Michel Houellebecq ’s novel about a Muslim takeover of France is a melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender. It’s 2022, a charismatic Islamist politician called Mohammed Ben Abbes has become president, and France has fallen under his spell. Houellebecq’s timing could hardly have been better: Soumission was published on 7 January, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The novel was hailed by the right as a prophetic warning, a fictional cousin of Eric Zemmour’s anti-Muslim tirade, Le Suicide français, and attacked by the left, in the words of Alain Jakubowicz, as ‘the best Christmas gift he could have given to Marine Le Pen’. Both Houellebecq’s admirers and his detractors assumed that he still believed Islam was what he’d once called it: ‘the stupidest religion’. But Houellebecq has had second thoughts, and although his novel is deeply reactionary, it is not Islamophobic.
Houellebecq is not the first to imagine an Islamic France. In 1959, three years before he presided over the end of Algérie française, Charles de Gaulle told his confidant Alain Peyrefitte that France would have to withdraw from Algeria, because the alternative – full French citizenship for the indigènes – would turn it into an Islamic state:
Do you believe that the French nation can absorb 10 million Muslims, who tomorrow will be 20 million and the day after 40 million? If we adopt integration, if all the Arabs and Berbers of Algeria were considered as Frenchmen, what would prevent them from coming to settle in mainland France where the standard of living is so much higher? My village would no longer be called Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, but Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées!
Two decades later, when Peyrefitte revealed de Gaulle’s remarks, the hero of the Resistance sounded a lot like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But fear of Islam, and of Muslims, has never been the exclusive property of the far right in France: it has always been rooted in the widespread demographic nightmare of being overrun by Muslims, of the coming ‘Eurabia’.
Houellebecq’s novel is sprinkled with winking allusions to anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists like Bat Ye’or, the doyenne of Eurabia literature. But in Soumission, France’s Islamisation isn’t brought about by the Muslim birthrate, the rage of the banlieue or the excesses of multiculturalism – the unholy trinity of the far right – and it isn’t something to be feared, much less resisted. Rather, it’s born of a marriage (arranged, of course) between a rudderless political establishment and a peaceful Islamist party. The Muslim Fraternity is led by Ben Abbes, a Muslim de Gaulle (Houellebecq’s comparison) who towers above his rivals. Houellebecq says his novel should be read as ‘the book of a sad historian’, but the way it observes the passing of French secularism is more bemused than sad. There is never any question in Soumission that France doesn’t deserve its fate.
Houellebecq has long been denounced as a reactionary, not unfairly. But he writes novels, not manifestos, in spite of their topical surfaces. His singular theme has been the miserable solitude of middle-class white Frenchmen, men of ‘absolute normality’. The typical Houellebecq hero is a bored, alienated, self-pitying man who is losing his place in society, at work and, worst of all, in the bedroom. In a ruthless, zero-sum sexual marketplace, he loses out to men who are more powerful or more virile. Houellebecq is notorious for his pornographic depictions of sex but there’s a point to the detail: his heroes inhabit a pornographic universe, the inevitable result, as he sees it, of the sexual liberation of the 1960s. He can be brutally funny about his self-pitying heroes, yet he also feels sorry for them, even a touch sentimental. In the 2010 novel The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq himself appears as a character, only to be murdered in a scene of carnivalesque cruelty. When he was thought to have gone missing during his tour to promote that novel, it was rumoured that he’d been kidnapped by al-Qaida. He hadn’t, but the idea clearly had a masochistic appeal: Houellebecq played himself in a mock documentary, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, released last year, in which his feckless kidnappers befriend him, in a reverse Stockholm syndrome, allowing him to enjoy a rare reprieve.
