Emmanuel Todd is both a historian and a sociologist at the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris. Like most French men and women, he was appalled by the bloody events of January 7, 2015. On that day, two heavily armed men walked into the Paris offices of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) and murdered 12 people, including the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, four cartoonists, a columnist, a proofreader, a maintenance worker, and two policemen stationed inside the building and one outside. The killers were Muslim extremists associated with al-Qaeda, but their actions were praised by the Islamic State (ISIS) as well. Almost everyone else, including most Muslim commentators, condemned the attack for the horrible crime it certainly was.
Professor Todd was also appalled by the government's reaction to the murders. That reaction culminated on January 11 with massive demonstrations throughout France that saw between 3 and 4 million demonstrators, about 6 percent of the French population, waving placards declaring "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie). What the government had done was create a situation where everyone who was a true French citizen had to identify with the January 7 victims, as well as the alleged "free speech" behavior that drew their attackers to them. Todd came to see the demonstrations as "an attack of hysteria" (p. 1).
Professor Todd's book Who Is Charlie? takes its title from those placards, turning the declaration around into a question. Millions said they were Charlie, but did they know what that implied? They demanded free speech as a sacred right and associated it with the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Indeed, the French government gave the surviving members of the staff a stipend so that they could resume publication as quickly as possible. Was that wise? After all, Charlie Hebdo had made a practice of ridiculing other people's beliefs, most notably those of Muslims, in the ugliest pornographic and insulting way. When, on January 11, millions marched in Paris and other cities, identifying the magazine's style and presentation with the right of free speech, they were setting up norms that reflected the standards of crude adolescent boys, norms that could just as easily have been condemned as incitement to riot.
For Todd, those who marched on January 11 identifying themselves with Charlie also had unspoken economic reasons for their mass actions. They were of the middle classes, high and low, and included secularized Catholics from the nation's provinces (Todd calls them "zombie" Catholics). Todd's thesis is that, collectively, these elements of the French population are determined to protect their material interests at a time of economic crisis, a crisis that sees the "economic and social crushing of young people" as a consequence of "globalization and free trade" (p. 167). To this end, the French middle classes have thrown their support behind the political and economic principle of hierarchy in place of traditional French egalitarianism.
Charlie as a class phenomenon protects its interests in two ways, according to Todd. First, it supports the melding of the European community into what is now known as the Eurozone, despite the harmful impact that the European alliance has on aspects of the French economy. Second, it acquiesces in the sacrifice of the economic interests of the lower classes and Muslim immigrants. Indeed the latter are now designated to play the role of scapegoat to deflect the nation's general economic anxieties.
The French have isolated many of their Muslim youth, allowing them to wallow in inferior educational institutions and unemployment. This was in conjunction with the spread of Islamophobia throughout the Western world. In France, this discrimination has slowed down what, before the 1990s, had been a well-paced process of assimilation. After January 7, things got markedly worse. A directive was figuratively issued to France's Muslims. As Todd puts it, "If they were to be fully accepted as part of the French community, they needed to admit that blasphemy, in the form of [Charlie Hebdo's] caricatures of Mohammad, was an integral element of French identity. It was their duty to blaspheme" (p. 2). In this way, incitement of religious and racial hatred under the cover of free speech became a sign of French culture and solidarity.
The result is an increasingly class-divided society ruled by, as Todd puts it, an oligarchically inclined "smug, self-satisfied middle class that has, through its selfishness and disdain, allowed French society to decay in its lower strata" (p. 184). Where earlier in French history there was egalitarianism, there is now indifference, disdain and even hatred for immigrants and refugees. For the author, contemporary French society has become a "neo-republic" moving quickly to the political right.
In this neo-republic, the French now demand an immediate and extreme form of secularism (essentially the denunciation of their religious tradition) from Muslim citizens and residents. Indeed, this is a much more extensive secularism than was ever demanded of Catholics following the French Revolution. There seems to be no room for opting out of this demand; in reaction to the January 7 attacks, the French government is also demanding patriotic unanimity among all citizens. French Muslims are thus caught in an impossible position that may well push at least some of them in an extremist direction.
Todd notes that this turn of events can only benefit France's political right wing. "It is the National Front that affirms the inferiority of the immigrants and their children" (p. 122). It preaches the pushing down to the bottom of society of those not considered truly French. Todd points out that this sentiment is not new for France. In its relatively recent past the same feelings were reserved for the Germans and the English. However, the difference is that these groups never made up noticeable elements of the French population. Now the right has an real domestic population to focus on.
There is an added element of apprehension for the author: it is the working class that is being drawn to the National Front. With the demise of Communist Party influence in France, with rates of unemployment on the rise and working-class educational standards falling, workers have been attracted to the right's anti-immigrant propaganda. Todd puts it this way: "The people who vote for the National Front see above them the crushing mass of a middle class defined by its educational attainments. They no longer dream of achieving the same status. They look downwards filled with the fear of being dragged down. Their anger is turned against immigrants" (p. 132).
As noted above, until recently France's Muslims were well on their way to assimilation. In the 1990s, a combination of economic stagnation and growing Islamophobia slowed the process. Todd also points out that French Muslims were never the monolithic populace their critics claim them to be. They are too diverse to easily fall under one label. They have "different national origins, educational levels, jobs and social classes, as well as different degrees and types of religious practice. To stick them under one label, 'Muslim,' is quite simply a racist act" (p. 153).
The author tells us that this is tragic in more ways than one. For, as he sees it, "what is specific about Islam is a powerful sense of the equality of all human beings" that could well survive the secularization that a normal process of assimilation would have resulted in. He even assumes that this evolutionary social process of becoming secular could "dissolve the anti-feminist element of Arab culture" (p. 180). In other words, the French Muslims could have become much like the secular French Catholics, but also champions of egalitarianism. Toward the end of Todd's book, French Muslims become a potential source of regenerating the French tradition of egalité.
The author believes that Charlie, increasingly swayed by the political right, has the potential to make life unbearable for French minorities. Discrimination will get worse and come to be directed not only against Muslims but other minorities such as French Asians and Jews as well. Because he sees the cause of Charlie's anxieties to be ultimately economic, Todd's prescription for avoiding an increasingly discriminatory France and revitalizing the national tradition of egalitarianism, rests on the country's ability to abandon the Eurozone and go back to a national economic policy that promotes the welfare of the lower classes. If this economic reform is pursued, assimilation of Muslims and other minorities could recommence.
Todd is not sanguine about this prospect, however. He tells us that he once believed in France's willingness to absorb and assimilate all her minorities, but now he is not sure if this is so. He ends his book this way: "Even if France finally does come back to herself, it will be a much bumpier ride than I had imagined twenty years ago. And it is already clear that my generation will not see the Promised Land" (p. 204).