Adam Shatz reviews Soumission by Michel Houellebecq in the LRB:
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.