Writer takes dim view of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ protest

Emmanuel Todd says interior minister should be held responsible for January attacks

Emmanuel Todd has built his career as an author and public intellectual on a combination of scientific analysis, opinion and provocation. In 1976, he foretold the fall of the Soviet Union, 15 years before it occurred. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Emmanuel Todd has built his career as an author and public intellectual on a combination of scientific analysis, opinion and provocation. In 1976, he foretold the fall of the Soviet Union, 15 years before it occurred. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

 

The official, politically correct version of the jihadist attacks in which 20 people were killed in Paris last January portrays Charlie Hebdo magazine, the gunmen’s first target, as a paragon of free expression. Some four million French people who marched under the slogan “Je suis Charlie” are viewed as champions of tolerance and laicité, or French-style secularism.

Who is Charlie?, an opposing version of events, has just been published by the Cambridge-educated French demographer and historian Emmanuel Todd.

“Millions of French people rushed into the streets to define the right to spit on the religion of the weak as the priority need of their society,” Todd writes. He describes the much-vaunted “spirit of January 11” as sham unity, “emotional, feverish, hysteria,” a “totalitarian flash” and “loss of self control”.

This orgy of conformity seized the French middle and upper middle classes, but further alienated the working class and ethnic minorities, Todd notes.

Press hostility

The hostility of the press was palpable at a lunch with the European Press Club on Monday, where Todd described Charlie Hebdo as “an Islamophobic sect which spends its time sh***ing on Mohamed”. There were audible gasps among journalists. “The real threat isn’t Islam, which is relatively little practised,” Todd said. “It’s this new religion of radical secularism.”

Todd has built his career as an author and public intellectual on a combination of scientific analysis, opinion and provocation. In 1976, he foretold the fall of the Soviet Union, 15 years before it occurred. In the late 1990s, he was a lonely French voice predicting that the euro would bring disaster.

But nothing Todd has written previously inspired such outrage. For criticising Charlie Hebdo, Todd says, he’s been accused of “defending terrorism” and told: “You’re not a real Frenchman.”

“You won’t have a single friend left after this book,” a close relative predicted.

Todd says it doesn’t matter that the lower classes are Islamophobic; more serious is the manner in which prejudice against Muslims has crept up the social ladder over the past two decades. “When joblessness is at 10 per cent, the working class is rotting and [the right-wing commentator Eric] Zemmour talks about deporting immigrants by boat, do you really think the priority for France should be caricaturing the Prophet?” he asks rhetorically.

“Look at the covers of the news magazines!” Todd continues. “When you have children being interrogated by police, and drunks locked up for saying stupid things, a Muslim girl kept out of class because her skirt is too long and a mayor in the south of France who wants to ban Islam, how can you say France is not Islamophobic?”

But since 9/11 and the many attacks that have followed, is it unreasonable for French people to fear Islam? Todd denounces “the idea that Islam declared war on the West, when it’s the western military machine that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Muslim world”.

Todd links the rise of Islamophobia to France’s loss of religious faith and the failing European project. He quotes Émile Durkheim, the father of sociology, saying that “men are sometimes motivated by social forces they are unaware of”.

The four distinguishing features of French society are, according to Todd: loss of religious faith; hostility to Islam, which he describes as an oppressed group; the rise of anti-Semitism within that oppressed group and the “relative indifference in the dominant secular world to the rise of this anti-Semitism”, in particular the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket where four Jews were killed two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Unflattering analysis

Dismayed as they are by the unflattering analysis of Who is Charlie? the French media, intelligentsia and political class have made the book a cause célèbre. Libération published seven pages on Todd’s “blasphemy against January 11”. It inspired five pages in L’Obs magazine, and four pages in Le Monde, including an opinion piece by prime minister Manuel Valls.

How should France have reacted to the January attacks, I ask Todd. He says it is incomprehensible that Charlie Hebdo was not better protected, and that the interior minister should be held responsible.

“Then, the intelligent, dignified response would have been for French society to reflect upon itself, to admit that Kouachis and Coulibaly [the gunmen] were French and that this horror was committed by French people. They should reflect on the social system that leaves part of the population rotting, economically and morally. If we go on like this, I think [the violence] will continue.”