In a book-strewn apartment in the 14th arrondissement of Paris lives a 45-year-old Frenchman who claims to have the answer to everything. Controversial, clever, sexy - and utterly convinced of his ability to solve problems that no thinker has solved before - Emmanuel Todd is the latest in a long line of French intellectual superstars
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HOW DISAPPOINTING it must be for armchair philosophers everywhere that there are no longer any great universal beliefs. Communism, the supposedly all-conquering ideology of the 20th century, has foundered; would-be world- sweeping religions like Buddhism and Islam expand rapidly, then seem to hit invisible cultural walls. Hurrah, then, for a French demographer, historian and anthropologist who has managed to create a huge intellectual system, an old-style general explanation of the fact that there are no longer any general explanations.

For the past two decades, Emmanuel Todd, a research fellow at Paris's Institut national d'etudes demographiques, has been building a reputation for himself as an intellectual superstar every bit as glamorous as Sartre, Foucault, Camus, Barthes and the rest. Suave and media-friendly, he has been acclaimed in print and on screen and has a following that goes well beyond the narrow academic circles in which anthropologists usually operate. Cultural commentators worship him; politicians respect his views. And he has a smaller but no less fervent band of admirers in England. (Peter Laslett, of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, is among those who have praised his "extraordinary insights".)

He first achieved real celebrity in 1985, when he published a book whimsically called La troisieme planete in French ("I was reading a lot of sci-fi at the time," he explains) but in English simply, magnificently entitled The Explanation of Ideology. He had found, it seemed, the key to all political mythologies - why people believe what they do. "Communism, which in Russia and China has produced Titans, in the Arab world has given birth to no more than a few martyrs and in the English-speaking world to a number of eccentrics," he pointed out in his introduction. And Britain, Lynne Franks and Jemima Goldsmith notwithstanding, has also remained largely immune to mantra-chanting Buddhism or wise old Islam. Why should this be? The answer, according to Todd, lies in the structure of the family.

His analysis, which remains at the centre of his thought, is disarmingly simple. Between the opposed poles of liberty and authority on the one hand, and inequality and equality on the other, lie four family types: the absolute nuclear (liberty plus inequality); the egalitarian nuclear (liberty plus equality); the authoritarian (inequality plus authority); and the community (equality plus authority). Whether children carry on living with their parents after marriage or not; whether property is divided between siblings or passed in its entirety to one child; whether cousins are permitted to marry; these are the main variables which determine which of the four types families - and societies - will tend towards. If brothers are treated as equals, as in the French family model, the concept of political egalite is easily encompassed. In Britain, where primogeniture has been the dominant form of inheritance, there will be an engrained suspicion of such universalist ideas as "All men are equal." From this starting point, Todd makes confident political predictions. In Britain, bastion of the "absolute nuclear family" in its combination of liberty (no authoritarian state or patriarch; no cohabitation of married children with their parents) and inequality (no precise inheritance rules), there is not a chance of communism's ever winning more than 1 per cent of the total vote. All around the world, Todd's analysis seems to hold good. There is an inescapable link, say the Toddists, between the family system you live in and the way you think.

SUCH CLAIMS create expectations of their originator which could easily be disappointed in real life. Yet, interviewed in his book-littered flat in Paris's nondescript 14th arrondissement, with a thunderstorm raging outside and his two hyperactive children racing around inside and interminably squealing "Pa-pa!" as if they were in a Renault ad, he is the very model of the chic intellectual-cum-sex-symbol: casual and calm in crumpled white, all flowing dark locks and soulful eyes and absurdly youthful for his 44 years. Occasionally the children's maman, Madame Todd, eyes me grimly through a glass partition.

Right now, the doe-like eyes look troubled. "Where did I come from? What do you mean? In terms of..." he trails off, helplessly.

"Birth," I say helpfully.

"Errr, euu..."

"Come on, it's not that hard."

"You want a date?"

"Just a place." Gawd! This is only question number one.

"Ahhh! I come from Saint-Germaine-en-Laye. It's a very bourgeois suburb west of Paris. It's not exotic. There's nothing to say about Saint-Germaine- en-Laye."

