France Settles l’Affaire Houellebecq — at Least for Now

Chief Rabbi brokers a truce over remarks by the famed and provocative novelist about a growing rejection of Islam and Muslims in France.

AP/Thibault Camus
French novelist Michel Houellebecq at Paris on January 7, 2015. AP/Thibault Camus

Incident over. The Chief Rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, brokered a compromise between a famous French novelist, Michel Houellebecq, and the rector of the Great Mosque at Paris, Chems-Eddine Hafiz. Mr. Houellebecq agreed to “correct” some of his recent statements about French Muslims. Rector Hafiz withdrew the complaint for “community violence incitement” he had filed against Mr. Houellebecq.

The whole story started six weeks ago. Front Populaire, a quarterly edited by another cultural celebrity, philosopher Michel Onfray, published a lengthy discussion between Messrs. Onfray and Houellebecq. The two men are in fact on friendly terms and share a common right-wing populist perception of the present situation of France. 

As part of this conversation, Mr. Houellebecq warned about a growing rejection of Islam as a religion and Muslims as a community among the native, non-Muslim French. He even prophesied that “when whole areas will be under Islamic control … acts of resistance will take place…. There will be attacks in front of mosques, in cafes frequented by Muslims: in short, Bataclan in reverse.” 

Indeed, every word here may look like dynamite. The very idea that the country might be overtaken by a foreign population and that the French democratic state is being superseded in a piecemeal way by an Islamic, theocratic regime, runs against France’s “national myth” since the Revolution: “La République, une et indivisible” (“A single, unbreakable Republic”). 

Even more problematic is the prospect of an anti-Islamic “resistance” — that is to say of an ethnic and religious civil war. And what about the ominous final prediction that “resistance terrorism” might eventually lead to the anti-Islamic equivalent of  the Islamist slaughter at the Bataclan theater and other places at Paris on November 13, 2015, which left 130 dead and 413 wounded or crippled?

Still, it may be argued so far that Mr. Houellebecq is not actually calling for civil war, but rather dealing, in a realistic way, with a worst-case scenario. Just as a socialist president, François Hollande, admitted shortly after Bataclan, in 2016, that there was a real danger of “partition.” Or as the present centrist president, Emmanuel Macron, had a law against “separatism” passed by the National Assembly in 2021. 

The real issue, from a legal angle, lies rather with Mr. Houellebecq’s next sentence: “What the native population really strives for is not so much the Muslims’ assimilation into the French mainstream than the end of Muslim robbery and violence against them.” The implication may be that all Muslim citizens or residents of France are criminals. And this may be construed as racist incitement against a particular human group.

Mr. Houellebecq is arguably France’s best and most important contemporary writer. There is a widespread feeling that he deserved much more a Nobel Prize than the 2022 French laureate, Annie Ernaux. While both deal at length with social and societal issues, like class, sex, gender, and race, Mr. Houellebecq never gets stuck, unlike Ms. Ernaux, in Manichean postures, and devotes equal attention and sympathy, as the author, to all his characters. 

Ms. Ernaux bought her ticket to fame — and ultimately the Nobel Prize — by subscribing to what America and the rest of the world, it seems, call woke orthodoxy. This includes a denial of Islamist threats to France in 2015 and support for anti-Israel campaigns. Mr. Houellebecq, on the contrary, did not shy away from tackling the Islamic and Islamist challenges to France and the West.

Mr. Houellebecq’s novel “Platform,” originally published in France in 2001, is primarily about the sex tourism industry in Thailand. However it culminates in a massive Islamist terrorist attack that literally blows hundreds of happy sinners into pieces. And it already pondered about the cyclical mechanisms of hate, murder, retribution, and revenge launched by terrorism. 

“Submission,” published in 2015, envisions the election of a “Muslim-democratic” president and the ensuing gradual, peaceful transformation of the country into an ever more radicalized Islamic regime, complete with polygamy and hijab, under his administration. The way Mr. Houellebecq describes the French elites’ surrender to Kuranic supremacy is hilarious.

Rather intriguingly, both stories foreshadow real events: the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the Bali massacres of 2002, and the Paris attacks of 2015. Likewise, “Serotonin,” in 2016, anticipated the Yellow Vests crisis that was to rock France for months. As one magazine put it, Mr. Houellebecq could convincingly pass as a psychic or a soothsayer. It is not a crime under French law to engage in such activities. Itt can make all kinds of people nervous.

Many Muslims, in France or abroad, got nervous as well from “Platform,” about Mr. Houellebecq’s “Islamophobia.” Death threats and police protection became steady fixtures in his life. In 2002, he was sued for the first time by the Paris Great Mosque (whose distinguished counsel, Jean-Marc Varaut, was a right-wing Catholic): not about his novel, but rather an interview published by Lire, the French literary magazine, shortly before 9/11. 

True to his provocateur profile, Mr. Houellebecq observed there: “I suddenly felt an absolute rejection of all monotheistic creeds, including Islam…. Islam, however, is the stupidest of them all, a religion of asses…. You get appalled when you read the Kuran…. At least, the Bible is a beautiful book, since Jews are awfully talented in literary matters.”

The case was then dismissed by the French court, setting a 20-year-old precedent that Chief Rabbi Korsia, did not fail to mention to Rector Hafiz, when he suggested to him that he drop  the complaint. All the more so since most of the French have doubled down, in the wake of the murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in 2015, and more recently in front of a spreading wokeism, their traditional aversion to censorship. 

Eventually, Mr. Houellebecq met the rector under Mr. Korsia’s tutelage, and agreed to reword his previous statements incrementally, when the interview will be published again as a book. Mr. Houellebecq may have learned one thing at least from the Islamic culture: taqia, the permissibility to please adversaries if needed.


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