Who is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class 
by Emmanuel Todd, translated by Andrew Brown.
Polity, 211 pp., £16.99, September 2015, 978 1 5095 0577 7
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In January​ 2012 François Hollande, socialist candidate for the presidency, announced on the campaign trail that his ‘true’ enemy was finance capitalism. In the space of twenty years it had taken control of ‘the economy, society, our very own lives’. A few weeks later in London, where the British public had bailed out the City with mixed feelings, Hollande backed off. It was not the enemy; it was merely in need of a conversation with the real world. François Mitterrand, too, was eloquent on the subject of money. At Epinay in 1971, when he won the leadership of the Socialist Party, he launched a heartfelt attack on ‘monopolies’ and entrenched wealth: ‘Money that corrupts, money that buys everything, money that rolls over people, money that kills, ruinous money, and money that rots the very conscience of human beings’. Behind this gust of anaphora lies the belief that equality is worn away by accumulation and raw acquisition: a view that Hollande may have shared for a moment, but one that’s harder to take now than it was when Mitterrand left the Elysée in 1995.

Growing inequality is one of the central preoccupations in Who is Charlie?, Emmanuel Todd’s short, polemical book about what is and isn’t ‘equal’ about France, which parts of the country are historically disposed to egalitarian values while others aren’t, and how the trinity of liberty, equality, fraternity came to crumble in the middle like a rotten plank. France, which lived through a series of bracing egalitarian interludes, on again, off again, from 1789 until the end of the Third Republic, is sensitive to the charge that equality is disappearing. In theory at least, Republicanism cannot exist without equality, since it ensures that no interest group, or class, or faction, can hijack the exercise of popular sovereignty, or merely subvert it, at the expense of other citizens. In Todd’s view, France must face up to the reality of a post-Republican era and admit that its leaders have sold its Revolutionary birthright for a mess of EU pottage: budgetary rules in Brussels and monetary policy in Frankfurt have made it impossible to promote equality or intervene when it is under threat.

His other preoccupation is the widening rift in Europe – France especially – between citizens of North African descent and the rest. Todd holds the rest largely responsible for this polarisation and the dangers that attend it. His book is a brilliant piece of wishful thinking, in which the rediscovery of equality and the reconciliation of believers with unbelievers will go hand in hand as France emerges from a long period of difficulty, some time in the future, with its core values restored. It will have shut out the siren voices emanating from Brussels, which sang the praises of competitive markets and globalised trade; crucially it will have abandoned the euro. France’s leaders should have been lashed to the mast by the electorate, but they weren’t, and the ship of state foundered. It may not be too late to repair it and set a course, but that will depend on many things, including whether the ‘nation’ – the French people, bound together by a common past and an ideological purpose (to keep the sense of belonging alive) – can come to their senses, in spite of their politicians. The nation’s sense of its past may also need updating to take account of recent immigrants and their descendants, as well as their religion.

If Todd is right, Who is Charlie? will leave anglophone readers puzzled. In Britain, unlike in France, equality is not a point of principle, and in the US even the Menshevik variant, ‘equality of opportunity’, has fierce opponents. But the French, too, have found Todd’s ideas hard to stomach. Public opinion and the press have recoiled from his scathing assessment of the ‘unity’ rallies in France on 11 January 2015, in the wake of the murders at Charlie Hebdo’s offices and a kosher convenience store in Paris. His steely appraisal of a large tranche of French society – the elderly well-to-do – as craven, selfish and authoritarian; his tendency to blame their attitudes on Catholicism; his dislike of Germany, the good burgher of the European Union; his unequivocal defence of France’s Muslim population and Islam: all this has stirred up anger. Above all, he read the marches last January as a massive show of anti-egalitarian self-regard, when those who took part or looked on with pride saw them as an affirmation of French values, including freedom of expression. Todd’s mode of delivery, a mixture of abrasiveness and superiority, has added to the offence: Who is Charlie? is laden with maps and statistical tables and his skills as a demographer at the prestigious INED (National Institute for Demographic Studies) have led to the accusation that social science is his threadbare pretext for a tirade against his fellow citizens.

Worse, he is a stickler for equality, something of an embarrassment once large parts of the population have settled for liberty, money, and a semblance of fraternity, as Todd suspects they have. Roughly 65 per cent of adult French people own property – about the same as the British – but there has been no property bubble; labour market reforms have been slow; the Paris Bourse, now a part of Euronext, has a market capitalisation that pales by comparison with the London Stock Exchange. All this despite the efforts of Hollande and his predecessors. The idea that time-honoured values are a dead-weight holding down the air balloon of a grand French leverage along the lines of Britain’s, is only ever three or four thoughts away: not everyone is happy with Todd’s argument that equality is worth hanging onto, even if they don’t admit it. ‘In the current phase of capitalism,’ as he says, ‘the accelerated mobility of capital favours … societies that can cope most easily with inequality.’

