A leader on the issue of social fracture that was taken up by Jacques Chirac during his 1995 presidential campaign, Emmanuel Todd has long observed the disconnect between the elite and working classes. For the first time, he confides his analysis of the debate over national identity. Without dissimulating his anger: “If you are in power and you don’t get anything accomplished on the economic front, the search for scapegoats at any price becomes second nature,” he deems.
How does the debate on national identity strike you?
I have stayed out of it so far as possible since this debate is, to my eyes, truly perverse. The government, with scheduled elections approaching, proposes, I would even say, imposes, the theme of the nation versus Islam. As a citizen, I am revolted. As a historian, I observe how this theme of national identity has been activated on high as a rather cynical project.
What is your analysis of the issues at stake in this debate?
The National Front [France’s extreme right-wing party, founded by neofascist Jean-Marie Le Pen – translator note] began to embed itself in the blue collar world in 1986, at a time when the elites refused to take an interest in the problems posed by the integration of immigrant populations.
At that time, we felt an anxiety that came from the lower level of society and that allowed the National Front to exist up until 2007. As I emphasized in my book, “Le Destin des Immigrés” ["Immigrants’ Fate”] (Seuil), in 1994, the map of the FN vote was statistically determined by the presence of immigrants from the Mahgreb who crystallized a specific anxiety because of real anthropological problems connected to differences in the systems of customs and morals as well as in the status of women. Since then, tensions have calmed. All opinion polls show that the issues of immigration, of Islam, are in free fall and have dropped far behind economic concerns.
French reality is that the country is in the process of succeeding at its integration process. France’s populations of Muslim origin are overall the most secularized and the most integrated in Europe, thanks to a high level of mixed marriages. For me, the specific sign of this calming down is the collapse of the National Front.
It is generally considered that Nicolas Sarkozy’s policies and politics are what have cost the National Front its lost votes …
The Sarkozyites think they’ve appropriated the National Front’s electorate because they’ve conducted this campaign of provocation, because Nicolas Sarkozy set fire to the suburban ghettos and that the appeals to the FN base have paid off. But that’s a mistaken interpretation. The 2007 growth of the right following the 2005 riots in the suburban ghettos was not a confrontation over immigration, but rather resentment against youth expressed by an aging population. Let’s not forget that Sarkozy was the old people’s choice.
How do you describe this right wing?
I no longer dare to say a government right wing. It’s no longer the right; it’s not only the right … Extreme right, ultra-right? It’s something else. I don’t have a word for it. More and more, I think Sarkozysm is a social pathology that suggests a Durkheimian analysis – in terms of anomie, religious disintegration, suicide – as well as a Marxist analysis – in terms of classes, including the concepts of capital-socialism and oligarchic emergence.
The Head of State assured that he would do his utmost not to be “deaf to the cries of the people.” What do you think of that?
For me, it’s a pure lie. In his editorial in Le Monde, Sarkozy gargles with the words, “the people.” But what he proposes to the French – because he does not manage to resolve the country’s economic problems – is hatred of the Other.
The society is very lost, but I don’t think people have any serious doubts about their belonging to France. I am rather optimistic: when you really get to the bottom of things over the long haul, the egalitarian temperament of the French assures that they don’t give a damn about questions of color or of ethnic or religious origin!
Why, under those conditions, does the government continue to take up a repertoire of the extreme right for its own account?
We’re dealing with habit. Sarkozy’s behavior and vocabulary towards the suburban ghetto kids is extremely brutal; he used them during his presidential campaign when he expressed his hostility to Turkey’s entry into the European Union in coded terms to activate anti-Muslim feeling. He thinks that could work again.
I even wonder whether the strategy of confrontation with Muslim countries – as in Afghanistan or on the question of Iran – is not an element of his domestic game. Maybe the relations between the Hauts-de-Seine [F[France’s second wealthiest department – tn]nd the Seine-Saint-Denis [s[scene of the 2005 suburban ghetto riots – both departments mentioned are part of the "ring” around Paris – tn]are already foreign policy for the president? One may well wonder …
If you are in power and you don’t get anything accomplished on the economic front, the search for scapegoats at any price becomes second nature, like a conditioned reflex. But when we are confronted with a government that activates tensions between categories of French citizens, one is all the same compelled to think of the search for scapegoats practiced in the pre-war period.
What are the points of comparison with that period?
One minister himself – it’s the emergence of the repressed, of the unconscious – referred to Nazism. (On November 26, Christian Estrosi [Min[Minister for Industry – tn]lared: “If, on the eve of the Second World War, during a time when the economic crisis pervaded everything, the German people had undertaken an examination of what truly constitutes German identity, heir to the Enlightenment, fatherland of Goethe and Romanticism, then, perhaps, we would have avoided the painful shipwreck of European civilization.”) And, moreover, demonstrated an altogether extraordinary ignorance of history. For the reality of German intra-war history is that there was nothing but a continuous debate over national identity. The difference was that the Nazis were true anti-Semites. They believed in it and they showed it. France does not fit into that pattern at all.
One must not mix apples and oranges, however it is necessary, all the same, to make comparisons with the pre-war extreme right-wing parties. There are all kinds of behaviors that are new, but that refer back to the past. The government putting itself in the service of capital to this degree is fascism. The anti-intellectualism, the hatred of our teaching system, the hounding after many professors, that also is part of the history of fascism. As is the ability to say everything and its opposite – that characteristic of Sarkozysm.
Isn’t the comparison with fascism over the top?
It’s not at all a matter of saying it’s the same thing. There are great differences. But we are in the process of entering a new social and political system that corresponds to a systemic swerve to the right, certain aspects of which recall the rise in power of the extreme right in Europe.
Yet, it’s Nicolas Sarkozy who has appointed the daughters of immigrants to several key positions …
The cunning of Sarkozysm is to operate on two poles: on one side, hatred and resentment; on the other, the staging of acts benefiting the Muslim religion or the appointments of Rachida Dati and Rama Yade to the government. The reality is that in all cases the ethnic repertoire is used to make people forget the themes of class.
Fifty-eight-year-old demographer and historian Emmanuel Todd is a research engineer at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED).
Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.