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When millions took to the streets of several French cities one Sunday in January, chanting "Je suis Charlie" and holding hands, the demonstrations were seen around the world as those of a country united in grief but defiant in its defence of freedom of expression. Suddenly, everybody was Charlie.

After the Jan. 7 assassination of a dozen people in the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by two radicalized Muslim gunmen, and the subsequent attack on a Jewish supermarket by another self-styled jihadi, it seemed all of France stood as one against terrorism.

So, why are so many members of the intelligentsia and political class now at each other's throats in post-Charlie France? Big societal debates are never exactly polite in France. But the level of vitriol in this verbal slugfest is off the charts.

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Perhaps no one is more to blame for that than historian Emmanuel Todd, whose new book Qui est Charlie? (Who is Charlie?) purports to paint a demographic portrait of the four-million-plus people who took part in the January marches. It is not a pretty picture. While the largest of the marches, in Paris, was dominated by left-leaning, white professionals whom Mr. Todd calls "radical secularists," those who participated in regional demonstrations were right-leaning cultural Catholics. Young people, working-class whites and immigrants were all but absent.

In short, those who already hold power in France were simply making a show of it. The marches were an act of "domination" and a warning to marginalized members of society to stay in line. They were the act of a deeply insecure elite reclaiming as "its highest priority the right to spit on the religion of the weak." All the talk of freedom of expression, Mr. Todd concludes, was a "sham."

If you think this is laying it on a bit too thick, so does most of France. But that has not stopped Mr. Todd's book from generating reams of news coverage and escalating an already feverish debate about the role of religion in French society. For Mr. Todd, the radical secularism of the elites is the new state religion; the artisans of Charlie Hebdo constitute "an Islamophobic sect."

Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls weighed in with an op-ed in Le Monde, defending Charlie Hebdo's blasphemous (to Muslims) caricatures of Mohammed as being "on the side of those who bear the weight of fundamentalism [and] the violence of fanatics who destroy, terrorize and assassinate. There is an inversion of values, a perversion of ideas [in Mr. Todd's book] that consists of thinking that those who kill are weak."

Unless you know your French history, the country's debate over secularism and freedom of expression can be difficult to follow at times. In Mr. Todd's view, French secularism is really a form of "zombie Catholicism" and a manifestation of the country's inability to live up to its officially pluralistic values. It's one thing to stand up for free speech. It's quite another to celebrate the systematic piling on of a disenfranchised minority. Some disgruntled members of PEN expressed similar discomfort after the organization recently gave an award in New York for "freedom of expression courage" to Charlie Hebdo.

Days before the release of Mr. Todd's book, a 15-year-old girl in Reims was kicked out of class for wearing a full-length skirt deemed by her teachers to be in contravention of a ban on religious symbols in public schools. The girl had removed her Muslim head scarf before entering class, in accordance with French law. But her teachers did not like her "proselytizing" attitude.

"The personnel asks that students dress in a manner that is respectful of secularist principles before entering the establishment," the school administration said after the incident hit the news. "If any students were invited to change their attitude and clothing, no one was excluded."

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This is the kind of radical-secularist overkill Mr. Todd finds so disturbing. "Let's leave France's Muslims alone," he said in an interview published in the magazine L'Obs. "Let's not do to them what we did to the Jews in the 1930s by putting them all in the same boat, regardless of their degree of integration. … Let's stop forcing Muslims to think of themselves [only] as Muslims."

A colleague warned Mr. Todd he wouldn't have "a single friend" in France after his book came out. It's looking like he was right.

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