Duane Delacourt - Secretary of Symbolism under President Carter (later Executive Symbolist and Press Secretary for California Governor and presidential candidate Jerry Brown)(Doonesbury character)
Prolegomena to a Polemic on the Republic
One of the things that is so fascinating about terrorism as a political strategy is that relatively small groups of terrorists (one, two, three, six individuals) can take on a civilisation and its military might by targeting its symbols.
The attack on the World Trade Centre was effectively an attack on a symbol of the centre of world trade. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on the symbolic status of free speech, just as much as it was motivated by revenge for continuous acts of blasphemy against Islam. The attack on a kosher supermarket was an attack on Judaism and Jewish culture.
Such a precise attack on a symbolic target guarantees that it will be seen and watched as a major spectacle, which is what the terrorists want to achieve (after all, we live in the society of the spectacle). It would be of no value as an act of aggression or protest, if it was hushed up by the government and the media, if we simply pretended that it never happened.
Satire of the Charlie Hebdo type equally attacks power, self-righteousness and pretension, usually by attacking symbols important to the target (e.g., the prophet Mohammed in the case of Islam).
A lot of the immediate concern of this book is the public response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in particular, the marches in which up to four million people are supposed to have participated.
No doubt each participant had a sincere personal reason for doing so, even the politicians.
However, collectively, they created a symbol of the refusal to bow down to militant, jihadist Islam and terrorism.
Emmanuel Todd questions this symbol, in words, with the precision of a social terrorist or a satirist. As a result, there has been a significant backlash from many people who had gathered around the symbol, bought the t-shirt, tweeted that they were Charlie, and been heroes just for one day.
It's ironic that these people have been just as protective of their symbol as many Moslems have been of theirs. What emerges, then, is an understanding of how seriously we take our symbols and values, and how we react when they come under attack.
However, the real value of this book is how it attempts to analyse what was really going on in January, 2015 and why.
A Beautiful Polemic
This book is a classic polemic, and what a beauty it is, too!
Born in 1951, Emmanuel Todd is a French academic who is qualified in multiple related areas: anthropology, sociology, demographics, political science and history.
He describes himself as "a Frenchman exasperated by his own society." Written in 30 days, his polemic betrays the spontaneity of something written this quickly. However, it also reflects Todd's view that the Charlie Hebdo attack and response can be analysed within a socio-political framework that he had developed over the course of 40 years. There are frequent references to two earlier books that he has co-written. Thus, this is a subject matter that he has thought and written deeply about for a long time. It's like inviting an exceptional mind to get up on the podium and speak about his favourite topic. The words are there, the structure, the rhetoric. It's left to us to decide whether we're convinced by his arguments.
One question mark I had relates to how Todd deals with both international and domestic French issues. On the one hand, Islamic extremism and the domestic response to it has become a global issue. On the other, much of the anthropo-sociological analysis concerns the unique social fabric of France, if not possibly the European Union. The question is to what extent some of this analysis can be applied outside Europe.
Family, Religion and Republican Values
The overall analysis is based on the anthropology of family structures and the sociology of religions. The analysis is clearly indebted to both Weber and Durkheim.
Todd focusses, firstly, on the values of the French Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity) and the extent to which they have been embraced by different religions, and secondly, on how different family and social structures relate to equality and egalitarianism.
The latter subject was the most unfamiliar to me and therefore the most interesting part of the book. However, it was also the part most specifically based on an examination of local or European conditions (e.g., the influence of the Roman Catholic Church).
While I was aware that France had been one of the more Catholic countries in Europe, I wasn't aware of the extent to which Catholicism has apparently broken down as a social force in France.
Todd believes that Catholicism is less of an influence in the central part of France ("la France centrale") than the peripheral parts. Even on the periphery, there is less observance of Catholic rituals and beliefs. However, Todd suggests that many of the cultural traits of Catholicism have survived post-religion and have shaped what he calls a life after death or "zombie Catholicism", which in a later manifestation has resulted in a shift towards the left on the part of the right-wing Catholic electorate:
"We gave the name ‘zombie Catholicism’ to the anthropological and social force that emerged from the final disintegration of the Church in its traditional bastions. I will later be examining other phenomena, in education and the economy, which provide evidence of the survival of this residual form after the death of the peripheral Catholic subculture. This cultural survival is probably the most important social phenomenon of the years from 1965 to 2015. It eventually led France into a multifaceted ideological venture, including the rise of a new kind of socialism, decentralization, a surge of pro-European feeling, a masochistic monetary policy, a deformation of the nature of the Republic and, as we shall later see, a particularly shifty form of Islamophobia and, probably, of anti-Semitism."
Authority and Inequality
Todd uses the term to help explain two different views of authority and inequality that he finds present in the people who supported Charlie Hebdo by marching on 11 January:
"Charlie...works in two ways, the one conscious and positive, liberal and egalitarian and republican, while the other is unconscious and negative, authoritarian and inegalitarian, dominating and excluding."
