Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobia

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about Michel Houellebecq's latest, in which he imagines France electing a Muslim president and its intellectual classes cravenly converting to Islam and adopting Sharia. This gives an idea of the current French zeitgeist.

I haven't read this book, but I've read most of Houellebecq's previous works. I don't agree with Gopnik that he is not a provocateur. And I find Gopnik's definition of satire bizarre. He writes that "Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what's happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening." But that assumes that "what's happening right" now is the ascendancy of French Muslims to power. On the contrary, French citizens of Arab origin remain a small minority, economically marginalized, targeted by rising right-wing parties, and not at all homogenous -- hence the problem of discussing France's "Muslim community" (many of them are not practicing Muslims) or using the even more condescending category of Frenchmen and women "issus de l'immigration" ("offsprings of immigrants") -- for how many generations must French citizens with Arab names be categorized this way? I would argue that satire is a way of revealing a truth -- about an argument, a point of view, the world we live in -- through its gross exaggeration. 

Houellebecq is an interesting writer; he can be funny and thought-provoking. But he's not a satirist. He's a reactionary -- his seeming cynicism is masked, depressed romanticism. What Gopnik gets right is how much the hysterical discourse on identity in France is based on personal nostalgia, the inability of a certain class of French intellectuals to accept that France is a different country now. Here he is on Eric Zemmour (another writer whose fixed preoccupation with the cultural, sexual, political threat posed by Muslim men is just ridiculous). 

"In the back of Zemmour’s mind, it seems, is an oddly singular and specific place to long for—the Gaullist France of the booming sixties, when Zemmour was a kid. Society held together, authority was firm and essentially benevolent, each man had a role, each woman could choose to stay home if she wanted, and Catherine Deneuve was in every other movie. This is a nostalgia that Houellebecq, who was also a kid then, shares."

I'll never forget reading a column by another French writer in which he lamented the sight of halal butchers and Arab internet cafes in Paris, as if it were the end of the world. It was the end of his world, I guess, since he had too little imagination to make room in it for historical and social change, for anyone different. Or to reflect for one moment on how much more drastically the French colonial presence once altered and alienated the reality of other peoples. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.