The narrator of Soumission, François, is a solitary, alcoholic 44-year-old bachelor who teaches literature at the Sorbonne. He’s a scholar of J.K. Huysmans, his one ‘faithful friend’. Huysmans is best known as the author of A Rebours, a masterpiece of the late 19th-century Decadent movement, but Houellebecq is more interested in Huysmans’s later spiritual writings, produced after he embraced Catholic mysticism and entered a monastery. The question that drives much of the narrative is whether, like Huysmans, François can overcome his atheism and find redemption in the church. When he’s not thinking about Huysmans, François is thinking about his diminishing sexual opportunities. He has on average one girlfriend ‘per year’, but they invariably tell him they’ve ‘met someone’. His latest girlfriend is Myriam, a pretty Jewish student with a stereotypically warm, tight-knit family, a remarkable gift for oral sex and a tender patience for his eccentricities. But his ‘abnormal honesty’ is wearing thin with her. When he lazily defends patriarchy one evening at his flat, she walks out on him before their sushi arrives. Soon she has another reason to abandon not just François but France: the irresistible rise of Mohammed Ben Abbes and the Muslim Fraternity.
Paris is burning when the novel opens, just before the first round of the 2022 presidential elections. The identitaires, fascist militants who call themselves ‘indigenous’ Europeans and oppose ‘Muslim colonisation’, are fighting with jihadists for control of the streets.The violence hasn’t spread to François’s neighbourhood in the 13th arrondissement, but one day he finds a group of young Muslim men blocking the campus entrance, waiting to escort their burqa-clad ‘sisters’. François used to take comfort in the saying, ‘après moi, le déluge.’ Now he’s not sure he’ll die in time to avoid it.
In the first round of elections, the Front National wins, with a third of the vote, followed by the Socialists and the Muslim Fraternity with a fifth each. Faced with the prospect of a Front National victory, François Hollande presents himself as ‘the last rampart of the republican order’. But Hollande’s speech elicits only ‘brief but perceptible chuckles’, and it’s Ben Abbes who begins to emerge as the most plausible consensus candidate for parties opposed to the Front National. His Muslim Fraternity is the only party capable of imposing order in the banlieues, and it has offered to relinquish control of most ministries as long as it can have the ministry of education. Ben Abbes’s rhetoric is silken in its moderation, and he’s careful to assuage the fears of Jewish religious authorities. Although a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, he affects the airs of ‘an old Tunisian spice salesman’ and speaks in a ‘suave and purring’ voice. ‘The nastiest, most aggressive journalists’, François observes, become ‘hypnotised and soft in the presence of Mohammed Ben Abbes’. He also notices that the women in burqas are strutting around campus ‘as if they were already masters of the land’.
Unpersuaded by Ben Abbes’s appeals to interfaith harmony, Jews begin to leave en masse for Israel, Myriam and her family among them. But the real tragedy belongs to François, who’s stuck in France: ‘There is no Israel for me,’ he sighs. Fearing civil war, he retreats to the countryside. On his way to Rocamadour, he drives through a ravaged landscape – at a filling station he finds a cashier in a pool of blood and the corpses of two young North Africans – and learns that dozens of voting stations have been attacked, and the elections suspended. Conveniently, he stumbles on Alain Tanneur, a retired intelligence officer married to one of his colleagues. Tanneur has a holiday house in Martel, a town named after Charles Martel, who defeated the Arabs at Poitiers in 732, putting a stop to the Muslim advance to the north. Over dinner, Tanneur, who ‘gave the impression of almost abnormal intellectual agility’, provides François with a report on the back room negotiations in Paris and predicts that the centre right Union for a Popular Movement will soon drop its opposition to Ben Abbes’s candidacy. The UMP shares Ben Abbes’s social conservatism, and, after all, ‘the true agenda of the UMP, like the Socialist Party, is the disappearance of France, its integration into a federated European Union.’ As Tanneur notes, Ben Abbes’s project is fundamentally a European one, an attempt to revive the Holy Roman Empire: ‘In a sense he’s only resuming De Gaulle’s ambition, that of a great Arab politician in France, and I assure you he does not lack for allies.’ The former spy turns out to be right: with the support of the Socialists and the UMP, Ben Abbes becomes president.
