On 11 January 2015, an estimated 4 million French citizens took to the streets to express solidarity with the victims of shootings at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a subsequent attack at a kosher supermarket in Paris. They were joined by heads of state from some 50 countries, marching solemnly together under the ubiquitous slogan “We are Charlie”. For the international media and the participants themselves, this was a spontaneous democratic upsurge in defence of the value of freedom of expression. Citizens and their leaders were coming together to denounce terror and barbarism, to defend civilising values and to affirm the French Republic itself.
French historian and sociologist Emmanuel Todd’s fascinating and yet deeply curious book sets out to challenge this reductive and self-celebratory reading. His purpose is to discover “who is Charlie”; in other words, to look behind the self-proclaimed ideals of this civic demonstration and uncover its underlying political and cultural meaning. Todd pulls no punches. The Charlie Hebdo demonstration was not a great democratic rally, he says, but a moment of collective hysteria driven by xenophobic, authoritarian and nationalist impulses. Those who took to the streets came primarily from the privileged middle classes, taking advantage of the emotional shock that followed the killings in order to reaffirm their position of social domination and privilege.
Not surprisingly, Todd’s book has triggered a public outcry in France. On the day of its publication in France on 7 May, Le Monde published a letter by Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, in which he denounced the book and defended the democratic and populist credentials of the demonstration. The author of Who is Charlie? was indulging, according to Valls, in a kind of “self-flagellation” typical of the intellectual elite who insisted on denigrating the Republic and exacerbating a national mood of pessimism and despair.
Todd is at his most incisive when highlighting the contradictions and hypocrisies of the “republican” demonstration. For instance, many of those who took to the streets to defend the principle of freedom of expression had rushed to support the banning of the burqa under French law in 2010. There should be freedom of expression for some people, it would seem, but not for others. What the demonstrators were actually fighting for, Todd argues, was the freedom to ridicule and insult the sacred religious figurehead of a stigmatised and disadvantaged ethnic minority. French national identity has become bound up with the right to blaspheme. For Todd, the demonstration was driven by “militant atheists” who sought not only to reject their own god but also to reject the god of others.
The value of Todd’s book lies in this persuasive counter-narrative that debunks the Manichean interpretation of events that has thus far prevailed in media and political circles. So far, so good. Yet his line of argument soon veers so dramatically off course that he loses the sympathy of this open-minded reviewer. His critique is underpinned by his own long-standing preoccupation with the anthropological roots of political actions and ideologies. A leading intellectual on the French Left, Todd holds to the conviction that political actions are determined not by conscious and rational choices, but by deep-seated anthropological and societal forces such as family structure, religion and territory.
When applied to the Charlie Hebdo demonstration, this conceptual framework produces a bizarre and contradictory reading of events. Using demographic and statistical data, he argues that the participants were, in the main, secularist middle-class groups from the most strongly Catholic regions of France (“zombie Catholics”), who with the decline of Catholicism from the 1960s onwards have sought out a new religious enemy against which to define themselves. This enemy has taken on the form of Islam and Muhammad.
Who is Charlie? is a curious mix of trenchant criticism and obscurantism. Todd promises to deliver us from the reductionist myths of social and political elites, only to impose his own essentialist and binary categories. While the book gives us a critical insight into the many dysfunctions of French national identity, its broader intellectual framework, grounded as it is in deterministic anthropological categories, is unconvincing. Can the demonstrations against the Charlie Hebdo killings, in all their diversity, internationalism and complexity, be reduced to a sort of pre-determined cultural DNA?
Sarah Waters is senior lecturer in French studies, University of Leeds, and author of Between Republic and Market: Globalization and Identity in Contemporary France (2012).
Who is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class
By Emmanuel Todd, translated by Andrew Brown
Polity, 220pp, £16.99
Published 4 September 2015