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"Tribune libre"

"A Fresh Impetus To the French Dream of Universal Man"

Translated Saturday 6 July 2013, by Isabelle Métral

Historian, demographer and anthropologist Emmanuel Todd and Hervé Le Bras have just published a study based on 120 maps of France drawn from a great many studies and statistics, in the light of which many commonplaces are shown to be paradoxes. Altogether, Le Mystère français [1] (The French Mystery) provides a penetrating diagnosis.

HUMA”: In The French Mystery you draw a fairly balanced portrait of our hexagonal mainland. How do you account for this diagnosis?

EMMANUEL TODD: We have mostly analyzed a contradiction between the economic superstructure and the mental infrastructure. Our maps of the industrial rout are most disquieting. We measure inequality in wealth. We describe the effects of the crisis. But in education, demography and family life we find the opposite trend: average educational standards have improved. Women’s emancipation has been going on at a faster rate. The birth rate, irrespective of social class, has reached a more than reasonable level. Life expectancy has never been so high. Homicide and suicide rates are down. These figures give us a real picture. So the contradiction must be underlined.

Roughly, there are two ways of interpreting this book: on the one hand “France is not doing so badly”, and on the other, ”see the great divide between those that are doing badly and those that are doing fine”. In fact the book says: “Careful, there is a contradiction between the ruling class’s vision, those that do as if their country did not exist and lead us to an economic catastrophe, and the real country, the real people who must also be considered.” The crisis of the French political system lies in this blindness. This book could serve revolutionary purposes [2].

HUMA: More than thirty years after The Invention of France, you give us an updated profile of the country but still brushed with what you call “the hand of the past”. Is that it?

TODD: That was thirty years ago, we took pleasure in pointing out France’s persisting diversity. This time, we might have simply registered the fact that the anthropological and religious zones persisted despite changes in our mentality. In fact we find that social change, its acceleration even, are catalyzed and piloted by the old anthropological zones. The old religious or family structures are not simply persistent, but they are still active. Take education for instance. First there was the early lift-off of the cultural zones where the Occitan-speaking family type prevailed. Then those where Catholicism has just collapsed – a peripheral constellation, west and east - achieved top performances. Catholicism is metaphysically dead, but from a social point of view it is still alive and seems to produce effects still. We use the concept of “zombie Catholicism”.

HUMA: Is this what leads you to establish a distinction between two great zones across the country – even if they are somewhat heterogeneous?

TODD: There is a basic opposition between two complementary forms: the long basin around Paris, (“bassin parisien”), between Laon and Bordeaux, together with the Mediterranean front constitute that half of France that was de-Christianized at an early stage, and is characterized by the revolutionary, republican and secular ideal. And home to the individualistic, egalitarian family type. Then all around lies the other, Catholic half. This opposition appears in very old maps. The map drawn by Timothy Tackett, an American, shows that these zones appeared following the adoption of the clergy’s Civil Constitution in 1791, depending on whether it was accepted or refused.

HUMA: Having diagnosed this “zombie Catholicism”, you make out, by contrast, what you call “the post-communist depression” zone?

TODD: To me that is the most important element. The depression that set in in the popular regions and classes of the post-war communist ideological space, with its ailing schools, high unemployment rates, social break-up symptoms. Communism as a collective faith that had a structuring effect. It played an extraordinarily positive part in the life of the common people. It embodied the notion of progress, checked the bad xenophobic instincts. It had faith in culture… All of this imploded, because of Stalinism, leaving a legacy of shame. And so today there is a great void. As an anthropologist I would say that a socialist party under the influence of zombie Catholicism cannot represent the whole of the French Left. Something is lacking in the French political culture and representation. The Communist Party was the ultimate incarnation of the French revolution, a revolution that lives on through its principles.

HUMA: And you find that certain changes might generate a rightist ideological drift?

TODD: In the 1950s everybody could read but only a few had been to university. Those were the times when democracy was in its ascending phase. The masses imitated and challenged the middle class, they looked up to it and to the future. Progress was then the word. Whereas today, among the under-35 age-group a majority has gone to university. Then come those that have been through high school or technical schools. Then comes the 10-to-12% group of those that got stranded at elementary school level and are sometimes poor readers.

Today’s world is completely different. Those with university degrees look out for opportunities abroad, in the infinite spaces of cultural globalization. The middle group is afraid of coming down in the world and is looking down with fear to the 10 to 12% of drop-outs. That middle group looks down to the bottom, to the past. It structurally leans to the Right. Moreover society is ageing, which is a conservative factor in politics.

HUMA: But here again "the French Mystery" lies in the fact that this swing to the right has a paradoxical expression?

TODD: Since I wrote this book the situation has somewhat changed. I believe we have left behind the stage where the Right in general made headway, for now it is the Socialist government that leans to the Right. And I am beginning to perceive a pro-European and neo-liberal evolution of the Socialist Party that, to our great surprise, might take us further than what Sarkozy’s rule was able to achieve. For what is most paradoxical in that book is the finding that the Socialist party’s strongholds are now in the regions that, historically, compared to others, have little faith in the freedom of the individual, in equality between humans, or in the importance of the State as regulator. It is therefore legitimate to wonder if the Socialist Party is not itself affected by this swing.

This is also true of the Right, in the opposite direction. Jérôme Fourquet, who works with IFOP (the French public opinion institute) gave us access to data that are hard to come by, like the sum of voting intentions in each socio-professional categories and region. A majority of the lower-classes in the region of Champagne-Adennes’, at the heart of the equalitarian “half”, voted for Sarkozy in the second round of the presidential election. Because of its local situation, the UMP finds itself under the influence of egalitarian trends.