After his discussion with Tanneur, François goes to see the Black Madonna at Rocamadour, hoping for the sort of revelation experienced by Huysmans. Instead he feels ‘deserted by the Spirit’, and walks glumly back down the steps to the car park. On his return to Paris, his life gets worse. His parents die. As a non-Muslim, he’s forced into early retirement (with a monthly pension of €3000, thanks to the Saudis and Qataris, who are now funding the French education system). Myriam writes from Tel Aviv that she has ‘met someone’. He has a glimmer of hope during an expensive series of encounters with two prostitutes, but that ‘miracle’ isn’t repeated, and he’s soon bedevilled by eczema and haemorrhoids. Turning one last time to his faithful friend, he makes a pilgrimage to Ligugé, near Poitiers, where Huysmans became a monk.
France meanwhile is ‘recovering an optimism it hadn’t known since the end of the Trente Glorieuses, a half-century ago … The reconstruction of the Roman Empire was underway.’ Crime falls by a factor of ten in ‘difficult’ neighbourhoods, while unemployment vanishes because women no longer work. Ben Abbes’s ‘moderate’ Islam is moderate insofar as it is non-violent, but on issues of gender and the ‘dignity’ of the family it could hardly be more regressive. Women are forced to cover themselves in public, and polygamy is introduced. Yet the general mood is one of ‘a tacit and languid acceptance’. And not only in France: when social spending is radically cut, the Gulf monarchies supply the difference. Everyone, it seems, wants Ben Abbes’s France to succeed.
On his way back from Ligugé, François discovers that Ben Abbes’s France has plans for him, too. First he’s asked to edit the Pléiade edition of Huysmans. Then, at a reception for the reopening of the Islamic Sorbonne – a very Parisian affair, but without any women – he’s introduced to its new director, Robert Rediger, who invites him to dinner. Rediger is a man of his times: a convert to Islam and an ally of Ben Abbes. (The name is a twist on Robert Redeker, a right-wing journalist who in 2006 went into hiding after receiving death threats for his attacks on Islam; rédiger means ‘to redraft’.) He lives on the rue des Arènes – one of the oldest streets in Paris, near the arena of Lutèce – in a house that belonged to the writer and publisher Jean Paulhan, who also edited the Nouvelle Revue française. As François waits for Rediger to make his entrance, he notices a 15-year-old girl with long black hair who runs away when he sees her. It’s Aïcha, Rediger’s new wife, his third. ‘She’s going to be very upset because you shouldn’t have seen her without her veil.’
Rediger would like him to return to the university. There’s just one condition: he must become a Muslim. Rediger, author of the bestselling Ten Questions about Islam, is a proselytiser: ‘I seem to have developed an entirely unexpected gift for vulgarisation.’ He knows that the ‘three hours of religious proselytism’ in his book aren’t going to persuade François, but an appeal to reason and self-interest just might. As a young man, Rediger had flirted with the Catholic right, with its celebration of tradition, patriarchy and faith. Without Christianity, he believed, European countries like France had become ‘bodies without a soul – zombies’. But now only the more muscular Islam could revive the zombies of Europe. This revelation came to him one Easter, when he passed the bar of the Hotel Métropole in Brussels, only to find it was closing down that evening:
I was stupefied … To think that until then one could order sandwiches and beers, Viennese chocolates and cakes with cream in this absolute masterpiece of decorative art, that one could live everyday life surrounded by beauty, and that all this could disappear in one stroke in a European capital! … Yes, that was the moment when I understood: Europe had already committed suicide … The next day, I went to see an imam in Zaventem. And the day after that – Easter Monday – in the presence of a dozen witnesses, I pronounced the ritual formula of conversion to Islam.
