Emmanuel Todd’s Who is Charlie? reveals connections between Islamophobia and moves to the right in France, finds Lindsey German
Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie? Xenophobia and the new middle class (Polity Press 2015), xi, 211pp.
Millions of people took to the streets of France on 11th January this year in huge demonstrations against the Charlie Hebdo killings. The attack on the Parisian satirical magazine just days before provoked an outpouring of almost unprecedented public grief. The dead people were targeted by gunmen because of the magazine’s caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Around the world, people took to the streets in protest, many carrying signs which proclaimed ‘we are all Charlie’ or just simply ‘je suis Charlie’.
The magazine’s ‘right to offend’ and the necessity of upholding the right to free speech were the main arguments of those protesting. The killing of many of the journal’s writers and cartoonists, along with a policeman and four customers at a Jewish kosher supermarket elsewhere in the city, had provoked outrage. The gunmen in both incidents were Arabs, Islamic terrorists who themselves died shortly after the incidents.
The demonstration in Paris was attended by fifty heads of state to accompanying worldwide publicity. Amid the grief and anger at these events, however, there were some doubts which crept in. People who challenged the ‘je suis Charlie’ narrative, including children in school and drunks on the street, suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of disciplinary measures or even punitive prison sentences.
While the demonstrations were hailed as triumphs of national unity, republican values and the stand against terrorism, they were, according to Emmanuel Todd in this new book, only representative of a section of French society.
The poorer sectors of the population were not Charlie; the young people from the suburbs, whether Muslim or not, were not Charlie; the provincial working classes were not Charlie. On the other hand, the France of the upper-middle classes was out in superior force, as it were, and on that day it showed that it was able to take the middle strata of French society along with it thanks to the way it could express its emotions’ (p.9).
Todd views the demonstration as driven not by values of equality, but by forms of nationalism and xenophobia. He effectively questions the motives of some of those driving the protests, pointing out that these are the same people who oppose Muslim women’s right to wear the veil in public places. The demands that Muslims in France denounce the attacks led to a scapegoating of those who did not, or who also opposed the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. The line between the right to blaspheme, and an effective duty to blaspheme, was blurred.
So anyone who tried to put a different narrative was all too often pilloried for not supporting Charlie. The demonstrations represented a view which accepted that it was fine to blaspheme against a religious minority whose adherents in their vast majority are poor, immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and non-white.
It is to Todd’s credit that he wrote this book, which caused outrage within the French establishment. He dissects a society where a longstanding republican commitment to secularism can be used to inflict discriminatory and racist laws on its minority population. He argues that militant atheism leads to Islamophobia which in turn leads to greater levels of anti-Semitism. The book contains many useful points highlighting the move to the right by the governing Socialist Party in France, the growth of the far-right National Front which flourishes against a background of Islamophobia, and the extent to which Muslims in France are subject to racism.
However, Todd’s wider analysis is much weaker. As an anthropologist and sociologist, his explanation for the Charlie Hebdo response is to locate it among the secular middle classes from the traditionally strongest Catholic areas in France. The decline of Catholicism since the 1960s has led to what he describes as ‘zombie Catholicism’, whose adherents define themselves in opposition to Islam. Indeed, he sees a bloc of middle class, elderly and zombie Catholics (MEZ) as becoming more authoritarian and racist as its members struggle with anxiety and insecurity under the impact of neoliberalism.
This seems a rigid and schematic way of approaching the question, which would be better addressed in terms of race and class in a decaying capitalist society. This would also allow the possibility of those on the receiving end of racism being part of the fight against it.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Lip service to the left, but moves to the right - weekly briefing
- Do not be fooled: Trump is the problem
- Soleimani assassination is an act of war
- Past mistakes, future opportunities - weekly briefing
- What we should take from the election and what we do next
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December
- We have a world to win – election briefing Polling Day