Getting rid of the egalitarian ideal would be hard all the same. Part of the reason, as Todd explains, lies in the structure of French families and their rules of inheritance; these in turn must be weighed against the role of Christianity – and nowadays its vestiges – in different parts of the country. Todd has worked through the regional geography across three centuries, and his results suggest that France was never a wholly ‘secular’ nation in the sense that it imagines itself to be. For two hundred years after the Revolution, egalitarian godlessness and conservative Catholicism lived in mutual suspicion and enmity, but the result was also a useful complicity, especially for the godless, whose humanism might have crumbled into decadent self-regard ‘without the support of its Catholic contradiction’. ‘The image that springs to mind,’ Todd writes, is that of ‘a revolutionary nave stabilised by Catholic flying buttresses’.

If religion and unbelief could come to an accommodation in the past, then they should be able to do so again, so why is Islamophobia flourishing in an irreligious country that settled so amenably for a long ‘cohabitation’ with Christianity? For Todd, the reaction to the January 2015 attacks, carried out by French ‘Muslims’, was an episode of mass hysteria. France, he argues, underwent a dramatic shift between 2005, when it faced rioting in the banlieues, and 2015. In 2005 it behaved with ‘dignity under pressure’, as you’d expect of a country that was ‘tolerant and free’: ‘We, the French people, were admirable,’ while pundits and intellectuals were at liberty to express different opinions on the riots. But in 2015 there was no way to dissent from a view of what it was to be French. ‘Je suis Charlie’ in Todd’s reading means: ‘I am French.’

The indignation of ‘Je suis Charlie’ and the momentary confection of national identity – carefully stage-managed by the government – were overwhelming. People find public grief exhilarating, as we know from the death of Diana. In the avalanche of sentiment, Todd argues, France lost sight of the fact that ‘the right to blaspheme against your own religion’ is not the same as blaspheming ‘against someone else’s’, especially ‘the religion of a group that is weak and discriminated against’. In any case blasphemy was no longer a ‘right’: it had become a patriotic ‘duty’, and this new cult, which also sacralised the cartoonist’s pencil (an image borne aloft by the marchers on 11 January) convinced him that France was in the grip of a ‘religious crisis’, even though it no longer believed in God. ‘We need to take religion seriously,’ he says, ‘especially when it starts to disappear.’ And so to the demography: a virtuoso exposition of France’s past and present as a nation with two traditions – egalitarian unbelievers on the one hand and authoritarian believers on the other – but fully functional and reconciled, for the most part, under the banner of Republican values.

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’.

About four million people took part in the 11 January marches, one for every ten inhabitants of the mainland’s metropolitan areas. Todd’s figures for the turn-outs in Lyon (Catholic periphery, high) and Marseille (former egalitarian stronghold, low) suggest that zombie Catholics had a greater propensity to demonstrate than the working-class French. The march in Paris was unlike any I’ve attended over the years in its high middle-class component. The well-heeled contingents I’d watched two years earlier marching in ‘La Manif pour tous’ – a conservative movement opposed to gay marriage, same-sex parenting and ‘gender theory’ – were undoubtedly present, but there were also many people who belonged to Todd’s vast congregation of atheists without a religion to despise, whose egalitarian values have been eaten away. In Paris there was a small proportion of French and non-French Muslims (including an exuberant group of Syrian exiles). But attendance outside the capital, Todd thinks, provides a more reliable profile of Charlie: a self-engrossed figure, found mostly in the periphery, but increasingly, too, in the centre, who has no authentic Republican values but can be relied on to trot out ferocious pieties about ‘secularism’, ‘universalism’ and the freedom to blaspheme the religion of poorer, marginal citizens. When Brussels says walk, Charlie walks; when President Hollande and his ministers order Charlie to march, he’s there on the dot. Charlie is part of a larger group still that Todd calls MEZs (middle-class, elderly, zombie Catholic), who voted for the euro and hollowed out the Parti Socialiste under the leadership of Hollande, ‘an archetypal Catholic zombie’. The MEZ bloc are grasping and selfish.

