In Paris, everyone is reading Michel Houllebecq’s Soumission. If they’re not reading it, they’re talking about it, and even if they’re not talking about it, they’ve heard something about the book or its author: the book is brilliant or disgusting; paranoid or cynical; Islamophobic or—finally!— just honest. This summer I saw Parisians reading the book on the subway, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and on benches in the Latin Quarter by the Sorbonne and the École normale. I bought my own copy in the bookshop at the Bibliothèque nationale, where it was prominently displayed next to philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff’s latest polemic Une France antijuive? A few days later I saw the book, by a recent recipient of the Prix Goncourt, on sale for a little less in a Monoprix (the rough equivalent of a Target or Safeway) next to the usual pulp romances and vampire stories. France, or at least Paris, is certainly a more literate and literary place than the US, with many more bookstores and literary prizes and enormous pride in their home-grown talent. But I think it is fair to say that Michel Houllebecq’s latest work has gotten under France’s skin. Regardless of its aesthetic merit or political correctness, Soumission is incredibly relevant in today’s France. It’s a dystopian novel in which the enemy is not just foreign influence, but French culture itself.

Soumission takes place in 2022, five years after the coming 2017 presidential election.  The novel’s protagonist is a middle-aged college professor named François (the etymological link to France is obvious) who is awakened out of a respectable but fundamentally uninteresting existence by the political changes happening around him, most notably a drawn election between the far-right Front national party and the incumbent Socialist Party, a stalemate which is resolved by a coalition between the Socialists and an Islamic party called the Fraternité musulmane (the Muslim Brotherhood). The Front national  and the Parti socialiste are both very much real; the Fraternité musulmane is Houllebecq’s creation. A National Front victory in 2017 is not at all impossible, with Marine Le Pen polling among the top three candidates (the other two, Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, are also on the right) and, more generally, massive frustration with political status quo. The FN represents a political third way, an alternative to the familiar parties and all their familiar faces. So this aspect of Houllebecq’s vision is not shocking, although it is still scary.

What is much more difficult to imagine is rule by an explicitly Muslim political party (the Union des Démocrates musulmans français was founded in 2012 but has had practically no success at the polls). This is unheard of in a country whose politics are fundamentally anti-identitarian, a country which doesn’t gather census data on religious observance or ethnicity, and in a country which has done its best to confine religion to the cultural and exclude it from the political. Houllebecq imagines that after the second round of the 2017 presidential election, in which a left-leaning politician wins despite the obvious shift of the French people to the right, “numerous were those…who opted for exile.” Political exile, that is. This frustration—which many feel Marine Le Pen will take advantage of in the 2017 cycle—is seized upon by a fictional politician named Mohammed Ben Abbes (echoes, perhaps, of Mahmoud Abbas?), who announces the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood party in “a first attempt at political Islam.”  In order to form a ruling coalition, they partner with the Parti Socialiste. Their ideological platform is not extreme—they learned early on that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism wouldn’t get them widespread support, so they “attempted to preserve a moderate position, only supporting the Palestinian cause in moderation, and maintaining cordial relations with the Jewish religious authorities.”

In a fashion similar, perhaps, to Marine Le Pen’s neutralization of the FN’s history of anti-Semitism and racism, the fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes practices a conservative, middle-of-the-road politics which claims to do nothing else but state the politically obvious: to represent France’s changing demography and culture. As the clock ticks down to the 2022 elections, François listens to Ben Abbes make a revealing statement about his party’s political ambitions, which he reports to the reader in the imperfect tense, indicating not only that the speech is indirect but also instilling the whole thing with an air of completion, pastness, fatedness, even ineluctability. After acknowledging his debt to the republican meritocracy, Abbes says (according to François’s retelling) that “one must agree that the times had changed. More and more often, families—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—desired an education for their children which didn’t limit itself to the transmission of knowledge, but instilled a spiritual education corresponding to their tradition. This return of religion was a profound trend, across societies, and the national education couldn’t but take it into account. In sum, it’s about enlarging the frame of the republican school, about making it capable of harmonious coexistence with the grand spiritual traditions—Muslim, Christian, or Jewish—of our country.”

Ben Abbes speaks the language of multiculturalism, a political stance which not only recognizes minority difference, but which also asserts that such differences should be reflected in the state. In France, the state is supposed to form society—particularly in the public schools, miniature Frances, where (theoretically) all students are equal, all students sing the Marseilleise, and where all students, even in the former colonies, were once taught to say, “nos ancêtres, les gaulois.” The public school is where political socialization and integration, not the reinforcement of social divisions, is supposed to occur. In the secular republic, the schools should not respond to a “retour de religieux,” not simply because religion is legally irrelevant to public education, but also because the public school is interested in what unifies students, not what differentiates them.