Rediger’s ‘new Muslim friends’, he tells François, have never reproached him for his youthful adventures on the Catholic right; they understood that in his ‘search for a way out of atheist humanism’ he would ‘turn at first towards my tradition of origin’. When François reads Ten Questions about Islam, he discovers that Rediger has remained faithful to the Nietzschean philosophy of his youth. His arguments in favour of Islam are an appeal to his former right-wing allies to put aside their ‘irrational hostility to Islam’ since, in every other respect, ‘they were perfectly in agreement with Muslims.’ Like Don Fabrizio in The Leopard, Rediger understands that everything must change so that everything can remain the same. Submission doesn’t have to mean self-renunciation.
Or does it ? Describing his embrace of Islam, Rediger settles on a nearby literary analogy. As he reminds François, they are in the house where Anne Desclos, Jean Paulhan’s lover, wrote The Story of O. For all its ‘ostentatious kitsch’, Rediger says, The Story of O captured ‘the astonishing and simple idea… that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission’. His fellow Muslims might ‘find it blasphemous, but for me there’s a relationship between the absolute submission of woman to man, such as The Story of O describes it, and the submission of man to god, as Islam envisages it.’ And surely a literary man like François should be able to appreciate the literary splendour of the Quran, a ‘mystical praise poem’ that can only be recited in Arabic because it ‘rests on the idea … at the heart of poetry, of the unity of sound and meaning’. Rediger promises François that if he converts, he will not only get his job back, but he will be able to get ‘three wives without difficulty’, chosen for him by an experienced matchmaker. For the first time in his adult life, François finds himself thinking about God, or rather, Allah. Over a bottle of rum, he comforts himself with the thought that ‘I was a relatively insignificant individual, that God certainly had better things to do, but the terrifying idea persisted that he was going to become aware of my existence.’
Soumission derives its name from the original meaning of the Arabic ‘al-Islam’ – voluntary submission, or surrender, to the will of God. In that sense, the novel is a faithful rendering of Islam’s meaning. François is under no compulsion to convert, other than the usual inducements of professional ambition and sex, the typical motors of the French novel. Ben Abbes’s arrival is greeted with relief, the war between the identitaires and the jihadists is brought to an end, and Islamisation proceeds not so much by conquest as by persuasion. The national patrimony – the Sorbonne, the Paulhan hôtel particulier – now belongs to the Gulf sheikhdoms, and on campus the miniskirt has given way to the burqa, but otherwise France is unchanged. In fact it’s even a bit better off. As Houellebecq says, the entire novel unfolds in an ‘ambience of resignation’.
Is Houellebecq condemning the French for capitulating to Islam, or worse, accusing them of ‘collaboration’? His critics have pointed out that the structure of Soumission resembles narratives about Vichy: a confused period of civil unrest; an exodus to the countryside; and accommodation to the new regime. But really, far from damning the French for embracing Ben Abbes, Houellebecq is suggesting that they could do much worse: indeed, that they are already doing much worse. And, as Houellebecq reminds us, ‘moderate Muslims are not Nazis.’
Perhaps this is all just a Swiftian stunt. Perhaps Houellebecq is saying that France has sunk so low that even Islam would be preferable to the state religion of laïcité. But I don’t think so. Soumission is too ambiguous to be read as satire – or, for that matter, as nightmare. There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation. Yes, civilisation, that word evocative of the longue durée, religion, tradition, shared values and, not least, clashes with civilisational rivals. But the word is unavoidable. What has always made his writing so perverse is the way it jumps between microsociology and the aerial view of history. (His novels almost always take place at some point in the future, allowing the present to be depicted as a just vanished past.) Houellebecq has an unerring, Balzacian flair for detail, and his novels provide an acute, disenchanted anatomy of French middle-class life: TV dinners, petty intrigues at the workplace, tourism, sex. But since his characters are never more than sociological types, without much of an interior life, he needs to find another narrative for them: hence the role played by history. For Houellebecq, history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations. The only lasting civilisations, as he sees it, rest on a solid foundation of shared religious values. Once those values disintegrate, a civilisation slides into inexorable decline, and becomes susceptible to what, in Atomised (1998), he called a ‘metaphysical mutation’, a sudden and decisive transformation of its values. These metaphysical mutations are the engine of history. Politics and economics – the stuff materialists get worked up about – are of secondary importance. (By any objective measure, France isn’t doing so badly: people work less and make more, and have a higher life expectancy than the OECD average. The ‘crisis’ of the French model is partly phantasmagorical.)