Is it practical​ to impose ‘equality’ on people who no longer see it as a worthwhile objective, who may even think of self-interest as dynamic and necessary, as we’re told it is in Britain or the US? Would more redistribution and higher taxation work? Or maybe class war? But without the Communist Party – of which Todd, grandson of Paul Nizan, was briefly a member in the 1960s – it’s not clear who would lead a struggle of this kind. Unless of course … And here it comes as no surprise to discover that the big incubations of the Front National, under Marine Le Pen’s father, took place in old, egalitarian reserves, including ‘regions that were at the heart of the French Revolution’: the downtrodden, northern parts of the Paris Basin and most of the wealthy, south-east annexe. In the parts of France which score highly on Todd’s equality index the FN collected 20 per cent of the vote in round one of the 2012 presidential election. (It performed even better in the north-west and south-east in round one of the regionals last December.) At first sight, he argues, the FN looks anti-egalitarian – it wants to push migrants’ descendants to the bottom, or simply out – but it is also anti-authoritarian, in as much as it rejects the ‘discourse on tolerance clattering down from the elites’.

Here his argument becomes cloudier. By ‘discourse on tolerance’ he means a brief flirtation with multiculturalism begun in the Mitterrand era, at a time when the white working class was worried about the slow pace of migrant assimilation. The ‘upper echelons of society’, including the president, brushed these anxieties aside by insisting that migrants and their offspring were ‘different’ and didn’t need to assimilate. ‘The combination of lower-class egalitarianism and the multiculturalism of the elites,’ Todd writes, ‘brought together the ideal conditions for a pathological crystallisation. The chemical product that emerged … was the Front National vote.’ It is true – if we except non-whites and, increasingly, Jews – that the language of the FN remains egalitarian: its programme is a populist ‘national egalitarianism’ whose parent tuber is national socialism. It’s also true that Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, blamed multiculturalism in France for the attacks in Paris last January. But multiculturalism was faltering years before Todd published his thoughts on Charlie. It was unceremoniously buried in 2004, when young Muslim women were forbidden to cover their heads in schools. Since the Charlie Hebdo murders, it has become the bad object festering at the back of national consciousness, just as secularism remains the sacred object in the foreground.

Todd describes himself as ‘an assimilationist’: he favours the ban on headscarves, but he has a very un-Swiss position on mosques, of which he’s happy to see more: citizens can be assimilated irrespective of their religion; everyone should be allowed their building, even if they can’t wear their own uniforms in a consecrated Republican space such as a school. He despises multiculturalism, which he thinks of as a Trojan horse that might still be wheeled in to outsmart the besieged city of egalitarianism (even though, as he has explained earlier, the city is already in ruins). He and others on the left find multiculturalism abhorrent for two reasons: first it serves no grander project – the forward march of equality for everyone everywhere – and second it ascribes roles to minorities that finesse citizenship on the basis of identity. The British have a better sense of what was bad and not so bad about multiculturalism. In the UK, minorities were flattered by a long discourse about difference, hard to tell apart from the discourse of the Colonial Office when it insisted on ‘tribal’ distinctions in the distant possessions from which they had come.

It was the left, however, not the right, that gave a modern impetus to multiculturalism, a term avoided nowadays when movements of the 1970s like the Anti-Nazi League and Rock against Racism are reappraised (‘polyculturalism’ is one way around it; Todd uses the term ‘pluricultural’ for similar ends). Whatever we call it, the experiment was meant as a transition of some kind, but when the left came apart in Britain minorities clung to multiculturalism as part of the debris. The UK, where Cameron announced the end of ‘state multiculturalism’ five years ago, is a far less racialised society than France, whose late 20th-century elites Todd disdains for their lazy discourse of ‘tolerance’. But you’d want to hear from ethnic minorities in Europe what they think of the experiment in retrospect. Another good question: what has the doctrine of rigorous assimilationism achieved for migrants in France?

The FN, by contrast, has thrived on the ideal of assimilation and its repeated failures. Todd thinks the party has twisted the notion of ‘universalism’ that underpins true Republican tradition. This perversion, he argues, is based on nutty logic: ‘If human beings are the same everywhere, if the foreigners setting foot on our soil behave in ways that really are different, the reason [must be] that they are not really human beings.’ He calls this ‘universalist xenophobia’, based on visible differences between French Arabs and autochthones. Charlie and the MEZs are responsible for another kind of perversion, more exalted and contemptible in his eyes, which he calls ‘differential xenophobia’: a discrimination based not on the ‘Arab’ way of life, about which they know little, but a sense of the outsider as an ‘abstract, and ideally religious’ other, in the form of the ‘Muslim’: so Arabophobia is a working-class racism and Islamophobia is its pretentious, middle-class counterpart. But Todd’s distinction is shaky for two reasons. First ‘Arabophobia’ is still a lurking prejudice beyond the remains of the working class, and second, it’s too simple to say that the label ‘Muslim’ was hung on supine migrant communities by the villainous MEZ. A significant minority among the young have opted for ‘Muslim’ identity precisely in order to fight back against the identikit image of the banlieue Arab, who has no understanding of events in the world beyond the council estate: in Bosnia, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, wherever. A little more pluriculturalism (let’s go around the houses for Todd’s sake) would have saved him this misunderstanding. Todd has a tendency to immobilise his subjects once he’s brought them under scrutiny: Muslims are small, statuesque figures locked in alien descriptions, the MEZ bloc is a bloated terracotta army, ex-Catholics are unself-conscious parasites urged forward by a vast, encrypted image of the host that only they can remember.

