marvellous proof of my thesis. When you produce a reaction
like that, it’s because you’ve touched a nerve.”
He pauses.
“It is a bit unpleasant to be insulted every 10 minutes, but I think it’s an
astonishing proof of all that’s true in the book.”
“I’m Charlie too”
furious row surrounding Todd’s book comes amid a wider soul-searching in
France. After a fresh round of terror attacks in France – including a beheading and attempt to blow up a chemical plant near
, and last week’s shooting on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris –
the question of what remains of that spirit of 11 January haunts the country.
Has France moved on? Or is it still in thrall to the unsettling fears that
Charlie Hebdo’s attackers, the Kouachi brothers, ignited, despite the
repeated breastbeating of politicians from the far-left to the far-right of
the strength of the republican, secular ideal?
As France
came to terms with its national trauma, it was easier for politicians to
focus on 11 January as one day of unity than the three fraught days between 7
and 9 January when two brothers who were once wards of the republic in
children’s homes
 massacred some of the country’s best-known
cartoonists as well as a Muslim policeman before finally being shot dead by
police after a hostage-taking at a printer’s outside Paris. Their target,
Charlie Hebdo, had long been under police protection after death threats over its caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.
The febrile atmosphere worsened when the brothers’ accomplice, Amedy
Coulibaly, also French born and bred, touched the rawest of nerves by killing
four people in a siege of a Paris kosher grocery store days after shooting
dead a policewoman while reportedly on his way to attack a Jewish school.
Emmanuel Todd
The slogan
“Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) became a worldwide rallying cry but proved
complex, and to some extent, excluding. It didn’t fit with those who utterly
condemned the shooting, but didn’t agree with the magazine’s caricatures of
Muhammad. Scores of disrupted minute’s silences in schools, particularly in
the restive banlieues, or suburbs, appeared to highlight the uneasy
relationship between teenagers, often from immigrant minorities, and their
teachers. Amid this, the French government cracked down on speech “deemed to glorify terrorism”.
A series of cases rushed through the courts resulted in heavy prison
sentences, some handed down to people who were drunk. One man with slight
learning difficulties was sentenced to six months in prison for drunkenly
shouting at police officers in the street: “They killed Charlie, I laughed.”
Rights groups protested. The debate intensified after it emerged that
an eight-year-old boy was questioned by police for
saying at school “I am with the terrorists,” later admitting he didn’t know
who the terrorists were or even what terrorism meant.
warned of “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” in France and launched a
plan for greater mixing in social housing and measures against
discrimination. This hint that homegrown terror may have a homegrown cause
sparked a chorus of disapproval from politicians. Then came the government’s
new increased surveillance laws, which caused a storm over civil liberties.
All the
while, people were looking for answers. Non-fiction book sales rose markedly
as readers searched for explanations of the terrorist attacks. Voltaire’s
Treatise on Tolerance, first published in 1763 – the source of the ideas that
were paraphrased as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the
death your right to say it” – was reissued, and sold more than 90,000 copies in four
. Scores of books were published about the “Spirit of 11
January”, debating everything from the right to blasphemy, introduced by the
French revolution in 1789, to the place of Islam in France.
It was
against that background that Todd launched his Exocet.

He hadn’t
gone on the 11 January rallies himself, although he knew the economist
Bernard Maris, who was killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. But he said that when he opened
the newspaper the next day and saw the maps of where rallies had taken place,
he saw a pattern that infuriated him. “Here was clear fraud. The street
demonstrations were the self-glorification of the French middle class. That
made me explode.” He saw it as France refusing to look at the economic
stagnation and deep inequality that might have led to the horror of the
He wasn’t
previously a “French-basher” but now calls himself “a Frenchman exasperated
by his own society”. He wrote the book in 30 days, getting up at 3am, but is
at pains to say it was based on 40 years’ previous research.
central argument is that there are fundamentally two Frances. There is a
“central” France, including Paris and Marseille and the Mediterranean, where
there is equality on the family level and a deep-rooted attachment to secular
values of the French revolution and the republic. Then there is a France of
the periphery, for example, the west or cities such as Lyon, which has stayed
true to the old Catholic bedrock, where people may no longer be practising
Catholics, but they’re still infused with all the social conservatism of that
Catholicism, its hierarchies and inequality. He calls this “zombie
Catholicism”. Infuriating his critics, Todd maintains that the post-attack
rallies represented zombie Catholicism on the march.
the row, he stands by the idea. “France is always double,” he says. “That’s
why you never know if it will collapse or get back on its feet.”
