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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Who is Charlie?

Xenophobia and the New Middle Class
Emmanuel Todd


From the Introduction

We can now say, with the benefit of hindsight, that in January 2015 France succumbed to an attack of hysteria. The massacre of the editorial board of the satirical maga­zine Charlie Hebdo, as well as of several police officers and the customers of a Jewish shop, triggered a collective reac­tion unprecedented in our country's history. It would have been impossible to discuss it in the heat of the moment. The media joined hands to denounce terrorism, to celebrate the admirable character of the French people, and to sacral-ize liberty and the French Republic. Charlie Hebdo and its caricatures of Muhammad were enshrined. The govern­ment announced that it was giving a grant to the weekly so that it could get back on its feet. Crowds of people followed the government's appeal to march in protest throughout the land: they held pencils to symbolize press freedom and applauded the state security police and the marksmen posted on the rooftops. The logo 'Je suis Charlie' ('I am Charlie'), written in white letters against a black background, could be seen everywhere: on our screens, in the streets, on restau­rant menus. Children came home from school with a letter C written on their hands. Kids aged seven and eight were interviewed at the school gates and asked for their thoughts on the horror of the events and the importance of one's freedom to draw caricatures. The government decreed that anyone who failed to toe the line would be punished. Any secondary school pupil who refused to observe the minute's silence imposed by the government was seen as implicidy supporting terrorism and refusing to stand in solidarity with the national community. At the end of January, we learned that some adults had started to behave in the most incredibly repressive ways: children of eight or nine years of age were being questioned by the police. It was a sudden glimpse of totalitarianism.

The TV channels and the press told us over and over again that we were living through a 'historic' moment of communion: 'We are one people, France is united in adver­sity, born anew by and for liberty.' The obsession with Islam was of course ubiquitous. Not only did political jour­nalists listen to imams and ordinary French Muslims telling them, as did everybody else, that violence was unaccepta­ble, that the terrorists were odious and had betrayed their religion. Journalists demanded of these Muslims, as they demanded of all of us, the incantation of the ritual formula 'I am Charlie', which became a synonym for 'I am French'. If they were to be fully accepted as part of the French com­munity, they needed to admit that blasphemy, in the form of caricatures of Muhammad, was an integral element of French identity. It was their duty to blaspheme. On our TV screens, journalists wagged a professorial finger as they explained the difference between an act inciting racial hatred (bad), on the one hand, and religious blasphemy (good), on the other. I found it really hard to have to listen to Jamel Debbouze, a central figure in French culture,1 being forced to undergo this ordeal when he was interviewed on the TF1 TV channel. He wanted to state that he was a Muslim, that he felt a sense of loyalty to the young people in the suburbs, that he loved France, that he had a non-Muslim wife, that his children had been born from a mixed marriage and that they were the France of tomorrow. He tried to explain to his inquisitor, courteously and painfully, that blasphemy was difficult for a Muslim, that it was not part of his tradition. This was not enough: to be French meant not that you had the right to blaspheme, but that it was your duty. Thus spake Voltaire. I could not fail to remember what I had read about the Inquisition, which interrogated Jews who had converted to Christianity in an attempt to make sure they really did eat pork, like all true Christians.

The relaunch of Charlie Hebdo with a state subsidy marked the zenith of the national reaction to the drama. Its cover yet again allowed us to admire Muhammad, with a face as long as a penis, wearing a turban from which hung two round shapes like testicles. This elegant figure had been drawn on a green background - the colour of Islam - but it was a dull, insipid green, far from the extraordinarily beautiful and subde greens that adorn Muslim places of worship.2

Any historian who studies long-term trends (la longue duree) and is familiar with religious crises, when icono-philes and iconoclasts fought it out, cannot fail to observe that when the French state turns an image of Muhammad depicted as a prick into a sacred image, this constitutes a historic turning-point. France really is going through a religious crisis, one that follows all the religious crises that have given shape to its history, and to European history as a whole, ever since the last days of the Roman Empire. So we can, for once, follow the media in describing the 11 January street demonstrations as 'historic' - a description that was intense, repetitive, obsessive, incantatory; in short: religious.

At that time, I refused to take part in any interviews and debates on the crisis.

And yet I had not hesitated to express my opinion in 2005, when the suburbs erupted into rebellion: I stated that the young people setting cars on fire all over the place were absolutely French. Their acts were strictly speaking crimi­nal, but in my view merely expressed a demand for equality, one of the two fundamental French values. I also empha­sized the admirable restraint of the French police, who did not open fire on these kids from the suburbs any more than they had started shooting at the middle-class youngsters in May 1968. In 2005, France was tolerant and free, in spite of the reactions that were naturally and deservedly hostile to the disorder. It was useful to say what one felt. Neither the government, nor journalists, nor society as a whole had suc­cumbed to panic. There was no trace of hysteria to be seen. In 2005, we, the French people, were admirable. We kept our emotions to ourselves. The fear felt by elderly people was silent and led, without any immediate threat to the freedom of expression, to Nicolas Sarkozy's election as president in 2007. The average age of his electorate was higher than for all the right-wing presidents who had preceded him.