Houellebecq is not a believer himself. But he isn’t happy about it. As Marc Weitzmann writes in the Magazine littéraire, he is a ‘disappointed mystic’ who believes that ‘the technological revolution and its rationalism have condemned the West to death, to nihilism,’ and that ‘regeneration can come only from another religion.’ In Atomised, the new religion was Comtean positivism; in Soumission it’s Islam. According to Houellebecq, Soumission was inspired by the crisis of faith he suffered after the deaths of his parents (and his dog). Atheism, he realised, couldn’t console him, and it became clear to him that he couldn’t turn to Christianity either. His original plan had been for François to follow in Huysmans’s footsteps and embrace Catholicism while staring at the Black Madonna. But Houellebecq couldn’t write the scene: it struck him as a ‘deception’. For Houellebecq, France’s dilemma resembles his own: France has attempted to replace God with the secular religion of republican citizenship and laïcité, but at the price of leaving deeper questions unanswered. And the abandonment of God has left France without a sense of direction or purpose: ‘The search for meaning has returned. People aren’t content to live without God.’ This isn’t a new argument, but Houellebecq turns it to a very different end by suggesting that Islam, a younger and more confident religion, might be a better vehicle for setting Europe back on track than Catholicism, which has ‘run its course’.
It’s quite a volte-face. In Atomised, Islam is described as ‘the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions … doomed just as surely as Christianity’. In Platform (2001), Islam is the absolute Other: Michel Renault, the narrator, has ‘a vision of migratory flows crisscrossing Europe like blood vessels’ while he talks to his father’s Muslim housekeeper; ‘Muslims appeared as clots that were only slowly reabsorbed.’ Later, Renault finds a reason to ‘feel hatred for Muslims’ when his girlfriend dies in a bombing carried out by Islamic terrorists in Thailand: ‘Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman, had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought that it meant one less Muslim.’
Houellebecq changed his mind about Islam after reading the Quran. It ‘turns out to be much better than I thought’, he told the Paris Review. ‘The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims… an honest reading will conclude that a holy war of aggression is not generally sanctioned, prayer alone is valid.’ In Soumission, Houellebecq writes about Islam with curiosity, fascination, even a hint of envy. Islam is a more convincing ‘image of the future’ than Catholicism precisely because it provides a more reliable vessel for a faith-based, patriarchal order where sex is insulated from the marketplace, men and women have clearly defined roles, and social harmony prevails over moral permissiveness, class conflict and crime, the ills of liberal capitalism. (Even its loopholes have the virtue of not being hypocritical: thanks to polygamy, men no longer need mistresses or sex clubs.) Ben Abbes – whom Houellebecq describes as a ‘very ambitious and gifted man’ and compares to Napoleon – is depicted as the only politician in France who has a credible strategy for restoring order. He has something else that his non-Muslim colleagues conspicuously lack: a plan for reviving the continent, by enlarging it to include the countries of the southern Mediterranean basin. That other politicians rally to him is evidence less of their spinelessness than of their recognition that the republic is a sinking ship, and that they had better get on board with a winner. Once he’s in power, the results speak for themselves. At the beginning of the novel, François worries that his best years are behind him; on the last page, he is contemplating a conversion to Islam with serenity and ‘no regrets’.