The latter view he associates with zombie Catholicism. It pervades the middle class who have come from a Catholic background. It has left them with a residual Islamophobia, which Todd described above as "shifty".
On the other hand, the former view is more a product of the secular tradition of the French Republic. It seems that Todd associates this view with the old left before it was appropriated and changed by the zombie Catholics.
Liberty and Equality
In contrast to the French periphery, Todd believes that the people in the Paris basin are more concerned with equality and egalitarianism. For them, also, "equality in the family was linked to liberal values."
However, the current problem from Todd's point of view is that the left has been contaminated by the arrival of the zombie Catholics.
On the one hand, he recognises that the "the Socialist Party that has been revitalized by the absorption of refugees from Catholicism".
On the other, he questions whether "zombie Catholics, in joining the Socialist Party rather than converting to the egalitarianism of the central regions, have brought their inegalitarian mental baggage with them and deposited it in the heart of the left."
The result is a cultural division within the left, which manifests itself in the different attitudes towards Moslems (see also Nick Cohen for a living example of the divisiveness of this issue in England).
Todd's preferred view seeks an accommodation with Islam, although he is at pains to point out that "there is no naively idealistic Islamophilia in this book."
In order to lend credence to his own view, Todd recognises the cultural phenomenon that, having suffered prejudice from zombie Catholics, some young Moslems have responded by attacking Jews. Thus, they are not without fault.
The other view is the Islamophobia of zombie Catholicism. While he doesn't say so expressly, he seems to imply that the zombie Catholic support for the Charlie marches was motivated more by Islamophobia than a commitment to free speech.
Whether or not you are convinced by this analysis, the significance is that the Charlie marches were a composite of both views.
In Todd's opinion, they didn't necessarily represent any unanimous confirmation of the Republican values of liberty, equality or fraternity. Individuals were there for different reasons and motives. There was even an attempt to stage manage how the march was perceived: the National Front wasn't allowed to participate, and the Russian representative was relegated to the margins where he couldn't be seen.
A System Broken Down
While the march seemed to bring together diverse forces in recognition of the value of freedom of speech, Todd believes that what divides French politics now, why "the French political system has so spectacularly broken down", is the fundamentally different views on equality and inequality, egalitarianism and inegalitarianism, which reflect different family and religious backgrounds.
The left that has emerged is an unstable coalition. It risks stumbling from issue to issue, unable to command a constant majority with respect to the most fundamental item on its agenda, that of equality.
The Meaning of Equality
It was a surprise, then, that there didn't seem to be a robust definition of the type of equality under discussion.
Some on the left seem to demand equality of outcome (in terms of income), whereas others would be content with equality of opportunity. The latter agenda leaves scope for significant differences in wealth and income, as long as there is a safety net for the lowest income earners. This might include higher minimum wages, as well as a redistribution of income by a combination of social security benefits and differential taxation (both dependent on the maintenance of a welfare state).
It's interesting that Todd seems to remain on the left of the left (e.g., even further left than the Socialist Party), especially in relation to inequality and how to deal with it. Even Thomas Piketty appears to be a little too conservative for his liking. Todd seems to hint at a nostalgia for aspects of the old French Communist Party (the PCF) that existed before the collapse and evaporation of (Euro-)Communism as a popular social and political movement in France.
The Absence of Fraternity
Also absent is any substantive mention of the third Republican value of fraternity (which is the foundation of social harmony). I had hoped that any discussion of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism would touch on this value, particularly as the Charlie Hebdo issue for me was always an example of how liberty and fraternity might occasionally come into conflict, and a compromise between the two values might be required.
That said, the book contains a sophisticated, interesting and insightful attempt to judge different national cultures in terms of the balance between liberty and equality:
"La France centrale combines liberty with equality; England combines liberty with the absence of equality; Germany combines authority with inequality. Russia joins equality with authority."
Getting the Balance Right
Whether or not you agree with Todd's analysis or conclusions, he has made significant progress in getting the focus back on the Republican values (albeit equality moreso than liberty or fraternity), who supports them and for what reason.
Ultimately, there is more at stake in the French Republic than the right to blaspheme a religion associated with people many of whom are currently trapped in the lowest stratum of French society, even if this has become a powerful symbolic issue in a post-Charlie Hebdo world.
Article I - Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.
Article II - The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.
Article III - The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it.
Article IV - Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law.
Article V - The law has the right to forbid only actions harmful to society. Anything which is not forbidden by the law cannot be impeded, and no one can be constrained to do what it does not order.
Article VI - The law is the expression of the general will. All the citizens have the right of contributing personally or through their representatives to its formation. It must be the same for all, either that it protects, or that it punishes. All the citizens, being equal in its eyes, are equally admissible to all public dignities, places and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents.