The Novel That Predicted France’s Latest Revolution

Michael Houellebecq’s ‘Submission,’ published a decade ago, provides a road map to France’s tumultuous present.

Richard Bord/Getty Images
French author Michel Houellebecq gives a press conference after receiving the 2010 Prix Goncourt for his book 'La Carte et Le Territoire', at Restaurant Drouant on November 8, 2010 at Paris. Richard Bord/Getty Images

The strong showing achieved by leftist groups in France’s elections was a shock to some, but less so to those who’ve read “Submission,” the 2015 novel by Michael Houellebecq. It envisioned France in the aftermath of a bloodless revolution that brought Islamists to power. Now it is a former Trotskyite, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has the wind at his back and promises to recognize “Palestine” tumbling from his lips. Life is catching up to art. 

Mr. Mélenchon’s victory rally, held at the gritty 20th arrondissement, featured more Palestinian flags than French ones. Mr. Mélenchon has accused Israel of genocide and characterizes any hostility to Jews in France as “residual,” despite incidents of antisemitism increasing by 300 percent this year. Requests to emigrate to Israel are up 430 percent. Last month, a 12-year-old girl was raped and called a “dirty Jew,” according to police reports.

All of this appears ripped from the pages of “Submission,” which a decade ago imagined a runoff between the leader of what was then the National Front, Marine Le Pen, and an imagined Islamist candidate, Mohammed Ben-Abbes. In Mr. Houellebecq’s book, fear of Ms. Le Pen drives the Socialists to ally with a Muslim Brotherhood party — shades of the bargains President Macron and left-wing parties have made with each other to parry Ms. Le Pen. 

In the novel — issued the day of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo — Ben-Abbes’s presidency ushers in a second French revolution. Islam is privileged, the Sorbonne becomes a Muslim academy, polygamy is encouraged, and narrator François’s Jewish girlfriend and her parents emigrate to Israel. Ben-Abbes dreams of a Muslim empire to make Suleiman blush. François accommodates himself — he converts — to the new order, reasoning “there is no Israel for me.”   

Mr. Houellebecq’s polarizing style was confirmed last month when the president of his publishing house, Antoine Gallimard, wrote in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise that Meta’s artificial intelligence tool refused to imitate the author’s style and instead imported a sensibility “from the west coast of the United States to say what is good and what is not good to think.” Mr. Houellebecq is arguably France’s most significant literary figure on the international stage.

Of late, Mr. Houellebecq has emerged as a supporter of Israel. He tells a radio station there that the left has “undergone a mutation” in respect of the Jewish state. He calls Mr. Mélenchon a “nightmare” and a “genuinely dangerous man.” After reading an interview with Prime Minister Sharon, he judged that leading Israel is the “hardest job in the world.” In December, he reported that the background on his phone was Kibbutz Be’eri.

While a Ben-Abbes of flesh and blood has not yet emerged on the French scene, our Michel Gurfinkiel reports on the prominence of a fellow member of Mr. Mélenchon’s “France Unbowed” party, Rima Hassan. Ms. Hassan has recently been elected to the European Parliament, with the support of Mr. Mélenchon. A graduate of the Sorbonne, Ms. Hassan describes Hamas’s massacres on October 7 as “legitimate.”    

Mr. Gurfinkiel, observing a recent rally led by Ms. Hassan and Mr. Mélenchon, notes that “by placing Ms. Hassan next to him, Monsieur Mélenchon was beaming a clear message to Muslims and non-Muslims alike: ‘The future belongs to me because it belongs — demographically — to Islam.’” Recent polling showed him garnering the support of more than 60 percent of French Muslims.

Mr. Gurfinkiel tells us that he reckons Mr. Houellebecq to be “very prophetic,” though not in the “day to day” sense of pundits but rather the long view envisioned by artists. Our columnist adds that, if anything, Mr. Houllebecq’s prediction of a “slow and pacific” revolution of the Fifth Republic underestimated the acceleration of change. “In terms of psychology,” Mr. Gurfinkiel reckons, Mr. Houellebecq “was entirely correct.”

It is possible that this correspondent is not the only observer to find in Mr. Houllebecq’s text a premonition of the present. In October, a tribune of the hard right, an Algerian Jewish politician named Eric Zemmour, took to Twitter to allege that the “France that Jean-Luc Mélenchon dreams of does not wave the French flag anymore and does not sing La Marseillaise anymore: it marches in the streets with the Palestinian flag.”

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