Houellebecq’s not the bigot you think he is
Soumission is a serious interrogation of French politics and society.
At the start of the year, Michel Houellebecq’s sixth novel, Soumission (translated as ‘Submission’), was already generating a lot of pre-release publicity. Aware of the plot of the book – an Islamist party assumes power in France – and Houellebecq’s controversial views on Islam and immigration, critics pre-emptively accused him of Islamophobia. French philosopher Malek Chebel said Houellebecq’s work was scaremongering and anti-Muslim, while Laurent Joffrin, editor of Libération, went so far as to declare that Wednesday 7 January (Soumission’s release date) ‘will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature’.
As it turned out, Wednesday 7 January now marks the date in history when two Islamist gunmen entered the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 10 members of staff, including the editor and several of its most famous cartoonists. If Soumission’s publication was controversial before 7 January, it was considered nothing short of inflammatory afterwards, amid warnings of a post-Charlie Hebdo anti-Muslim backlash. This was not helped by the fact that Houellebecq featured on Charlie Hebdo’s last, pre-massacre front cover. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Houellebecq promptly cancelled the promotional tour for Soumission.
But here’s the interesting thing about Soumission: it is not anti-Islam or anti-Muslim. Yes, the novel, which is set in 2022, imagines a future in which the Muslim Fraternity Party, under the leadership of a character called Mohammed Ben Abbes, comes to power. And, yes, it shows how this happened – the centre parties of left and right come together to support Ben Abbes and the MFP in an effort to keep Marine Le Pen and the Front National (FN) out of power. But Houellebecq’s target here is not Islam; it’s the ironies of French democracy, and the weakness of French politics.
In fact, Soumission is, at points, better approached as a critique of the stale political status quo. Evoking the current era as one in which elections have become more-or-less predictable, and citizens view the leaders of the traditional parties with weariness and cynicism, Houellebecq imagines the duel between the MFP and the FN as an exciting political event, shaking up the old political duopoly. For the first time in modern history, as Houellebecq tells it, neither the Socialist Party nor a centre-right party will lead the French republic.
Defending his novel in an interview with the French TV channel, FRANCE 2, Houellebecq contends that his novel is not mere scaremongering. Rather, what he is describing is actually ‘a possible future in France’. Indeed, the alignment of the other political parties against the FN, which allows the MFP to get into power, echoes the French presidential elections of 2002. Then, the left-leaning parties fielded several candidates, splitting the left vote, which eventually led to the FN and Jacques Chirac having to fight it out in the second round. The mainstream parties, including ones on the left, were so horrified by the thought of the FN getting into power that they rallied behind Chirac.
Still, some are very keen to see Soumission as a novel of the far-right. Lawyer Alain Jakubowicz described it as a ‘Christmas present’ for Marine Le Pen. ‘She doesn’t need one’, quipped Houellebecq in response: ‘She’s already doing very well by herself.’
But it is wrong to think of Soumission in straightforwardly left/right terms – it’s far more nuanced and reflective than that. The target of Houellebecq’s ironising, cynical voice is the state of French politics as a whole, a system, as he puts it, characterised by a repetitive rotation of power between the centre left and the centre right. As Francois, the novel’s protagonist, notes wryly: ‘Western democracies are proud of such a system to the extent that they are willing to wage wars with countries who do not share the same enthusiasm.’
Houellebecq’s vision of French society under a Muslim government is one in which women no longer work and urban crime is non-existent. But he does not present us with a dystopia; rather, he’s trying to present us with what he considers to be a possible future for France. Moreover, he wants to understand how this future is possible.
Francois, Soumission’s central character, provides Houellebecq with a means to understand the attraction of Islam. We first encounter Francois as a fortysomething university lecturer, whose academic highlight is his thesis on Schopenhauer-inspired pessimist Joris-Karl Huysmans. Francois, it’s fair to say, is lacking purpose. He exists because he exists, finding what solace he can in sex, be it with prostitutes or sometimes with his students. In Francois, the vacuity of contemporary life is given expression. Francois asks himself: ‘What am I doing here?’ It is phrase that, as Houellebecq points out, has special pertinence for someone with so few social moorings – no friends, no family and no partner.
Houellebecq presents us with a vision of a decadent society, in which there are no fundamental moral values, a social existence that wants meaning and purpose. Islam seems to offer a solution; it seems to right the wrongs of society. That is why, in the eyes of the electorate, as Houellebecq envisages it, Islam is seen as a force that will revive the sacredness of the family; that will, in short, give social life some meaning, some anchorage. This is certainly true for the cynical Francois, whose conversion to Islam not only brings with it a higher paid job, but also the possibility of numerous wives.
Because Houellebecq presents a future France far removed from the secular entity it is today, Soumission is bound to make some uneasy. Yet there is a lot more to this novel than the shrill coverage would have you believe.
Elsa Makouezi is editorial assistant at spiked.
Soumission, by Michel Houellebecq, is published by Editions Flammarion. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)