Two years ago Michel Houellebecq, the very dark French novelist, published a dystopian satire called Submission about France succumbing to Sharia law under the rising political influence of Muslims. If you like Houellebecq’s manner as much as I do, you will find the book devilishly entertaining. And its meditations on literature (Huysmans) and spirituality are stirring.
There is just one glaring problem with the novel: Houellebecq is wrong about his projections of Muslim power. Houellebecq made a literary mistake imho by casting his story in 2022, just a few years out; and his story includes assertions about political developments in 2017 that have already been shown to be false.
Houellebecq says that in 2017, “a leftist president was reelected in a country that was more and more openly rightwing.” Then he charts the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood:
Over the next few weeks a strange, oppressive mood settled over France, a kind of suffocating despair, all-encompassing and shot through with glints of insurrection. People even chose to leave the country. Then, a month after the elections, Mohammed Ben Abbes announced the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood. There had already been one attempt to form an Islamic party, the French Muslim Party, but it soon fell apart over the embarrassing anti-Semitism of its leader–so extreme that it drove him into an alliance with the far right. The Muslim Brotherhood learned its lesson and was careful to take a moderate line…. Its rise was nothing short of meteoric. After less than five years it was now polling just behind the Socialists, at 21 versus 23 percent… The National Front, with 32 percent, remained far and away the leading party of France.
Everything about Houellebecq’s imagined 2017 is wrong. The left was roundly defeated in the last elections. It got only 7 percent of the vote in April. The National Front and Marine Le Pen did very well initially– 21 percent of the vote — but a far second to the neo-centrist meteor, Emmanuel Macron. France is not an “openly rightwing” country. In the May runoff the National Front was thumped, 2-to-1, by Macron, who has not a scintilla of socialism or Islam about him– and who is greeting Donald Trump today as France’s president.
And no: A month after the election, the Muslim Brotherhood did not announce its formation. Therefore no Muslim party is having a meteoric rise. The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to form a coalition with the Socialists in 2022 in order to defeat the National Front and gain the presidency and then institute Sharia law… Not a chance in hell, or Paris either.
Houellebecq was clearly being satirical. He was mocking leftwing political correctness, and hinting about the results of leftwing righteousness and lawlessness: the imposition of a patriarchal order in France. He was also making fun of right wing nationalists– and suggesting ways that an Islamic France would be an improvement over the atomized and materialistic society that Francois, the narrator, lives in.
But if Houellebecq was warning us about the political dangers/attractions of religious politics, the warning has backfired– because he has already been so wrong about his projections. When he tells us that there will be no representatives of the Jewish Students Union on any Paris campus while Muslim Brotherhood branches are popping up all over, in 2022, we shouldn’t be alarmed. Sorry, there’s just no way.
His mistake was to place the book in the here and now. This strikes me as a literary failure; the point of a dystopia is to cast a light of critical recognition on current social trends. Most famously, in 1984, Orwell sought to warn people about Communism’s potential power in western society. But Orwell published the book in 1949, long before the events he was predicting. So we had to mull the predictions for years before they were disproven by events.
Houellebecq is surely less afraid of Islam than Orwell was of totalitarianism. Orwell was obsessed. Houellebecq merely seems diverted. His real interests lie elsewhere.
I must give the author credit for a number of correct pronouncements. Houellebecq said that the UMP, Sarkozy’s old party, would plateau. It has– now called the Republicans, the party fell short of the runoff in the last election. His predictions of the political collapse of the left are also on target. Thus it is “over for the two parties that have dominated French political life since the birth of the Fifth Republic.”
He also said that in 2017 Marine Le Pen of the National Front “tried to look like Angela Merkel, even to her suits.” Spot on.