Who is Charlie? Emmanuel Todd, Polity, 220 pages
Following the terrorist attacks that struck France in January, four million Frenchmen, in the largest public gathering since the Liberation of Paris, took to the streets under the slogan 'Je Suis Charlie'. It was a rare moment of national unity. Under bipartisan applause at the National Assembly, the socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls praised “those 17 lives [who] were faces of France and symbols of freedom of speech, the vitality of our democracy, of the republican order, of our institutions, of tolerance, of secularism.” Leaders from all around the world gathered in Paris to express their support.
But it was all a “sham” says Emmanuel Todd, a French left-wing intellectual whose essay “Who is Charlie?” a controversial bestseller in France, was recently translated into English. For Todd, the event that truly demands study did not take place on January 7th, the date of the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff, or on January 9th with the anti-Semitic murders at Hyper Cacher. It is rather the “hysteria,” a totalitarian unanimity that Todd says is comparable to the Spanish Inquisition, which seized France during the massive marches of January 11.
Todd, we are told, is a sociologist. Where other people see rational actors making decisions, he supposedly unveils the true social forces moving unwitting participants. The French thought they were marching to express their solidarity with the victims and their commitment to republican principles such as freedom of speech. Basing his study on maps of the protest across the country, Todd claims instead the 4 millions demonstrators were actually unconscious agents of a dominating, but declining, class: white, bourgeois, formerly Catholic, defending their contested power by advocating for abused pseudo-universal values like secularism. The region where the marches were the most numerous, says Todd, are historically those that fought secularism the most, regions with residual (“zombie”) Catholicism and inegalitarian family structures. The true motivation, Todd says, was Islamophobia. “Focusing on Islam reveals in reality a pathological need by the middle and superior classes to hate someone or something,” Todd writes. Protesters were “sacralising the symbolic violence targeted at a minority religion."
The legacy of Charlie Hebdo is not taken lightly in France. Soon after the book’s publication, Valls himself reacted in an op-ed denouncing Todd’s “pessimism” and “intellectuals who have stopped believing in France”. In response, Todd upped the rhetoric and compared Valls to Maréchal Pétain, the collaborationist leader of Vichy France … 'Je Suis Charlie' is nothing short of crypto-fascist and, as Todd darkly adds: “it is impossible to answer with certainty: does Charlie correspond to France’s darkest hours?”.
Todd’s essay is a spectacular example of how pure conspiracy theory can masquerade as science when it is accompanied by confusing jargon, data or maps. In Le Monde, two prominent sociologists, Vincent Tiberj and Nonna Mayer, debunked Todd’s “simplistic” views, quoting polls that lead to exactly opposite conclusions. When Todd bases his analysis on maps of geographical distribution of the marches (discounting people who might have gone to a larger city to protest for example), the sociologists reveal that the likelihood to participate was greater among people with immigrant backgrounds, and least likely among extreme-right supporters.
Besides, the idea that Charlie Hebdo was obsessed with Islam has also long been refuted. Between 2005 and 2015, religion has only occupied 7 percent of the weekly’s front page, with Christianity mocked three times more often than Islam. Just last week, the paper stirred a new controversy with its comparison of Nadine Morano, a conservative politician figure, to a child with Down syndrome.
But this hardly matters. The debate the book stirred can’t be explained by its extended study of resilient Catholicism in France or of family structures to explain different political models across Europe. Todd’s real argument lies elsewhere and is entirely ideological. “The right to blasphemy on one’s own religion should not confused with the right to blasphemy on someone else’s religion, particularly in the difficult socio-economic context of today’s French society: repetitive, systematic blasphemy on Mahomet, central figure of the religion of a weak and discriminated-against group, should be, whatever tribunals say, considered as inciting to religious, ethnic or racial hatred," he writes.
Todd provides pseudo-scientific cover to those that have always felt uncomfortable siding with the Charlie cartoonists, like the members of the PEN jury who protested the award given to the paper in May. Mostly received as a provocative stunt from a professional contrarian, Who is Charlie? is nonetheless an extreme example of a part of the left’s willingness to forego its liberal and secular principles when it comes to talking about Islam. Because immigrant populations are economically disenfranchised, raising the question of anti-Semitism or extremism among the ranks of a minority of them can only be racist, a tool of oppression. The book thus proceeds in a constant and methodical reversal of realities. Islamophobia is the cause of terrorism. 'Je Suis Charlie' demonstrators can be indirectly blamed for the rise of anti-Semitism because they contribute to this Islamophobia. Islamic extremism is a reaction to economic exclusion, the same way Scottish nationalism among young Scots stems from David Cameron’s austerity policies!
This absurd relativism does not provide an alternative to the far-right populists that Todd denounces. In fact, it is its exact mirror image. The book condemns the rise of populism in the public discourse and the influence of figures such as the right-wing editorialist Eric Zemmour. In his bestseller The French Suicide, Zemmour describes France as a country that fell prey to corrupt cosmopolitan elites, European bureaucrats, feminists and gays. Its success testifies to the mood of national anguish and fear of decline that permeates France, and many European countries. Is Todd different? His essay is replete with attacks against the Euro. He admires Putin’s Russia as a counterweight to an arrogant and inegalitarian Western civilization, despises the United States (whose decline he predicted in his 2003 other essay After The Empire) and condemns Paris’ stance on the Syrian issue as having contributed to the rise of ISIS. All positions that his far-right adversaries would share. For Zemmour or Todd, Islam and integration issues are secondary issues a pretext. Todd’s argument is really targeted at today’s European models and what they stand for: free market and liberal democracy. In this, he is a perfect bedfellow for the very people he pretends to fight.