It is no coincidence, then, that the protagonist is a professor and that university politics in the book are a reflection of what is transpiring in French society. But the universities don’t need to wait for elections: as petrodollars flow in from Middle Eastern countries, things change under François’s nose, until eventually, once the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, all non-Muslim faculty are fired and François’s brilliant but stalled academic career is brought to a premature end. But the new president of the Sorbonne—a Belgian man who has converted to Islam and is known for his pro-Palestinian sentiments—makes an effort to woo François back to the university. This, of course, means that François must convert. And, after relatively limited reflection and a cursory reading of a book called “10 Questions about Islam” (François skips almost immediately to the chapter on polygamy), he decides to go forward with it. For he knows that he still has good work left in him—and, perhaps more importantly, that he would never have the courage to commit suicide. What remains? Submission. The book’s final chapter describes the conversion—again, reported by François, like Ben Abbes’s speech, rather than directly presented. It takes place almost exclusively in the conditional tense, which endows it with a certain eeriness, particularly in the final lines: “It would be the chance of a second life, without much relation to the one which preceded it. I would have nothing to be sorry about [regretter].” That final word, regretter, means not only “to regret,” but also “to miss.” François would not be ashamed of his politically astute decision; he also wouldn’t be leaving much behind.

The back cover of Soumission describes the book as a “gripping political and moral fable,” and it’s not too hard to determine who stands for what. François’s name tells all: this unmarried, middle-aged, womanizing, microwave-dinner-eating, and avowedly atheistic man—this man is France. He was educated in the great public universities and never left. As a specialist on Huysmans, he lives in the intellectual world of the Third Republic, the republic par excellence. Huysman’s thoughts are always on his mind and his words are often in his mouth. François’s main love interest is a Jewish woman, Miriam (a name almost as generic as his) who immigrates before the elections. Their relationship, which is described in detail that, out of context, might be read as pornographic, is the literal embodiment of the intimate relationship between the Jews and the French Republic. And just as François is left behind by Miriam, thousands of Jews in the real world are leaving the changing Republic behind. But the French Republican, the meritocrat, the creature of the Republic has nowhere to go: as François says to Miriam, “There is no Israel for me. It was a very poor thought, but an accurate one.”

Houllebecq suggests that the Republic is slowly taken away from the Republican, that there is nothing for a French citizen to do but yield.  When François is dismissed from the university, he even retreats to the rural monastery where Huysman’s converted to Catholicism. François—France—retreats from cosmopolitan Paris, the focal point of French political and cultural life and the domain of the français républicain, and seeks refuge in the godfearing provinces, where resides the français de la souche, the Frenchman of French stock (the provinces also provide a safe haven at a moment when the country might slip into civil war, in one of the books less interesting subplots). But these ancestral voices don’t speak to him. Unmoved, he returns to Paris after things have calmed down and the new regime is in place. There are aesthetic differences, notably in the treatment of women, but he finds that, the more “modest” outfits he sees, the less desire he feels. This new, explicitly patriarchal culture ironically emasculates him, at least in comparison to the beginning of the book. France more broadly “gnashed its teeth” for a while when women were pushed out of the workplace and urged to assume a more domestic role, but “in view of the [lower] unemployment numbers, the gnashing quickly stopped.” France, it seems, is just a bunch of pushovers.

Soumission is not a really a book about Islam; it is a critique of France. Many of the Muslim characters are in fact depicted quite positively: representative of a somewhat foreign culture, certainly, but polite and well-educated. In fact, we hear very little directly from them; much of their speech is reported. The thesis of this fable has rather more to do with France’s submission not just to the political bogeyman of Islam, but also to an identity politics that obviously treads upon the republican values of universalism, secularism, and equality. Houllebecq’s portrayal of his protagonist is ultimately ironic. François is supposedly a French Intellectual, but in reality he spends as much time agonizing over what he is going to microwave for dinner as he does considering his conversion to Islam. His retreat to the monastery and appeal to French Catholic identity is comical in its superficiality: François lasts just a few days in the monastery before going back to Paris. He represents the university-educated, atheistic, generally left-leaning France which peoples the ranks of the republican bureaucracy. This good, meritocratic, Third Republic France, a polite and well-mannered France which adapts and submits rather than asserts itself, the France embodied in the well-intentioned but ultimately rather bland François Hollande—this is the target of Houllebecq’s irony.

 ***

What Houllebecq shows in Soumission is the danger, or the fear, of the slow creep: the slow creep of demographic change, of political disengagement, of economic malaise and the opportunities it creates for foreign interference. The title is a meaningful one. Houllebecq does not see the decline of France and the rise of an identitarian politics as a revolution, but as a submission, analogous in some ways to the submission of women in the society envisioned by the book. As long as the unemployment numbers are down, people are happy, even if it means adopting aspects of sharia law.

It’s hard to say whether or not there is anything to Houllebecq’s fears. There is certainly a healthy dose of alarmism in French society, with polls suggesting that citizens vastly overestimate the presence of Muslims in the country: respondents estimated on average that the French population is 31% Muslim, when in reality the figure is 6%. On the other hand, France’s foreign policy in the Middle East has long been determined not only in relation to its economic interests in the region, but also with the knowledge that a sizable minority of its population hails from Muslim North Africa. Maud Mandel, Professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University and author of Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict, argues that France’s relationship to the state of Israel has been fraught since the very beginning because of this. What is clear is that France is more diverse than it’s ever been and, not for the first time in French history, the future isn’t entirely clear.  But Houllebecq isn’t an historian or a politician and the book does not claim to make any formal political arguments. Soumission is more like a Rorschach test: presented with a certain demographic and political picture, this is what Michel Houllebecq sees. Soumission shows us what France, or a France, is afraid of.

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