One consequence of the fashion for Muslim identity, whoever colludes in its creation, is that French anti-Arab racism – Islamophobia if you like – has a counterpart in rising anti-Semitism in the banlieues, among the descendants of migrants. Often it rides in on a fascination with the distant struggles at the margins of Israel. For Todd, however, banlieue anti-Semitism, like jihadism, is fundamentally a domestic phenomenon, as it is for reliable analysts of Islam and the Middle East, including Olivier Roy and – to a lesser extent – Gilles Kepel. The strength of this position is that it doesn’t exonerate government: by confining a globalised debate about the post-colonial Arab world within the boundaries of the Hexagon, it insists that the solution lies within France – in education, jobs, social inclusion. Everything else is extraneous: arguments about Western foreign policy in Mesopotamia, French arms sales to fiefdoms disseminating Wahhabi ideology, Europe’s colonial past – a subject of deadly interest to IS – and the Zionist enthusiasms of the Parti Socialiste. The frightening ‘amalgame’ of opposition to Israel’s settler-colonial policies – on Arab land – and anti-Semitism is simply sidestepped. To think seriously about anti-Semitism among migrant communities, Todd assures us, we must forget ‘the Palestinian mirage’. The disorientation of the young in the banlieues, he adds, is best approached by thinking of the urban misery of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, not of the Euphrates and Syria, another ‘mirage’, hovering above a ‘well of violence from another world and another age’.

But this has some of the same parochialism that allowed the editors of Charlie Hebdo to imagine blasphemy as a world-historical vocation. It also stifles the remaining hopes of any entente with the banlieues. The point here is not the jihadists. As Olivier Roy has explained, they exist in minuscule cells: they have severed ties with neighbours and parents, they know little about the local mosque, or Islam, or even the Middle East. What is absent is a conversation with young, thoughtful residents who don’t go about murdering and desecrating, and have views on the rest of the world nonetheless – the kind of views they’d still express even if assimilation had been a success. As matters stand, they venture an opinion on the Middle East at their peril, and if they have anything to say about French foreign policy it’s liable to be misheard as communitarian rhetoric that undermines the Republican values that Todd is sure have been trashed in any case. His approach to the banlieues, unlike his frustrations with the single currency, envisages France as a watertight repository of problems and solutions, and seems in its way to be another ‘mirage’. He blames anti-Semitism in poorer parts of the population on the selfish MEZ: to ignore or marginalise the residents, as he thinks they have, is to place ‘French Jews in danger by mistreating French Muslims’. His confidence that meaning begins and ends in the Hexagon is sublime, but this too feels like something from ‘another world, another age’.

Todd​ can be perceptive and chilling: in his worst-case prognosis, he foresees a revival of historic Jew-baiting, once the peripheral middle classes have succumbed to ‘bad feelings’ – I guess he means the dread and disaffection seeping across France – and reactivated an ‘old Catholic anti-Semitism’ in a ‘new zombie version’. He already has form as a forecaster: in the 1970s he explained why the Soviet bloc was about to crumble, and went on to argue at the turn of the century that Europe’s future lay beyond Nato expansionism in a rapprochement with Russia. In Who is Charlie? he gives us glimpses of a benighted France, caught between anti-Arab sentiment and anti-Semitism, with large parts of the population inclined to both. Where I live, in the south-west bulge of the agnostic centre, elderly, practising Catholics – who still exist – are as likely to be anti-Semitic as they are Arabophobic. It’s never ‘personal’ of course, but the easygoingness of the anti-Semitism can take your breath away. As for ‘Islamophobia’, it’s the construction of the Arab, not the Muslim, that’s striking in these cases. Unlike Todd, I worry that anti-Islamic rhetoric throughout the centre and the periphery is simply Arabophobia – a resilient strain of French racism – dressed up as secular high-mindedness.

