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Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’: Islam and France’s Malaise

The publication of French literary star Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Soumission, was bound to create sensation and scandal, in any case. But the fact that the book was published on the very day that Islamic terrorists burst into the Parisian offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and massacred a large part of the staff added a new and chilling dimension to the release. The soumission or “submission” of the book’s title is just the literal translation of the Arabic word islam , and the book is about precisely the “submission” of France to Islamic rule—or, at any rate, to the government of an Islamic party—in the not-so-distant future of 2022.

The day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, it was announced that Houellebecq had suspended all promotional activities and left Paris for parts unknown. Some speculated that he feared for his life, and this might well have been the case, given that the book had already been widely pilloried in the French media as “Islamophobic.” Indeed, on the very same day, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in effect, helped to make the novelist a target in this respect. Denouncing what he described as a discourse of “hate” and “intolerance” toward Islam and Muslims that was “traumatizing” the country, he pointedly added, “France is not Michel Houellebecq.”

Just over a week later, Houellebecq would re-emerge in Germany at a book reading in Cologne. Insisting, as he had in numerous interviews, that Soumission is not an Islamophobic book, he would, nonetheless, hasten to add that “one has the right to write an Islamophobic book if one wants.” Houellebecq should know, since he has already published a novel that could fairly be described as such: namely, the 2001 Plateforme

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In this novel, after listening sympathetically to the complaints of Aïcha, a young woman of Arab descent eager to escape the constraints of her conservative religious family, the somewhat befuddled narrator offers, “It’s true, all told, Muslims are not so great.” It is perhaps no coincidence that the narrator is named “Michel.” Then, without saying anything more, Michel begins to daydream about migratory flows to Europe, imagining Muslim immigrants as “blood clots being slowly reabsorbed.” “Aïcha looked at me with a confused expression,” he adds. It should be noted that Aïcha’s brother has just confessed to murdering Michel’s father, with whom Aïcha was having an affair.

The plot of the novel, which was published just two weeks before the 9/11 attacks, culminates in an Islamic terror attack on a Thai resort packed with Western tourists. The love of Michel’s life dies in his arms in the attack. Just one year after the publication of Plateforme, almost the exact scenario depicted by Houellebecq would become reality when Islamic terrorists bombed two nightclubs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, killing 202 people, the majority of them Western tourists.

In retrospect, it is remarkable that the anti-Islamic passages in Plateforme sparked virtually no controversy at the time of its publication and presented no obstacle to Houellebecq’s continuing rise to the status of France’s most critically acclaimed contemporary novelist. 

It was only as a result of an interview published in the magazine Lire shortly after Plateforme’s release that Houellebecq would be exposed to the charge of Islamophobia. In it, Houellebecq famously described Islam as “the dumbest religion” and “dangerous” to boot. Four Muslim associations and the Paris-based Human Rights League brought charges against him for inciting racial hatred. One year later, a Parisian court acquitted the author, finding that his remarks were directed at Islam as a religion and did not denigrate Muslims as individuals.

Since then, Houellebecq claims to have “changed his opinion a bit.” Thus, in a recent interview with Sylvain Bourmeau of the French website Mediapart, he observed that after an “honest reading” of the Koran, one would have to conclude that jihadists are “bad Muslims.” A “holy war of aggression” is not permitted, he explained, “only proselytism is valid.”

 

So, is Soumission the Islamophobic diatribe that it has been made out to be? Well, a first point to be noted is that the novel contains none of the anti-Islam invective of Plateforme and nothing at all, at least as concerns its treatment of Islam, that could be expected to offend Muslim pieties. There are descriptions of a rising tide of anti-Islam sentiment in France and Europe—a reality that even Prime Minister Valls would acknowledge—but, unlike in Plateforme, the narrator shows no signs of sharing this sentiment. Indeed, he will end up converting.

The charge of “Islamophobia” appears thus to rest on the mere fact that the book envisions the possibility of an Islamic party coming to power in France. Particularly pious Muslims would presumably welcome such an eventuality. But for France’s cultural and media elites, consideration of it apparently belongs to the realm of morbid right-wing phantasm. 

This coming-to-power of an Islamic party is the real subject of Houellebecq’s book. The changes that ensue once it does are a secondary matter and only occupy a bit more than the last third of the novel. Far from being dramatized, the new Islamic order is presented matter-of-factly. The changes are subtle and all obviously consistent with a strict, but “moderate,” application of Islamic law or sharia: an increasing modesty in women’s clothing—but not the full-fledged imposition of the burqa—the legalization of polygamy, a gradual withdrawal of women from the labor market (thus solving France’s unemployment problem), the introduction of donor-funded Islamic schooling in parallel to the still secular public schools, and so on. 

In its dispassionate portrayal of Islamic France, Houellebecq’s Soumission contrasts sharply with Russian novelist Elena Chudinova’s dystopian thriller The Mosque of Notre Dame of Paris: 2048. Chudinova’s novel, which appeared in French translation in 2009, was the first attempt to envision a Muslim future for France. But as the author enjoys none of Houellebecq’s literary cachet, it went largely unnoticed outside her native Russia and openly Islamophobic circles in the West.

