January 9, 2016


I am French : a review of Who is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class by Emmanuel Todd, translated by Andrew Brown  (Jeremy Harding, 1/21/16, London Review of Books)

Todd identifies two tranches of post-Christian France: one that moved away from religion - a move made by entire parishes, not individuals - in the 18th century, and another that only began to desert the faith in the 1960s. The first is located in an area he calls 'the Paris Basin', the geological term for a large part of north and central France, running from the Ardennes down to the northern edge of the Massif Central. It's clear from the maps in the book that these early defectors were also plentiful in the Aquitaine Basin. Together they show up on the maps as a continuous north-south swathe of unbelievers running down the middle of the country with a southwesterly bulge towards the Atlantic coast. In addition a corridor from the Paris Basin connects this central body of non-churchgoers to a large annexe of like-minded people in the south-east - a stretch of Mediterranean coast and its hinterland corresponding roughly to the administrative region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. In terms of size, the centre and the annexe account for about half the country. Everywhere else people remain devout for very much longer. Todd refers to the first group - the precocious unbelievers in the Paris Basin and the southeastern annexe - as 'the centre' and the dawdling faithful as 'the periphery'.

Another of the maps assigns 'equality in family structures' by area ('equality' here refers to old rules of inheritance). It shows that property was likely to be evenly distributed in the centre, where families 'were obsessed with the division of inheritances into equal parts', while in the religious periphery it was likely to pass by primogeniture to the first male child. These two different traditions, like their irreligious and religious equivalents, persisted side by side without much difficulty, and Todd believes that 'without the counterweight of peripheral France', the egalitarianism at the centre 'would have produced disorder rather than a doctrine of liberty and equality'. We're beginning to see where he wants to take us: Islam, like Christianity, ought to be an inoffensive presence in a country whose inhabitants, since the end of the war in the Vendée, have lived together as believers and agnostics, non-egalitarians and egalitarians, without the kind of fissure that appeared last year in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings - and which has widened, since the book was published, as a result of the new round of murders in Paris last November.

Subsequent maps confirm Todd's view that 'the egalitarian temperament' in France today resides in the big central tranche of early unbelievers. He ascribes a points system from zero to three for equality: the centre and annexe score high, as you'd expect, and the periphery much lower. A left-leaning Eurosceptic, he also maps reactions to the advent of the single currency and the proposal for a European constitution. Sure enough, conservative cultures on the periphery led the narrow victory in France's Maastricht referendum in 1992, and the 'No' vote corresponds loosely to the old egalitarian map of the Paris Basin. As for the European Constitutional Treaty of 2005, in which the 'social Europe' which the left had hoped for was conspicuously absent, a majority voted against, as they did in the Netherlands. The spread of French votes for and against shows a rough coincidence of 'No's with the egalitarian swathe of the Paris Basin, but the spatial distributions are messy: comparing this new map to earlier ones is like staring at a bowl of cereal you've just dropped and remembering how it looked when you had it in your hand.

What are we being told? Apparently whatever changed between 2005 and 2015 - a change for the very worst in Todd's view - was driven neither by the founding generations of unbeliever-egalitarians, nor by North African migrants, but by the generations of French on the periphery who forsook religion late in the day, from the 1960s onwards. In an earlier book Todd and Hervé Le Bras, an INED colleague, came up with the name 'zombie Catholics' for this large segment of the French population that still carries the moral and sociological baggage of devout Christianity even though it is no longer practising. Zombie Catholics prefer authoritarian values to egalitarian ones, and they are in search of a universalising, transcendent faith to replace the one they have abandoned. They are the new reactionary force shaping the cultural politics of France in the 21st century.

But how is this force on the periphery - its territory more or less the same as it always was - redefining the temperament of the nation without eating into the home turf (also more or less the same) of the old egalitarian centre? Todd's answer is that there are two crises of faith in France: one in the recently godless periphery, the other in the old heartland of godlessness, where militant unbelief no longer makes sense now the clerical monster that gave meaning to atheism has ceased to exist. (In the centre, the egalitarian temperament began to founder in the mid-1970s: we see this in the collapse of Communist Party membership, which came not with the fall of the Soviet Union, but almost a decade earlier when the decline of peripheral Catholicism had already begun.) And so, as the periphery casts about for certainties, the centre is also looking this way and that for a new vitality. Both are confronted with 'the boundless void of a godless and atheist world' and both have found a born-again affirmation of secular values in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders. 'The demonisation of Islam' anchors this new ecstatic consciousness in the real world and fulfils 'the intrinsic need of a completely dechristianised society'.

It is, perhaps, understandable that people who don't believe in anything look for something to believe against, but it's not something you can build a new culture around.

Posted by at January 9, 2016 10:40 AM