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A Muslim-run France? Novel sparks Islamophobia row

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

Famed French author Michel Houellebecq has insisted that his novel “Submission”, which envisions a France ruled by a Muslim government, is not a racist scare story. Nevertheless the novel, which hits bookstores Wednesday, has sparked a media storm.


“Submission”, which is released in French on Wednesday, has been the subject of intense debate in recent weeks, particularly for its portrayal of Islam.

In 2001 Houellebecq described Islam as “the stupidest of all religions”, a position he has since vocally distanced himself from.

But his latest book has stirred criticism from all quarters and been widely attacked by the French media, politicians, and on social media. France’s Muslim community accuse the author of inciting Islamophobia in a country with Europe’s biggest Muslim population.

The book's publication could not come at a more sensitive time as France is currently undergoing a fierce debate on Islam and national identity.

Leading the barrage is Laurent Joffrin, editor-in-chief of left-leaning newspaper Libération, who argues that the novel “will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.

“This is a book that ennobles the ideas of the [far right anti-Europe and anti-immigration] National Front (FN) party,” he added.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right FN, weighed into the highly-charged debate, stating, “What is very interesting about this book is that it is a fiction, but a fiction that could one day become reality…”

While, philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, a member of France’s prestigious Académie Française, described Houellebecq as a man, “with his eyes wide open and who is not intimidated by political correctness”.

Profound changes to French society

“Submission” is set in 2022, at the end of a hypothetical second mandate for unpopular Socialist French President François Hollande, who is beaten in the first round of a presidential election by far-right FN leader Marine Le Pen and the fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes, who leads France’s first “Muslim Fraternity” party.

The French electorate, wary of seeing the FN take power, vote for Abbes, a Muslim moderate whose election provokes immediate and profound changes to French society.

Women change the way they dress and leave the workplace in droves to look after families, solving France’s unemployment problem, while the book asserts that the resulting increased conversion to Islam kills freedom of thought in an increasingly patriarchal society. It also imagines a France where polygamy is authorised, and universities are made to teach the Koran.

In a long interview with France Info (in English on the Paris Review), Houellebecq insisted his novel was not right-wing “provocation”.

“I accelerate history, but no, I can’t say that the book is a provocation if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves,” Houellebecq said. “I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.”

“Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics,” he added. “Actually, it’s not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, [white far-right] nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved.”

‘A Muslim party makes a lot of sense’

And while Houellebecq freely admits that his vision of a future France is “not very realistic” because Islamic political unity in France “is the most difficult thing to image”, he insists that Muslims are dangerously unrepresented in mainstream French politics.

Muslims, he says, are “very far from the left and even further from the Green Party” while “one doesn’t really see why they would vote for the right, much less the extreme right which utterly rejects them”.

“For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Houellebecq, best known in the English-speaking world for his 1998 novel “Atomised” and his 2001 “Platform”, a story about a French couple who create a sex tourism business in Thailand that falls victim to Muslim terrorists, said he had read the Koran while researching his latest novel.

“The Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it   or rather, read it,” he said. "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."

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