Far from being fantastic, Houellebecq’s account of how an Islamic party could come to power in France rests almost entirely on factual premises, and virtually all the political figures depicted are real. These include French President François Hollande, Prime Minister Valls, center-right notables Jean-François Copé and François Bayrou, and National Front leader Marine Le Pen. The only fictional additions are the positing of the founding of a Muslim Brotherhood–style party—called precisely the “Muslim Brotherhood”—and the introduction of this party’s leader, the suavely reassuring Mohammed Ben Abbes.

The book examines what could occur if such a party was thrown into the mix of French politics as currently constituted. Houellebecq’s conclusions in no way depend upon the demographic speculations of conservative North American commentators, according to whom Europe will inevitably be “Islamized” as a result of patterns of immigration and birthrates. In 2022, Muslims will, needless to say, represent only a small minority of the French electorate, as they do today. Nonetheless, Ben Abbes and his Muslim Brotherhood still come to power. How is such an aberrant outcome possible?

Houellebecq’s answer is that it is possible because French politics as such are aberrant. His narrator, François, is a 40-something academic whose specialty is the work of the 19th-century French novelist J. K. Huysmans. His principal preoccupation at the outset of the novel is his sex life and whether he is destined to have one anymore. But even though he describes himself as being “as politicized as a bath towel,” François cannot help but be struck by the increasingly unrepresentative character of French politics and the consequent disaffection of large swaths of the French populace.

Thus, before 2022, Houellebecq already envisions an aberrant outcome to France’s upcoming presidential elections in 2017: namely, the re-election of Hollande, by all accounts the most unpopular president in the history of the French Republic. Houellebecq writes of “the shameless, but mathematically inevitable, spectacle of the re-election of a left-wing president in a country that is more and more openly on the right.”

He describes Hollande’s re-election as “mathematically inevitable,” because he assumes a runoff between Hollande and Le Pen. The assumption of Le Pen’s presence in the second round of France’s two-part electoral process is not only plausible, it is increasingly looking to be the most certain assumption that one can make about the 2017 elections. In last May’s elections to the European Parliament, her National Front staked its claim to being the first party of France, winning 25 percent of the vote, as compared to 21 percent for the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and merely 14 percent for Hollande’s Socialists. Reports to the contrary notwithstanding, the National Front successfully defended this title in March’s departmental elections. Only a coalition of three parties, including Sarkozy’s UMP, was able to record a better score. All the latest opinion polls show Le Pen coming in first in the first round of elections in 2017, some with more than 30 percent of the vote, far ahead of all her rivals on both the left and the right. 

It is much less certain, incidentally, that Hollande will be the Socialist candidate or that he will reach a runoff if he is. But if both conditions are fulfilled, then Hollande will undoubtedly benefit from the so-called “republican front,” i.e., the reflex of the establishment parties to support one another to prevent the National Front from coming to power. Houellebecq’s assumption that a “republican front” would be enough to overcome even the massive unpopularity of Hollande is perhaps a matter of creative license. A September 2014 poll by the French polling company IFOP found Le Pen handily defeating Hollande in a runoff (though subsequent polls, for no apparent reason, have shown the opposite outcome).

“During the weeks following the election, a strange, oppressive atmosphere spread throughout the country,” Houellebecq writes about the aftermath of 2017. “It was like a radical, suffocating despair, combined here and there with glimmers of insurrection.” 

It is again the “republican front” that will bring Ben Abbes and his Muslim Brotherhood to power in 2022—though not without a certain amount of prior intrigue and suspense. Especially given the clear and substantial growth in popular support for the National Front, the politics of the “republican front” assure that parties with only a slim electoral base can end up governing. Indeed, this is already the case, though the disillusionment of conservative voters with Sarkozy was not enough to prevent his making it into a runoff against Hollande in 2012 and hence no appeal to the “republican front” was required. If the Socialists, with their desiccated electoral base of urban intellectuals and bohèmes, can govern France, then why not the Muslim Brotherhood? 

Despite the meteoric rise of Ben Abbes and his party, in the run-up to the 2022 elections that the novel envisions, the narrator François still expects essentially a repeat of 2017, though with Valls having now replaced the virtually invisible Hollande as the Socialist candidate. The period preceding the election is marked by increasing violence with vaguely ethnic and religious overtones in France’s urban slums. Indeed, François is nearby when one such confrontation erupts in the very heart of Paris. The French media, however, demurely abstain from reporting the violence. “Every image of urban violence is another vote for the National Front,” a well-informed colleague of François explains.

The shock arrives on May 15th with the first round of the elections: The candidates of both establishment parties are eliminated, leaving not Valls but rather Ben Abbes in a runoff with Le Pen. 

The flip side to the charge of Islamophobia against Houellebecq has been the insinuation that he is “soft” on Le Pen and the National Front. There is no doubt that by the stringent standards of the French media and political class, he is. 

