Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Book review: Submission by Michel Houellebecq imagines a Muslim French president

A translation of Michel Houellebecq’s richly satirical book Submission is dark, uplifting and keeps Marine Le Pen out of power.
The novel has been translated by Lorin Stein.
The novel has been translated by Lorin Stein.

To the western liberal conscience, few election outcomes could be worse than the suddenly plausible scenario of victory for one of the far right movements and their ragbags of nationalists, racists and fascists.

But what if, in France for example, the only viable alternative to the Front National’s Marine Le Pen taking power happened to be the head of an Islamic party?

In the richly satirical vision of Michel Houellebecq, a controversial French author accustomed to dividing critical and academic opinion, the answer is that the defeated left and centre-­right mainstream throw their weight behind the Muslim leader to keep Le Pen out.

Houellebecq’s novel appeared in French bookshops on January 7, the day the French-­Algerian Kouachi brothers committed mass murder at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo. By the end of the month, he was under police protection.

But the potential for justifiable offence should not be exaggerated. Submission envisages the rise of a Tunisian grocer’s charismatic son to the French presidency in 2022. Muhammed Ben Abbes is no apologist for terrorism. In his essentially benign regime, much of life goes on as before. A likeable but ineffectual mainstream politician is made prime minister, defence and economic policies change little, people go on drinking alcohol if they choose and no one is flogged or thrown into jail for dissent.

But there is a hint of iron behind the velvet. The one issue on which Abbes will not budge is education. Teachers throughout the system must convert to Islam, transfer to a secular sector starved of funds or lose their jobs.

In the new order, women are not forced to give up work, but generous incentives encourage so many to do so that unemployment plummets. Veils become commonplace and a harder line is taken on Israel. Abbes brushes away militants agitating for full implementation of Sharia but, as his electoral success begins to spill over the borders of neighbouring countries, he sees Europe as a work in progress. Talks start on bringing not only Turkey but Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and even Egypt and Lebanon into the EU.

This France of the near future is seen through the eyes of François, a deeply cynical and amoral professor of literature at the Sorbonne, whose middle years are blighted by self-doubt, niggling health problems and the emptiness of a man without faith and incapable of forming lasting relationships. François has produced one published work, an acclaimed study of the 19th-century writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, but increasingly sees his labours as pointless.

There is no room for him at the renamed Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne. Disillusioned, with no desire to convert, he prepares for an even more vacuous life, cushioned by a comfortable pension. The one woman to whom François feels attached, a Jew, joins an exodus to Israel and he loses all opportunity to replace her with the fleeting intimacy that university life once gave him.

When New Year passes without a solitary greeting, he turns to the abbey where his literary hero once took monastic vows and where he, too, had stayed during his research. Whatever he expects from the retreat fails to materialise and he returns to Paris and faces unexpected rapprochement with the new university hierarchy.

The English translation of Houellebecq’s novel captures both dark and uplifting episodes of the professor’s life and the social transition. Real people wander through the pages; beyond Le Pen, we meet politicians and media pundits who are well-known in France today. Houellebecq’s dry humour is preserved and François is brought to life in a compelling portrayal of frailty, disappointment and rare triumph.

For those in France who would take offence to being called fascists or racists but have nevertheless deserted the Gaullist right to fall into Le Pen’s arms, the nightmare already rings true. They deplore the supposed Islamification of their country, embrace illiberal anti-Muslim stances – from denouncing immigration to supporting bans on the niqab or alternatives to pork in school canteens – and yearn for a romanticised past.

But plenty of others find the populist mantra of the Front National shaming. If there is an optimistic feature of Houellebecq’s imagined future, it is that we hear no more of Le Pen or her wretched party from the moment Abbes beats her to the Elysée.

This book is available on Amazon.

Colin Randall is a freelance journalist based in France and a former editor at The National.


Updated: October 1, 2015 04:00 AM



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