For all his apparent suavity, Todd is hard work; bit by bit, though, he yields up his CV. After taking his Baccalaureat, he took a degree in history at the Sorbonne, and a diploma in political science. He then went to do a PhD in history at Cambridge. The Cambridge connection proved crucial. As he states in the introduction to The Explanation of Ideology, his theory is a fusion of British research on family forms and social anthropology, and French traditions of electoral sociology.

"Did you get a sudden flash of insight, like that?" I indicate the crack of lightning outside the window. He grins. "This flat used to belong to my mother, but I can remember, I tell you, I got the idea there!" He points at the couch in the next room, the Archimedes' bath of the social scientist.

Todd's first book, La Chute Finale (published in 1975) launched his career as a "certified prophet". "I have a great reputation in France for a number of reasons, but mainly because when I was 25 I wrote this book explaining that in 10, 20 or 30 years the Soviet system would collapse. There were some ideological aspects, but the reason for my belief that the Soviet system was doomed was that I had done a little work on the infant mortality rate and had noticed that between 1970 and 1974 it had started to go up. The book was quite a success, but it wasn't really taken seriously. But I am a demographer among other things, and I know that an increase in the infant mortality rate is something quite serious. And 14 years after it was published, I suddenly appeared as an incredible prophet."

His interest in the structure of families perhaps stems from his own irregular genealogy. "My family is a mess. My father [Olivier Todd, the famously handsome and charismatic journalist and television presenter] is half-English, and my mother's family was Jewish: they were all refugees in the United States during the war. On my father's side I am the first legitimate child in three generations. Myself, I produced three children, and when they were born, none of them was legitimate. Then afterwards I marry the mother. But I'm not a bad father, I'm not irresponsible." His first son, born to another mother and now 17, is presumably still illegitimate.

Bearing in mind his sceptical view of all ideologies, does he practise Judaism? "No, no, not at all, it's impossible. In terms of family habits and the way children are brought up, I guess the Jewish aspect is dominant, but it's completely disconnected from religion. One of the things I'm interested in is the way some aspects of the Jewish tradition can survive in the absence of religious belief, and it's pretty obvious the family is the link. The family will keep reproducing itself." He has drawn up a small wooden box between his knees, and is punctuating his dicta with emphatic karate-chops.

His less-than-pure-French background, together with his suspiciously English name and Cambridge affiliations, has irritated his compatriots. The Explanation of Ideology's publication caused a scandal in France. "There is something in the family hypothesis which irritates or which violates people in a deep way. The trouble is that people produced by the individualistic system believe that they have no system! They think they're free." The poor saps!

"There was a spectacular TV debate in which one academic specifically asked to come along in order to insult me," he goes on, wonderingly, "I remember one man shouting at me, in front of 4 million viewers, 'Si vous n'etes pas content, retournez en Angleterre!' So that was the atmosphere. It was a great shock to me because I thought I had been a good boy and had made a major scientific discovery."

Though Todd's modus operandi is the sweeping, untroubled generalisation, he has no doubt that he is a scientist. "The reason I'm so sure I'm right [a karate chop accompanies each italicised word] is that I produced the hypothesis with rather a small number of cases - I had a knowledge of the English family system, and those of France, Russia, Japan, Serbia, Italy, parts of Spain, Sweden, and that was all. So I had to provide verification. I worked at the Musee de l'homme in Paris for about one year reading all the monographs, getting descriptions of the family systems. The hypothesis could have been destroyed at any stage, and it wasn't. Once I had tested it, the thing had turned into certainty for me, and all I was afraid of was somebody else stumbling on my discovery."

Some of his arguments have a curiously circular quality. The Bosnian Muslims, for example, are "from my point of view, not real Muslims", because their family system is identical to that of the Croats and Serbs - patrilineal and exogamous as opposed to the patrilineal endogamy (cousin marriage) of Arab culture. This would presumably come as a surprise to the Bosnian Muslims. Then we get on to Ireland, and "cultural narcissism". Regions with authoritarian and inegalitarian family structures are, he says, adept at spotting ethnic differences that do not exist - an attitude that was to prove so catastrophic in Nazi Germany. "The Basques speak Spanish but hate Spain. The Irish speak English but hate England. Everywhere the authoritarian family produces a belief in ethnic differences," he pronounced in Ideology. But this seems like begging the question.

