In France, the Fight Over Charlie Hebdo’s Legacy Is Getting Ugly

A controversial left-wing sociologist says that last January's show of unity was more about racism than patriotism. And the French are pissed.

Picture taken on January 27, 2015 shows a graffitti reading "Je suis Charlie" on a wall in a street of Paris. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET        (Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture taken on January 27, 2015 shows a graffitti reading "Je suis Charlie" on a wall in a street of Paris. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET (Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

On Jan. 11, in the wake of the massacres at the offices of the journal Charlie Hebdo, more than 4 million Frenchmen, women, and children marched along the nation’s boulevards carrying signs emblazoned with a declaration: “Je suis Charlie.” The world, and most of France, understood the solemn demonstrations as a single and united nation marching on behalf of the freedom of expression and religious tolerance.

Emmanuel Todd doesn’t see it that way at all. Todd, a maverick sociologist and intellectual, is taking what he claims is the mythology of “Je suis Charlie,” head on. His book Who Is Charlie?: The Sociology of a Religious Crisis is 250 pages, stuffed with graphs and maps, and has, since its release earlier this month, become an unlikely best seller in France, spurring fierce debate among the country’s politicians and intellectuals. This French sociologist has forced a dramatic reconsideration of the nature of power distribution in French society at a moment when such a conversation is both crucial and difficult.

Todd argues that January’s massive demonstrations were not, as the world believes, a display of French unity and cohesion in the face of the horrors wrought by the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly. Instead, the marches, were a “sham.” To the question posed by the book’s title, Todd’s answer is surprisingly counter-intuitive: He insists that rather than exemplifying the France of 1789 and the trio of revolutionary values — liberty, equality, and fraternity — the demonstrators represented the France of 1815, reactionary, traditionalist, and Catholic.

The self-declared Charlies, in sum, are not children of the Revolution, but the spawn of “zombie Catholicism — Todd’s dire phrase for the persistence in France of the church’s reactionary and authoritarian worldview. In his last sociological blockbuster, The French Mystery, published in 2013 with the demographer Hervé Le Bras, Todd argued that while church attendance has dramatically declined in France, Catholicism continues to structure the politics and education, especially in those regions where the church dug its roots deepest. At the very moment the book appeared, proof for its provocative claim materialized when hundreds of thousands mobilized to protest the government’s proposed legislation to legalize gay marriage.

Todd claims in his new book that those same zombies were again on the march on Jan. 11. It is not a coincidence, he argues that the highest concentrations of marchers, coincide with those regions where Catholic roots — most resistant to the republican principles of secularism and tolerance — run deepest. Look at a map of France, trace your finger in a crescent along the western provinces of Normandy and Brittany and across the Pyrenees, then back up from the Alps to Alsace, and you will have traced the borderlands of what Todd describes as France’s zombie legions.

The Charlie Hebdo solidarity, in Todd’s view, represents a white-collar and white-skinned France, one that thrives on growing economic inequities and deepening social fissures. Todd slams this France as a “neo-Republic” — one that has betrayed the nation’s republican ideals by economically and politically marginalizing the working and immigrant classes. On Jan. 11, this France mobilized in order to vent their Islamophobic sentiments by affirming the “absolute right to caricaturize another’s religion, one held by the weakest members of society.” Meanwhile, a “massive oligarchy,” Todd contends, has sold out France’s working class and immigrants, subjecting them to the “cruel god” of the euro. Jan. 11 was, above all else, the “affirmation of this group’s social power and domination — an objective achieved by marching en masse, behind the government and protected by the police.”

Is it surprising, then, that these marginalized and disenfranchised classes refuse to identify with Charlie? Had they taken part in the “republican march,” it would amount to a colossal case of Stockholm syndrome.

Todd’s incendiary claims, splashed across French newspapers and relayed in television and radio interviews during the first two weeks of May, were not well received by either the government or many fellow intellectuals. On the same day Todd’s book was released, Prime Minister Manuel Valls replied to his claims in the pages of Le Monde. Lambasting Todd’s “inversion of values,” Valls demanded to know how the sociologist could portray heavily armed fanatics as vulnerable — much less pretend that an oligarchy controls France. Have we come to this, Valls asked, that the land of Voltaire and Zola boasts of prominent intellectuals who “have lost their faith in France”?