Thus, it is left to none other than François’s Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, to exclaim, “There has been nothing anti-Semitic about the National Front for ages!” François, who is a full generation older than his former student, objects that it “has not been so long” and points out that Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, “still made the connection to the old tradition of the French far right” and classic exponents of French anti-Semitism like Charles Maurras and Édouard Drumont. He concedes, however, that “as concerns the daughter, of course, that doesn’t mean anything at all.”

Incidentally, François will lose Myriam, who immigrates to Israel with her family, as a consequence of the establishment of France’s new Islamic order. Once he converts, however, he will be compensated for the loss by the prospect of having three wives: the number that he will be able comfortably to support thanks to his six-figure salary at the Saudi-funded Islamic University of the Sorbonne. 

Following the announcement of the results of the first round of voting, the Socialists waste no time in concluding an electoral alliance with Ben Abbes’s Muslim Brotherhood. But the mere support of the Socialists is hardly sufficient to guarantee the victory of the Islamic party. With the second round fast approaching and Le Pen preparing to hold a massive electoral rally on Paris’s Champs-Élysées, François senses that the country is on the verge of a political earthquake:

I realized . . . that the growing gap, which had become an abyss, between the population and those who would speak in its name, both politicians and journalists, had necessarily to lead to something chaotic, violent and unpredictable. France, like the other countries of Western Europe, had been long heading toward civil war. This was obvious. But up until these last days, I was still convinced that the French in their great majority were resigned and apathetic—undoubtedly because I myself was largely resigned and apathetic. I was wrong.

Given the context, the passage can only allude to a National Front victory.

The remarks recall Houellebecq’s own reaction to the clear rejection by French voters of the so-called “European constitution” in 2005. “I am very surprised because normally the French are cowards,” Houellebecq said in Los Angeles during a book tour. The vote sent shock waves throughout Europe and appeared to spell the end to plans for greater European integration. Instead, the treaty was repackaged without the name “constitution” and approved by the French Parliament. Houellebecq has referred to the episode as key to his conviction that an “abyss,” as François puts it, has opened up between the French elites and the French people. 

 

The earthquake, however, fails to happen. Fearing troubles in Paris, on the day of the vote François sets off on a surreal road trip to the south of France. Along the way, he pulls into a service station only to find it deserted, the cashier lying dead in a pool of blood, and two young men of Arab descent shot dead near the parking lot. One of the latter holds a submachine gun in his hand. That evening, François will learn that the second round of voting has been cancelled following attacks by armed groups on several polling places.

These scenes of violence have further fueled the charges of Islamophobia against Houellebecq. But, as the author has pointed out, it is not clear in the book who is responsible for the violence: Islamic radicals or members of the “identity movement,” a fringe nativist current with a strong presence on the French Internet. Indeed, though Houellebecq shies away from stating it, there is also a hint of a third possibility: that provocateurs have played a role. Thus, Alain Tanneur, an acquaintance from France’s domestic intelligence, informs François that he has been forced into retirement after submitting a report on the likelihood of violence during the elections. “You mean the government wanted the electoral process to be interrupted?” François asks. “I couldn’t prove it,” Tanneur responds while nodding.

What happens next reveals the full significance of Tanneur’s suspicions. Elections are rescheduled for one week later, and the establishment parties, the Socialists and the conservatives of the UMP, make use of the extra time to come to an agreement on an “enlarged republican front.” Now, the center-right also throws its support behind Ben Abbes. 

In order to incarnate the de-politicization implied by the “republican front,” Houellebecq has Ben Abbes pledge to appoint François Bayrou as his prime minister. A perennial also-ran in French presidential elections, Bayrou’s political convictions, Tanneur notes, have always been essentially indistinguishable from and limited to his own political ambitions. 

The agreement on the “enlarged republican front” makes the outcome of the elections a foregone conclusion. The outcome is so certain that, immersed in spiritual ruminations at the medieval Christian pilgrimage site of Rocamadour, François barely takes notice of the “large victory of Mohammed Ben Abbes” when it occurs. 

This is the sole element in Houellebecq’s near-futuristic depiction of French politics that rings patently false. Just as it is doubtful that a “republican front” will be able to save Hollande’s political fortunes in 2017, were the UMP in fact to call for its voters to support an Islamist candidate in 2022, the more likely result would be the definitive abandonment of the party by its base. It is already difficult enough to mobilize conservative voters to support Socialist candidates. 

But for the French political establishment, the Islamist candidate, far from posing a threat, appears as the last best hope for preserving the status quo against the dangerous impulses of the French people. In the final analysis, this is perhaps Houellebecq’s point. His novel is less about any external threat to France, Islamic or otherwise, than about a profound internal malaise. He brandishes the specter of “Islamization” in order to set in relief the folly and opportunism of France’s own elites, who, he suggests, in order ostensibly to “save the republic” (i.e., from the National Front) would even be prepared to dilute its principles with a “moderate” dose of sharia.

It is no wonder, then, that the representatives of the French establishment have reacted with such virulence to his novel. For if there is a “phobia” to be found in it, it is a phobia of which they are the object.

John Rosenthal is a European-based journalist and political analyst who writes on EU politics and transatlantic security issues. He is the author of The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion.

 

 

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