Because the drama of Soumission hinges on whether François will follow the rest of France and embrace the new order, some critics have argued that Islam is merely a device, a mirror held up to reveal the corruptions of French society: the complacency of its civil servants; the cynicism of its politicians; the longing for a strongman to rescue the country. But Houellebecq’s own remarks about the novel suggest otherwise, and this is where the reactionary – indeed, delusional – cast of his politics becomes even more pronounced. He seems to believe that the Muslim Fraternity is a plausible, even a needed, political force. Muslims in France, he says, are in ‘an actually schizophrenic situation’. They ‘have more in common with the extreme right than with the left’ because of their views on gay rights, abortion and other social issues, but they can’t vote for the Front National. Instead, they vote for parties of the left which hold socially progressive views they reject. ‘For those reasons … a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.’ This argument has a semblance of logic (some Muslims in France are indeed socially conservative) but it also depends on a self-defined, coherent Muslim community which, as Olivier Roy has argued, doesn’t exist. Muslims in France are a population, not a community, and they don’t vote as a bloc. Most Muslims aren’t particularly observant, and those who are practise in a variety of ways. There are also secular Muslims – the current minister of education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the daughter of Moroccan parents, is one – who fervently support republican values and laïcité, partly as a protection against autocratic defenders of the faith. Houellebecq sees neither the divisions within Islam, nor its fragility.
To grasp the complexity of Islamic practices in France, Houellebecq would have to write about Muslims, rather than ‘Islam’. But his discovery of the Quran hasn’t made him any more curious about the lives of actual Muslims in France. Islam-obsessed though his earlier fiction was, its only Muslim characters were prostitutes, housekeepers, terrorists and native informants who echoed his reasons for loathing Islam. Despite being far more sympathetic to Islam, Soumission is similarly starved of actual Muslims: the only ones with speaking parts are converts; the only Muslim François seems to know personally is a call girl. Houellebecq’s beloved Ben Abbes is as aloof as de Gaulle, although that distance is defensible in the case of a politician. It doesn’t occur to Houellebecq that some French Muslims might take exception to the country’s most powerful faith – not Catholicism, but laïcité – for reasons that have as much to do with the injuries of discrimination as with the claims of faith. The situation in the banlieue is duly mentioned, but only as a problem of social order: thanks to Ben Abbes, the ‘delinquent’ zones are quiet. (Not the least of Ben Abbes’s virtues is that he knows how to control ‘his’ people.) Why so many Muslims inhabit these zones, Houellebecq never says: the ‘sad historian’ points to the battle of Poitiers, as a reminder of the antiquity of this clash of civilisations, but doesn’t mention the history of colonisation that brought Muslims to France, or the racism and inequality that is still the lot of third-generation ‘immigrants’.
I had the strange experience of reading Soumission in Algeria, where Islamic theocracy has never been a merely theoretical proposition, and the damage wrought by Islam in power is a commonplace in contemporary fiction. In Kamel Daoud’s recent novel Meursault, contre-enquête, for example, the narrator complains that ‘in a few years, the only bar that will still be open will be in paradise, at the end of the world,’ and launches into a ten-page tirade against Friday prayer.While François seems resigned to losing Myriam, Daoud’s narrator is tormented by the memory of a free-spirited, ‘insubordinate’ woman who embraced ‘her body as a gift, not a sin or shame’. But what really sets novels like Daoud’s apart from Soumission is not their critique of faith-based politics so much as their spirit of defiance and rebellion: their insoumission. At the beginning of Soumission, Houellebecq says that while the style of a novel matters and ‘the musicality of phrases have their importance,’ ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books.’ He is distressingly present in Soumission. Houellebecq, who once dreamed of a world ‘delivered from Islam’, now dreams that Islam might deliver France from its impasse. The contrast, however, is only superficial: the fantasy of surrender to a superior force remains. Houellebecq has often been compared to his reactionary ancestor Céline, but Céline’s writing had a wild, insurgent spirit; Houellebecq’s luxuriates in ressentiment, helplessness and defeat. Soumission is the work of a nihilist not a hater – the jeu d’esprit of a man without convictions. Whether or not France deserves Mohammed Ben Abbes, it has found in Houellebecq a sly and witty chronicler – and a fittingly louche symbol – of its malaise.