I've a certain fondness for Michel Houellebecq. I read his The Elementary Particles, the North American translation of his 1998 Les Particules élementaires when I was younger and perhaps more impressionable. The stylish bleakness of his worldview appealed to me. This evening, a Bloomberg article appeared on my RSS feed noting the controversy over the author's newest book.
“Submission,” a book by Michel Houellebecq released today, is sparking controversy with a fictional France of the future led by an Islamic party and a Muslim president who bans women from the workplace.
In his sixth novel, the award-winning French author plays on fears that western societies are being inundated by the influence of Islam, a worry that this month drew thousands in anti-Islamist protests in Germany. In the novel, Houellebecq has the imaginary “Muslim Fraternity” party winning a presidential election in France against the nationalist, anti-immigration National Front.
“A pathetic and provocative farce,” is how Liberation characterized the book in a Jan. 4 review that scathingly said the novelist is “showing signs of waning writing skills.” Political analyst Franz-Olivier Giesbert in newspaper Le Parisien yesterday was kinder, calling it a “smart satire,” adding that “it’s a writers’ book, not a political one.”
National Front’s leader Marine Le Pen, who appears in the 320-page novel, said on France Info radio on Jan. 5 that “it’s fiction that could become reality one day.” On the same day, President Francois Hollande said on France Inter radio he would read the book “because it’s sparking a debate,” while warning that France has always had “century after century, this inclination toward decay, decline and compulsive pessimism.”
[. . .]
Houellebecq’s book is set in France in 2022. It has the fictional Muslim Fraternity’s chief, Mohammed Ben Abbes, beating Le Pen, with Socialists, centrists, and Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party rallying behind him to block the National Front.
Ben Abbes goes on to ban women in the workplace, advocates polygamy, pushes Islamic schools on the masses and imposes a conservative and religious vision of society. The French widely accept the new environment, hence the book’s title.
Submission has gotten quite a lot of reaction in France; Les Inrockuptibles has a broad selection. Libération's article on the book, referenced in the above Bloomberg article, is here. Anglophones might be interested in The Independent's article, perhaps still more in Houellebecq's English-language translated interview in The Paris Review with Sylvain Bourmeau
Where did you get the idea for a presidential election, in 2022, that came down to Marine Le Pen and the leader of a Muslim party?
Well, Marine Le Pen strikes me as a realistic candidate for 2022—even for 2017 … The Muslim party is more … That’s the heart of the matter, really. I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren’t interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever. It would be wrong to say that this religion has no political consequences—it does. So does Catholicism, for that matter, even if the Catholics have been more or less marginalized. For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.
But to imagine that such a party might find itself poised to win a presidential election seven years from now …
I agree, it’s not very realistic. For two reasons, actually. First—and this is the most difficult thing to imagine—the Muslims would have to succeed in getting along with each other. That would take someone extremely intelligent and with an extraordinary political talent, qualities that I give to my character Ben Abbes. But an extreme talent is, by definition, an unusual occurrence. But supposing he existed, the party could take off, but it would take longer than seven years. If we look at the way the Muslim Brotherhood has done it, we see regional networks, charities, cultural centers, prayer centers, vacation centers, health care, something not unlike what the Communist Party did. If you ask me, in a country where poverty will continue to spread, this party could attract a lot more than just “average” Muslims, if I can put it that way, because really there is no longer such a thing as an “average” Muslim since we now have people converting who are not at all of North African origin … But such a process would take several decades. The sensationalism of the media plays a negative role, really. For example, they loved the story of the guy living in a little village in Normandy, as French as he could be, not even from a broken home, who converted and went off to wage jihad in Syria. But we can reasonably assume that for every guy like that there are several dozen who convert and don’t go off to wage jihad in Syria, who don’t do anything of the kind. After all, one doesn’t wage jihad for the fun of it, that sort of thing only interests people who are strongly motivated by doing violence, which is to say, necessarily a minority.
I'm inclined to agree with Laurent Joffrin, a literary critic quoted in 20 Minutes who calls Submission the work that marks the return of the far right and its theses to literary prominence in France. The whole idea of a Muslim takeover is ridiculous. As I noted way back in 2004 when I took time from grad school to write my "France, its Muslims, and the Future", and as--for instance--the Pew Research Group noted in 2011 with its projection that Muslims of all background would amount to a tenth of the French population circa 2010, the numbers just aren't there. Presuming, as Houellebecq does in his scenario, that somehow this disparate and divided religious minority would become a unified bloc capable of taking over a much larger country, assumes a view of human behaviour that is simply not credible. This should be no surprsie: as an Economist article on Muslims in Marseille in May 2014 noted, Muslims in that French city at least are assimilating, moving beyond the left to vote for the parties they like, including the French right. Houellebecq would seem to know very little indeed about what is actually going on indeed, and in so doing is narrowing the forum for rational discussion of matters of immigration and cultural change and assimilation that much more. Submission does little good, save perhaps Houellebecq himself and his publisher with their succès de scandal.
I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post that I had found the bleakness of Houellebecq's worldwide appealing when I was younger. I wonder what I would find on re-reading. Would this turn out to be merely adolescent angst?