Can Zombies Make History?

Emmanuel Todd, Who Is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class

Polity, 220pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781509505777

reviewed by Ian Birchall

The forthcoming French presidential elections will be haunted by the violence of the last few years. The appalling murders of the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 were followed by massive demonstrations, involving up to four million people, under the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ [I am Charlie]. Amid this display of national unity and ‘republican values’ there were few discordant voices – but one which provoked considerable controversy was this little book by anthropologist Emmanuel Todd. It is a strange book – short, only a couple of hundred pages, but a hybrid of political polemic and a historical analysis with scientific pretensions; the book is full of maps and diagrams, though what exactly they prove is not always clear.

Todd makes some initial points that are clear and effective. The logic of ‘je suis Charlie’ is not only to defend the right of blasphemy but of blasphemy against the religion of ‘at best 5 per cent of France’s inhabitants – and these among the weakest and most vulnerable in the country.’ Thus he notes that

in the context of mass unemployment, in which young people of North African origin find it particularly difficult to find work, and Islam is constantly being demonized by ideologues in high places in French society, on television as in the French Academy, we cannot overemphasize the repressed violence that was present in the 11 January demonstrations.

As against the Islamophobic tirades produced by some French intellectuals, Todd welcomes the contribution to French life made by Muslim citizens. He sees the high rate of mixed marriages as a positive feature, notes that Muslims tend to vote for parties of the left and argues that ‘a transformed Arab and Muslim culture could well and truly contribute to the reestablishment of a veritable republicanism in France.’ He condemns the ‘smug, self-satisfied middle class’ and recalls that at the time of the first emergence of the Front National ‘a certain discourse on tolerance came clattering down from the elites towards the French lower classes.’ (We saw something similar in Britain with the patronising interventions by the likes of Gordon Brown in the EU referendum.)

So far, so good. But Todd attempts to base his argument on some historical explanations that are at best speculative and at worst positively misleading. He argues, with some justice, that France is going through a “religious crisis”. Areas of the country that were, until half a century ago, solidly Catholic have seen a massive decline in religious observance. Obviously this is a complex phenomenon which requires closer analysis and an explanation of its causes and effects. Instead Todd claims that these areas are still inhabited by what he calls ‘zombie Catholics’, who are unconsciously perpetuating the values associated with the areas. For Todd, what others might see as individual choices are to be explained by membership of a collective entity. 'The territory transmits its values just as much as does the family.' As an insight, one factor among others, this might be of interest; as a total theory it is less than convincing.

It is of course quite right to look for historical explanations of contemporary society. But in his obsessive concern with certain factors, Todd wholly neglects other historical influences. Thus he notes, quite rightly, that the Socialist Party is ‘on the side of the wealthy and the elderly’ and that its leaders have ‘lukewarm beliefs and a rather flabby political commitment’ (something similar can be observed in many different countries). But he wholly neglects to mention the experience of the Mitterrand governments. It is easy to forget just how radical Mitterrand seemed up to his election – and how much his subsequent move to the right led to disillusion and cynicism. All this, less than a generation ago, must be a major factor in explaining the development of the Socialist Party.

Likewise Todd makes no mention of France’s imperial past. Until the 1950s France had a vast colonial empire, second in size and brutality only to the British. The Algerian war for national independence (again not discussed by Todd) was exceptionally harsh and vicious. How many of the people of Algerian descent living in France had parents or grandparents who were tortured by the French army or murdered by police on the streets of Paris?

And the tradition of secularism (laïcité), defended by politicians of left and right (and seen by Todd as a product of the ‘real republican past’), has its origins in French imperialism. Jules Ferry, who took education out of the hands of the Church, was an advocate of French colonial expansion, notably in Indochina. The role of secularism was essentially to give a sense of national identity to the French peasantry and prepare them for coming wars.

Todd rightly notes the trend to growing inequality in the modern world. But he tries to explain the egalitarian current in French society in terms of patterns of family inheritance – those areas where all the children (or at least all the sons) got equal shares are predisposed to egalitarianism. This is to trivialise an important argument. In the French Revolution the meaning of ‘equality’ was fiercely contested – did it simply mean equality before the law, or did it mean real, economic, equality? To fail to consider this is to trivialise the French Revolution and to fail to understand one of the key processes that has formed modern France.

Of course unconscious factors play a role in history. But Todd goes too far in minimising the role of consciousness, citing Durkheim to justify disregarding what people actually claim they are doing in favour of ‘objective statistical’ factors. But as Todd himself acknowledges ‘the differences in political scores between areas with varying levels of egalitarianism are not so huge.’ However an area may be characterised, there is always a substantial minority opposed to the dominant trend, leaving considerable scope for individual choice. He notes the growing strength of the Front National, though he rather oddly believes that an ‘egalitarian unconscious’ is ‘at work’ among FN voters.

Certainly the FN has got significant working-class support, but it is precisely those who consciously identify with the values of equality who will provide the most vigorous opposition. In the French elections the outcome will be determined, not by ‘zombies’, but by conscious human being with ideas and values in their heads.