Todd thinks there may be reasons to be cheerful, but only if there is a revolutionary change in attitudes and policies. The first stop would be a kind of New Deal, a refusal of austerity in favour of work, public projects, and pathways for French people of Arab descent out of semi-ghettoised joblessness into meaningful citizenship. But this can only be achieved by abandoning the single currency, and the European Fiscal Compact (which restricts budget deficits to 3 per cent of GDP), while taking a healthy distance from Germany, to Todd’s mind a fountainhead of authoritarianism, austerity and European hubris. Even if this were possible, we’d have to add a monumental urbanisation programme across France, releasing the banlieues from quarantine in favour of extensive conurbations that join up inner cities and their suburbs. Todd agrees that nothing of the kind looks likely to happen overnight. While we’re waiting, however, Islam – or rather Muslims – can bring about a new infusion of egalitarianism: the Arab cultures from which Muslims are descended have egalitarian family traditions, with property distributed evenly among brothers: sooner or later, Todd argues, the sisters are sure to be included. There is no cultural chasm, therefore, between French Arabs and the scions of that early, central swathe of egalitarian French. All will be well once ‘Islam has dissolved the anti-feminist component of Arab culture.’ Quranic stipulations on inheritance, Todd tells us, are hardly ever taken at their word: the most devout Muslim ethnic groups in Indonesia are matrilineal cultures with inheritance rules that tend to favour women.

Mixed marriage – a ledge to which he clings with aching fingers – is rapidly breaking down the barriers of difference and identity. It weakens the old gender rules between second or third generations and their migrant elders, and blurs the edges of race, as male autochthones find ‘very pretty’ partners from minorities and, in the process, acquire a more sophisticated sense of universal values. ‘Hesitating between a beautiful exotic woman and an unalluring lass of home growth,’ he adds, in a fruity joke with an apologetic footnote, ‘the French universalist will usually make the right choice.’ Another world, another age. He’s on firmer ground arguing that French Muslims, like erstwhile Christians, are living through a period of rapid secularisation: as belief wanes, they are destined to atrophy into zombies, and zombie Islam – like zombie Catholicism – will continue to transmit a powerful signal to the surface long after religious devotion has sunk from view.

But where zombie Catholics are driven by inegalitarian attitudes, post-religious Muslims of North African descent will reproduce the egalitarian values nurtured in the Arab family – the very values France needs in order to re-supply the demoralised forces of the ‘centre’ and restore égalité to its rightful place. In this sense the two big crises pointed up in Who is Charlie? – racism and inequality – would be solved mechanically by a slow, inexorable sociological change; but this, too, is a long way off, and attitudes will have to change now. Islam, Todd writes, must be ‘legitimated as a component of the nation, just as the Church was … We need to grant to Islam what was granted to Catholicism, in the era of triumphant secularism.’

This is Todd’s final word. We can kick away the building blocks of his argument when we run out of patience, and sneer at his condescensions, but we’re still left with the only position that leads out of the impasse; anything else, as he says, is too dark to contemplate. Since the murders last November there is no harder case to argue. The Charlie Hebdo commemorations that have begun as this piece goes to press will make it harder still. An ongoing debate about who should be stripped of French nationality, under what conditions, was the grim preamble to a grim anniversary: the argument goes on. Apprehending or killing Salah Abdeslam, one of the line managers of the November massacre in Paris, may have calmed the hunger for a new round of symbolic punishments, but it didn’t happen and enemies are at a premium in this time of solemn perplexity. A new edition of Charlie Hebdo has appeared with a generic image of god on the cover. A memorial oak has been planted in the place de la République.

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Vol. 38 No. 4 · 18 February 2016

Further to Jeremy Harding’s piece on the French response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, on a recent weekend visit to Lyon my shoulder bag was searched several times a day (LRB, 21 January). It is mufti green and multi-pocketed. Each compartment has its function: in one, pipe and tobacco; in a second, spectacles, hairbrush and purse for loose change; in a third, medical ointments, bandages, pills and toothbrush. The interior is spacious enough to contain a pocket Larousse, and emergency reading (currently Verlaine’s poems and E.M Cioran’s Syllogismes de l’amertume). It has a slit pocket for identity papers.

The security guards were not unamused as I displayed my carriage system with a running commentary. But I got blasé. And as I unfurled the interior I remarked: ‘Et, voilà, mon Verlaine et mon Cioran.’ But my pronunciation of the latter caused a sudden stiffening, and I was body-searched.

James Hogan
Port-Vendres, France

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