In a televised interview the day after Valls’s column appeared, Todd went into overdrive. Squinting through his reading glasses, he declared that Valls had either not read his book or that he was stupid, noting these things were not mutually exclusive. He upped the rhetorical ante by comparing Valls and his government to Marshal Philippe Pétain and the collaborationist Vichy regime: Pétain’s insistence that the anti-Nazi resistance was the work of a few treasonous souls, Todd said, was little different from the prime minister’s accusation that Todd and his cohort hated France because they resisted the government’s capitulation to Brussels and the marginalization of immigrants.

Even before Todd made his rhetorical lunge at the prime minister, he had already brawled with prominent intellectuals on the Left. In a debate at the office of the left-leaning paper Libération, Todd wrangled with editor in chief Laurent Joffrin. Marveling at the sociologist’s gift for calling white black and black white, Joffrin declared: “We were unanimous [on Jan. 11] to say: We’ve the right not to be unanimous.” While workers and French Muslims might have been underrepresented in the demonstrations, Joffrin continued, this does not mean they are isolated or alienated from the Republic. Given that more than 80 percent of the French Muslim population is fully integrated into civil society, Joffrin warned, to insist there is a simmering “civil war” in France, as does Todd, is the height of intellectual irresponsibility.

Several other prominent intellectuals echoed Joffrin’s barely contained anger. The conservative thinker Alain Finkielkraut denounced the magazine L’Obs for publishing extracts from Todd’s book: the editors, Finkielkraut declared, had given Todd the means to “crap on the heads of their readers.” (An odd choice of words for a man who spends his days decrying the vulgarization of French political and civil discourse.) Meanwhile, in a radio debate Sophia Aram, a young comedian with Moroccan roots, blasted Todd for being blind and self-satisfied. “According to your statistics,” she mockingly told Todd, “I am a Muslim, I did not march on Jan. 11, I am incapable of accepting the right to blaspheme, and I don’t understand the first thing about secularism.” She concluded, “I am a blockhead.” Turning serious, she informed Todd, that she and her fellow immigrants, religious or not, had no need of his paternalism: “Treat us like adults, Monsieur Todd: this is the best way to show us respect.”

Admitting last week that he had spoken too harshly to Valls, Todd said he hoped to replace such exchanges with a more “scientific debate.” Such a debate took place earlier this week in the pages of Le Monde, when the two fellow sociologists, Vincent Tiberj and Nonna Mayer, published an analysis of the Jan. 11 demonstrations that contradicted nearly all of Todd’s claims. Pointing to data that revealed there were many more workers and immigrants in the marches than previously thought, the researchers went on to offer an obvious, but necessary warning: “It is a mistake to infer the motivations of individuals from instances of collective behavior.”

Yet even Todd’s critics acknowledge the bleak economic and social prospects for French industrial workers, whose factories and jobs are threatened by globalization, and French citizens of North African origin, who are consigned to the suburbs and who haven’t jobs to be threatened. In increasing numbers, the former are turning for answers to the extremist National Front (FN), just as thousands of the latter are turning for answers to extremist Muslim movements.

These trends show little sign of slowing. In the half year since the Jan. 11 demonstrations, the Socialist government hasn’t done much to address the economic rights that many – including the Socialists — still believe are embedded in France’s republican ideology. For this reason, in a poll taken last week, the approval ratings of President François Hollande and Prime Minister Valls, have returned to their pre-January level: 19 percent for the former, 25 percent for the latter. The good news is that the ongoing psychodrama between the leader of the FN, Marine Le Pen, and the former leader (her father) Jean-Marie Le Pen, has hobbled her in the polls. The bad news is that at the age of 87, the father will not burden much longer daughter’s efforts to clean up the FN’s act.

The “isms” which fuel France’s zombies are less Catholicism and authoritarianism than the racism and isolationism that run deep and true in the agenda of the FN. The country’s political and intellectual leaders must offer more than slugfests and sensationalist claims if this wish to avoid a French remake of The Night of the Living Dead.


Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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