Register Saturday | January 22 | 2022

Reading Between the Lines

In French letters and politics, racism is all the rage

Michel Houellebecq is France’s freshest literary export in decades, and true to form, he is a nicotine-stained, booze-soaked novelist with a pitiless view of human failings who harbours fond memories of Stalin.

The first French writer since the years of Sartre and Camus to sell hundreds of thousands of books both inside and outside France, Houellebecq (pronounced “well-BECK”) is a notorious bad boy—he was taken to court for hate crimes in 2002 after he called Islam a moronic religion. He’s also an intellectual outsider who fixed computers for the government in his twenties and now towers over French letters, in large part for daring to ignore the paraphernalia of postmodern literary theory and writing crisp, realist prose.

His bleak novels about alienated white-collar workers outline the shipwreck of our civilization—modern life, he tells us, is reliably and extraordinarily miserable. In his first novel, Whatever (1994), he writes, “Just like unlimited economic liberalism, and for analogous reasons, sexual liberalism leads to an absolute impoverishment.”

For Houellebecq, free-market competition is distinguished by incessant struggle and loneliness; he blames the free-love New Left of the nineteen-sixties for extending it to the sexual realm, depriving us of the warmth and generosity needed to make love properly (feminism, which he calls the most idiotic of ideologies, is assigned a fair bit of blame).

His portrayal of poverty among young men of North African extraction is even less subtle—brushing aside economic conditions, he describes their issues with violent crime as the result of a moral decline. It doesn’t help that Islam, he argues in Platform (2001), is a hypocritical anachronism that substitutes rage for a frank acceptance of our animal natures.

When Houellebecq isn’t moralizing—he writes in The Elementary Particles (1998) that a “metaphysical mutation” is signalling the end of the world as we know it—he indulges in science fiction. His latest vision, inspired by the Raeliens and laid out in The Possibility of an Island (available to Canadians in spring 2006), is of a small colony of clones studying their own ancestry. His goofy pseudo-science comes off a bit sardonically, the musings of a man without hope.

These savage tirades against modern times have struck a nerve in France’s body politic, currently seized by a dramatic crisis. First came the 2002 presidential election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National, an extreme-right party with fascist overtones, edged out the Parti Socialiste candidate Lionel Jospin to forge a two-man runoff against incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac. Chirac did win overwhelmingly in the end and the right now governs France, but the episode has left a bitter taste in voters’ mouths.

This was especially stunning because Jospin had just served five very successful years as prime minister. But he had governed from the centre. The declaration, during his presidential campaign, that his platform was not socialist confirmed the frustration of many supporters, who deserted him for the extreme left.

The second shock came this May, when French voters rejected the draft European constitution in a referendum. A former French president had drafted it; it was supported by the leaders of every mainstream political party and all the mainstream media—the French people ignored them all.

The extreme right voted “no” out of xenophobia, while most of the left declared itself pro-Europe and voted “no” anyway, fearing the constitution would endanger French social protections through free-market reforms. What united the right and left’s negative stance was anger and frustration at the country’s political elites and the neo-liberal consensus driving their policy.

French voters are turning away from the centre en masse in search of new leadership. But while their rage is directed against free-market policies, the left has been unable to organize itself behind a coherent leadership or program.

Not so on the right. With the 2007 presidential election looming, a menacing figure has stepped into the vacuum.

Nicolas Sarkozy is France’s most popular right-wing politician. The son of Eastern European immigrants, he rose to prominence outside France’s traditional elite channels, making him something of an outsider. At fifty, he is also much younger than most of his rivals, a fact he emphasizes by being strangely energetic on TV.

Presently the mayor of a wealthy suburb of Paris and France’s minister of the interior (the French system is bizarre: politicians often hold diverse portfolios simultaneously; the interior portfolio typically covers policing, national security, and immigration matters), he is desperate to be France’s next president.

His politics are simple: replace the current welfare state with a free-market, one heavy on police repression. Economically, he wants to make France more like Britain and the United States, mainly by privatizing state companies and cutting taxes and social spending. His reforms would poison the French Republic on both a practical and ideological level—make France more like an Anglo-Saxon country and you basically kill it.

Sarkozy’s remedy is to coat the arsenic with aspartame: not democratisation, but populist authoritarianism and borderline bigotry. Nicknamed the “first cop of France,” he has threatened to “clean out [rough neighbourhoods] with a dirt blaster” and infuriated critics and the relatives of victims killed in recent fires by promising to evict thousands of squatters without a solid plan to re-house them.

His principal victims are immigrants. In August, Sarko (as he is nicknamed) scolded France’s regional prefects for managing to expel only 12,849 illegal aliens in the last eight months—this year’s quota is 23,000 expulsions. He even demanded that each prefect pull off one publicity stunt before year-end to be held up as a local example.

In his now-you-see-the-real-me-now-you-don’t strategy, Sarkozy’s message to voters seems to be, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”—a beautifully supple appeal to emotions too politically incorrect to voice out loud. (Incidentally, this was the slogan of the British Conservatives earlier this year during the UK’s general election.)

This way of thinking is replicated in Houellebecq’s novels, which are stuffed with despair at rising crime rates, racist and anti-Muslim rants and a healthy dose of misogyny. These ideas are expressed primarily through a sense of self rather than as a coherent political position.

The gritty psychological realism is framed by an obsessive attention to commercial detail. Houellebecq always gives his reader the brand name of food, wine, clothing, stores and cars; he critiques and quotes extensively from real texts, like a tourist’s guide to Thailand, a John Grisham thriller or an underwear catalogue. It’s the oldest trick in the book of realist fiction: submerge difficult ideas in a resonant description of the physical world.

Discussing Agatha Christie’s literary style, Houellebecq laments that she neglects “the pleasure of discovery” only to focus on “the pleasure of recognition.” Yet Houellebecq does no better. Reading about his protagonists—thinly veiled self-portraits—the excitement comes from entering Houellebecq’s mental universe, where we’re delighted to discover, in a literary work, both our own silly fixation on brands and our own unspeakable discomfort with sexual competition, soul-numbing jobs—and dark people.

Houellebecq, the author, can distance himself from his fiction, but it’s a technicality. Whether or not he deeply believes all that he writes, readers are clearly feeling what he’s feeling.

We shouldn’t get carried away: Houellebecq is not a definitive cipher for decoding all of French society; and Sarkozy is by no means guaranteed to be the country’s next president. But the immense popularity of each reminds us that the importance of literature includes the political, and that the appeal of a certain politics can depend more on what one feels—on a sense of self—than on what one thinks.

To better understand the rage simmering in France today, you should probably read Houellebecq. The same goes for the socialists in suits struggling frantically to connect with the “people.”

Daniel Aldana is a Toronto-based writer who has lived and studied in France. He’s definitely thinking what you’re thinking.