I’m sure there’s already enough ambulance-chasing going on around the horrible massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and though I may be a hack of sorts, I can only claim the most vicarious solidarity with chief editor Stephane Charbonnier and the other journalist victims. However, I do want to remind everyone that one of France’s most famous living novelists, Michel Houellebecq, is currently being feted in French intellectual circles for a new work which manages both to be anti-Islamic and to attack the secular rationalist traditions that Charlie Hebdo embodies – in so far as it has an intact body any more.
Houellebecq’s latest novel Soumission (Submission), released on the same day as the massacre, describes a near-future France in 2022 that has fallen into the hands of a Muslim president and an Islamic government in the course of an attempt to stave off the rise of the far-right Front National. This new Islamic France appears in full retreat from its liberal humanist Enlightenment heritage, with the advent of the veil and polygamy, women forced out of the workplace, and compulsory teaching of the Koran in universities. Houellebecq reserves much of his fire for … ahem … veiled criticism of contemporary France, but many critics have already described the book as an effective tract for the Front National, which manages to attack both Islam and the kind of secular values like tolerance, intellectual freedom, and democracy that welcome other creeds within France in the first place.
Houellebecq is no stranger to public and even legal challenges to his apparent Islamophobia. His 2001 novel Plateforme (Platform) won him prosecution on charges of inciting religious and racial hatred for calling Islam “stupid” and depicting murders by Muslims, but the charges were dismissed. Now, in an exclusive interview with Le Figaro Magazine, a French publication roughly at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from Charlie Hebdo, Houellebecq, while dispensing a few platitudes on the similarities between Muslims and Catholics in politics, declares that “the return of religion is a global movement, a groundswell … atheism is too sad … I think we are now witnessing the end of a historical movement that began a long time ago, at the end of the Middle Ages.”
Questioned about one of the other most Islamophobic French books of the hour, Le suicide français, a virulent critique of France’s intellectual and institutional decadence by right-wing columnist Eric Zemmour, Houellebecq doesn’t exactly duck the parallel. While declaring that “in the middle of a continent that is committing suicide, France is the only country to fight desperately to survive,” he then goes on to state that “There is a more general suicide which is that of the West: economic suicide, demographic, and especially spiritual … it is because it evokes the actual impossibility of living without God.” In other words, rather than take issue with Zemmour’s argument, Houellebecq universalizes it to encompass the entire Western world.
It’s too early to tell how much the sales of Houellebecq’s book – and the currency of his ideas – will be boosted by the grotesque coincidence of its publication on the same day as the massacre. And too much of what he wrote may typify the kind of contemporary navel-gazing quarrel with itself that has landed France the epithet of the new “sick man of Europe.” But with a novel with a title like “submission,” whose protagonist ends up by accommodating himself to the new Islamic order, Houellebecq does seem to be treading in the footsteps of French right-wing predecessors like Louis-Ferdinand Céline – and positioning himself as one of a new wave of French collaborationists.