"You're saying that people are alike because their family structure is alike... But they might not see that they're alike."

"The fact of being alike doesn't imply you think you're alike," he returns smugly.

"But the Irish have a language and a culture... They are different."

"You're talking from a British point of view."

"But they have a different language..."

"Yes, but they don't use it." He's so gleeful to have got me down as a typical inegalitarian Anglo that he suddenly generates a burst of cheerful warmth which lasts until the end of the interview. (This might also have something to do with the fact that his family have stopped interrupting us.) He remains irritatingly self-assured, but there is an occasional twinkle in his eye as he pronounces. And pronounce he does.

"I use the categories universalist and differentialist," he says, giving the words a French fillip, a fusillade of rolled rrrs. "It's rooted in the ancient family systems, the idea that when brothers are defined as equals by families, this implies a general attitude that men are all the same. The English attitude that differentiates between brothers encourages a general differentialistic attitude. The English class system, which is not simply economic but something cultural, is a typical aspect of differentialism."

The contrast between the cases of Brittany and Ireland, both absorbed by a dominant power expanding outwards from a central "basin" (Paris, London), further illustrates his theme. "The French and English outlooks produced very different attitudes to these absorbed Celtic countries. The French insisted that there was no Celtic difference, so there was no talk about Brittany being something specific; it is simply one of the provinces of France. With Ireland, the dominant power has had a tendency to perceive it as something different, and has, in a rather subtle way, even protected the Irish identity, in the same way as it has protected the Scottish and Welsh identities."

Todd's most recent researches have been in the field of immigration, where the universalist/differentialist polarisation provokes further debate. Rather startlingly, he announces that the French have no interest in colour. How does he explain the appeal of Le Pen, who campaigns on an openly racist ticket?

He sighs. "The situation is paradoxical, because we also have the highest rate of intermarriage in Europe. The French are not interested in immigrants for reasons of race or colour. They do react very strongly to the Arabic cultural difference. They are obviously obsessed with the very low status of women in Arab culture. I came to the conclusion that the Front National is not basically the result of the racist attitude, but must be interpreted in terms of a perversion of universality. It's because the French think that men are the same - or ought to be the same - everywhere that they react violently to people living differently. It's marvellous to compare the French and British attitudes to immigrants, because we've got the same types. The French are obsessed with people from the Mahgreb; when you turn to English data, everything's about West Indians. That tells you something very deep about the differences between France and England; it tells you nothing about West Indians and Arabs."

TODD MAY seem to have dethroned reason and rendered us all intellectually helpless in the face of vast ethnographic forces, but the future is theoretically a blank page, even for him. His research is based on data from the 17th to the 20th centuries, but concepts of inheritance and even brotherhood don't mean as much today. Having a brother is no longer a universal condition. "These social and anthropological differences existed in the past, they produced different types of political divergence between the 17th and 20th centuries, but it's all over now. We can imagine that people have freed themselves from these anthropological differences."

Can he make any judgements about the ideal family? Can he be prescriptive? "No, no, no, when we talk about family systems we are not talking about one family, so the question "What is my family system?" is meaningless. You must have several families interacting to produce a viable family system, so it's impossible for one family to get out of the pattern."

As I lug my bag down five flights of stairs, I wonder wryly what family system would make someone keep a guest talking for two hours on one of the steamiest, stuffiest days of the year without offering so much as a cup of tea, but when, 15 minutes later, Emmanuel Todd finds me still sitting in his hallway waiting for the rain to stop, he charmingly proffers an umbrella and carries my bag all the way to the Denfert-Rochereau metro station. At the moment, Todd's research work means that he takes no lectures or tutorials and thus has no students to swoon over him. What a waste! !