Todd, who
comes from a cosmopolitan family of writers and is distantly related to the
anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, came to fame for predicting the fall of
the Soviet Union in 1976 and more recently for suggesting the US is an empire in decline. He
has long argued that family structures explain why people adhere to certain
ideologies, and has pleaded for France to leave the euro.
He claims
in Who is Charlie? that France is no longer a place of liberty, equality,
fraternity, but instead is a kind of pseudo republic favouring only the
middle class while the working class and children of immigrants have been
excluded. He feels France has much that is “marvellous”, including its
welfare and social security safety net. “But it has stayed marvellous only
for the top half of society.”
Todd’s argument that you can tell a lot about the “unconscious” drive of the
people on the street rallies just from the political and religious traditions
of where they come from has been widely challenged. He says he’s not
suggesting everyone on the march was a rampant middle-class Islamophobe, but
that the overall effect of the mass rally was just that. “After the rallies,
we saw Islamophobic behaviour everywhere; it loosened people’s tongues.”
Todd says
he was most hurt by attacks on his methods and stands by what he says is
“serious statistical analysis”.
One of his
key concerns is “the wave of Islamophobia” in France, which he says is echoed
across the west.
Charlie Hebdo as a “bad magazine”, he said France’s new obsession with the
right to blaspheme is a pointless over-reaction. To him, blasphemy is now
hailed not just as a right but a kind of duty. He feels that freedom of
expression is clearly not under threat in France, so it’s wrong to focus
mainly on that in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. He said he felt very
uncomfortable watching the French Muslim comedy star Jamel Debbouze on TV
talking about his mixed marriage and joys of living together, being pushed to
say he agreed with caricatures of the prophet, as if that was the only true
measure of how French he was.
“Yes, of
course, there’s a right to blaspheme,” Todd says. “But one must also have the
right to say that blasphemy is not a priority and that it’s idiotic. With my
book, I was demanding the right to counter-blaspheme: to say that the
caricatures of Muhammad were obscene, rubbish, totally historically out of
sync and the expression of rampant Islamophobia. And, for saying that, I was
accused of complicity with the terrorists.” He felt vindicated by the
reaction. “It was fascinating to see people demonstrating for the right to freedom
of expression and then trying to shut others up.”
maternal side of Todd’s family is Jewish. “This is probably the first time in
my life that I’ve written a book as a Jew,” he said. When a young gunman
Mohamed Merah opened fire outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012,
killing four, Todd put the antisemitic element to the back of his mind;
likewise when a French gunman killed four at the Jewish museum in Brussels
last year. But with the attack on the kosher grocery store, which he feels
has been overshadowed by the Charlie Hebdo killings, he said antisemitism was
clearly at crisis point. His theory is that the rise in Islamophobia is in
turn stoking antisemitism in run-down suburbs, and that antisemitism is
growing in the middle class.
He feels that
“France is a sick society”. He says its economy is faltering, unemployment is
sky-high, inequality is the norm and yet, rather than properly get to grips
with that, the country went sleepwalking into the January rallies like sheep.
He says,
as a historian, it’s not his place to find answers for the future, but feels
that they rest on accommodating Islam into French life. He warns that, as
politicians focus on their ageing electorate, “there’s a phenomenon of
reducing to silence a large part of the young population, something you’ve
become conscious of in the UK long before we have”.
He says
France is perceived abroad as being a country that is asleep. “Most other
countries, including the UK, are trying to adapt. I won’t say that David
Cameron’s politics, which are destroying the UK, are a good way to adapt. But
in the UK, there’s an idea that at least things need to adapt. In France, we
have a ridiculous political system in which everyone talks about reform but
does nothing. And that inaction produces a phenomenon of exclusion,
destroying the lower half of French society.”
He sighs.
“There’s a part of French society that’s rotten, and nothing is being

– See more