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Houellebecq: submission or collaboration?

“Chateaubriand was being prophetic when he said in 1840: ‘Destroy Christianity and you’ll end up with Islam’”

soumission_ukcovTHAT SOUNDS LIKE a quotation from Soumission1 but it is not. It is Chateaubriand as quoted by Eric Zemmour in Le suicide français, published a few months before Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission to controversy of its own. Subtitled “the forty years that destroyed France”, Zemmour’s book chronicles what he sees as the various political and social movements that since 1968 have wrought profoundly undesirable changes on French society, including Islam.

Since Houellebecq’s novel deals directly with the scenario of a Muslim government in France, it was immediately yoked with Zemmour’s polemic, even though the latter is a conservative while Houellebecq is distinctly apolitical and nihilistic.

ON THE VERY DAY Soumission was to be published (January 7th), the Charlie Hebdo attack took place. Houellebecq’s face was, ironically, featured on the current cover of the magazine. It was as if the novel’s prediction had been given an Islamic imprimatur in the bloodiest of ways. The publicity brouhaha was immense.

houel-lmStepping back from all of that, what can we now make of it? The story is minimal, the intellectual thesis lightly drawn. Against the turbulent backdrop of France in 2022 when the new Muslim Fraternity party comes to power in collaboration with the other established parties to keep the Front National out, François, the protagonist, a lecturer at the Sorbonne, finds himself without a job. The Muslim Fraternity have taken control of the education system and retired all non-Muslim lecturers. François, attracted by the offer of his old job back and the promise of polygamy if he becomes a Muslim, decides to convert. He would, he says in the final line of the book, have nothing to regret.

That is about it, although there are pages of long conversations between him and other characters, details of his desultory relationships with women, ruminations on Huysmans, on whose work he is a specialist, an account of his journey to the monastery at Rocamadour in a vain attempt to experience some religious illumination, and a cursory description of the changes wrought by Islamic dominance (mainly on women).

François is not a sympathetic character. He is apathetic and passionless, attentive only to his own physical needs. National identity means nothing to him. Politics is meaningless and politicians venal opportunists. He has multiple affairs with his students but no lasting attachments. Even his preoccupation with sex is strangely emotionless. He moves through events, meetings, conversations, encounters in an isolated, solipsistic way.

houellhebdoHIS DECISION TO convert to Islam is his supreme act of selfishness – the lure of having multiple wives and copious sex is something he can’t resist. This is as much about the fate of the individual who has no faith or commitment as it is about politics or religion

But it’s not François’ sell-out (his submission) that is important, it’s what he has sold out to — Islam — that is. The France in which he finds himself is one in which cynical political opportunism triumphs over patriotism or any commitment to Republican ideals. The Enlightenment with its avowed secularism is dead and it has submitted to Islam, which is a stronger, more self confident and aggressive force.

To reinforce this point Houellebecq has François spend a few days at a monastery in Rocamadour where he visits the Black Madonna, contemplates the late conversion of his hero, Huysman, to Catholicism, and tries to ignite a similar spiritual flame in himself. It’s all in vain.

Without its intellectual secularism France could survive, but not without its Christianity.

The Christianity that underpins France, including its post-Revolution ethos, has also failed. The irrational emotionalism of one religion triumphs over the other. Without its intellectual secularism France could survive, but not without its Christianity. Chateaubriand’s words, as repeated by Zemmour, thus come to fruition.

Once the new regime is in place François notices how quickly things change: the university is renamed the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne, more of his former colleagues convert, large amounts of money come in from Saudi and Qatar, women disappear from many jobs, employment (for men at least) increases, crime falls, women appear less frequently in public and usually dressed in Islamic garb, and so on. On all of this François remains non-judgmental.

THE LEADER OF the Muslim Fraternity, Ben Abbes, portrays himself as a moderate and yet he has ambitions that are anything but. He posits the idea of power shifting towards the south, in a Mediterranean Union, with Europe embracing the states of north Africa and the Middle East, a kind of renewed Roman Empire. Ironically, this proposition already exists in the form of the EU’s Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EUROMED) with its aim of economic integration. It is never discussed in the media and yet the details are in plain sight.

The double irony is that Houellebecq himself does not appear to know of it.

Soumission is a sketch, an outline of an idea or fantasy. Perhaps provocation is a better word. Houellebecq has said it is a satire in the form of political fiction (but he has also said elsewhere that it’s not satirical — take your pick). As satire, however, it lacks bite. We see the spineless self-serving of the academics rather than the political elite who are driving the action. The wider social world remains at a distance; soon after the new settlement is agreed and put in place, for instance, we hear nothing more about the FN and others who oppose what’s happening. France settles with great ease into its new dispensation; no surprise that some have seen this as a mirror of Vichy.

Submission or collaboration? And what would be the result? We can be sure of one thing — that for François and his ilk the difference would be irrelevant.

Michael Blackburn.


  1. Available for US readers here; UK readers here.
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