Whereas Sarkozy’s government had, to say the least, no scruples as regards xenophobia and was very good at designating scapegoats, Muslims, immigrants, Roma, the public or mediating/para-public bodies, teachers, trade-unions, etc. but it did not succeed in deregulating the labour market or in dismantling the welfare state as the Socialist Party is now doing with the help of CFDT (the secularized avatar of the CFTC) which is therefore an instance of zombie-catholicism unionism.

HUMA: Since in your view the Socialist Party and the UMP are laboring under strong inner contradictions and France is much more fragmented than it might seem, would you say that basically France can rebound and be at one with itself, by making equality its first and foremost principle, which it has traditionally been?

TODD: There is an element that is not in the book, but on which the book can shed light: what about Europe, where nations diverge even more than the French provinces? Within the context of societies that are going through the crisis due to hyper-individualism, people are cut off from one another and anxious and lacking the strength adaptation requires, inevitably they turn back to their history and traditions. The truth about Germany now is that it is going through a new nation-building process – an extremely conscious process since its re-unification. So is France, too, but without being aware of it, and in a much more complex and slow way, being so diverse. Its leaders, bracing themselves against the grain of history, believe that they are saving Europe, and especially the euro even though the euro is doomed, its destruction being mechanically programmed, so to speak, by the cultural divergence between the nations. In France, the concept of nation appeared within the Left with the French Revolution. Then it passed over to the Right around 1900. In the void that results from the interminable death throes of the European concept, the National Front is given leeway to propose a stunted, degraded, warped version of the national idea. A sinister vision that excludes and denies French universalism. That is why I call it an anti-national front. What we need in France is a rebirth, within the Left, of the idea of nation, such as can enable us to shake free from the European paralysis and roll back our sleeves and set about solving our economic and social problems.

HUMA: From this you conclude that the tide in favour of the National front is bound to turn?

TODD: It is already ebbing in all the great cities and in the region around Paris. The National Front started in the east; it had narrow links with the presence of immigrants from the Maghreb. But its strongholds have been regularly moving towards the central zone, the revolutionary zone. In the process it has been losing its anti-Maghreb provincial bases. One might worry lest the National Front find its way into the very heart of French culture. But in fact, once it arrives in this egalitarian space it will stand against the wall. And it can’t jump over it, because its rhetoric denounces both the ruling classes (in conformity with the egalitarian stance) and against the foreigners, its scapegoats, , which runs contrary to the egalitarian stance and because of this, also against the French national idea. This, no doubt, is the posture characteristic of a fascist party. But what we can feel rising is the polarization of events around class and the social protest against elites, in which the No vote in the 2005 referendum originated. Social problems are going to multiply and point out the incapacity of the ruling oligarchy. I believe far less in a spring tide in favour of the National Front than in a global implosion of political representation, in the general reshuffle, all at once and to everyone’s surprise.

HUMA : One of the main sources you use in your critical analysis of the movements of society happens to be Marx ?

TODD: True, and that is especially because of my long and endless discussions with my pal, philosopher Bernard Vasseur . About texts, in particular those of the young Marx. Marx has always been the totemic figure for the analysis of historical phenomena and class conflicts. The model of the researcher’s life-long commitment to his intellectual quest, and outside academic structures, with an impressive capacity to express things cruelly and funnily. I can only admire that Marx. My basic book, here, quoted in Après la democracy ("After democracy") and Le Mystère français ("The French Mystery") remains La Lutte des classes en France.

HUMA: What can we draw conclusions from this diagnosis for our common future?

TODD: The current fit of weakness of the egalitarian heart results from the intermediary state, in this politically apathetic time, of the great region around Paris. This region represents a considerable mass, but today it is fragmented. Inequalities in schools and social inequalities run deeper than elsewhere. There are great numbers of people with extremely good degrees. And great numbers of young people and immigrants of all origins. The rate of mixed marriages is high. The region around the capital is therefore a kind of experimental caldron where France’s future central, dominant culture is brewing. It is one of the very few cities in the world where populations of all religious origins and colours are melting. And this is taking place within the French traditional individualistic, egalitarian space. These evolutions are too recent for the old French dream of universal man immediately to make a fresh start. But within twenty or thirty years, when the fusion has taken place, the region around Paris will be one of the world’s cultural marvels. It will gain back control of the national system. I admit the next years are going to be tough. But as a historian and a Leftist, I am not a bit anxious concerning my country’s mid-term future.

[1Le Mystère français, d’Hervé Le Bras et Emmanuel Todd, coédition Seuil-La République des idées, 2013. 336 pages, 17,90 euros.

[2The anthropological revolution : Emmanuel Todd is a French historian, anthropologist, demographer, sociologist and essayist. A researcher with the National Institute of Demographic Studies (Ined), he develops the idea that family systems play a decisive role in the history and constitution of religious and political ideologies. A student of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, his historical approach, based on long-term history is that of Fernand Braudel’s “École des Annales. He is an alumnus of the school of Anglo-Saxon empiricism. In 1976 he published La Chute finale ("The Final Fall"), his first book, in which he announces “the decomposition of the soviet sphere”. What was surprising about this study was not so much its theme as the historical methodology that brought about a revolution in the social sciences: the penetrating force of his analysis rests on an anthropological interpretation. He has since then written many books and essays based on the same approach. In L’Invention de la France ("The Invention of France"), which came out in 1981, the analysis is carried out conjointly with demographer Hervé Le Bras. It studies the French case, the interest lying in its being a model of anthropological diversity within one nation.


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