One of the most intriguing notions Houellebecq puts forward in his latest novel is not that the populist right is a stable force in the political landscape, nor that in 2022 a Muslim party wins a large share of votes. No, it’s the reaction to this outcome that surprises. When it becomes clear that the first round of the 2022 French presidential elections is won by the Muslim party, followed by the Front National (by then still led by Marine Le Pen) the two traditional centrist parties, the PS and the UMP, choose – in a coordinated effort to prevent the Front National from winning the election – to partner up with the Muslim leader Mohammed Ben Abbes. There are no questions from the side of the media, which deprive citizens from information on the elections in a structural way. The media have long before adopted a position of complete soumission, not in the least interested in fact finding. During phases of rioting and unrest all media channels go black, in an attempt to hide the inconvenient truth of a divided nation. Because of this grand coalition Marine Le Pen doesn’t stand a chance in the decisive second round and France becomes the first European country to elect a Muslim president. The new French president Ben Abbes constitutes a government of ‘national unity’. He sets out on an agenda of incremental, but profound change: the reader gets glimpses from this pivot through the life of protagonist Francois, a professor at the Sorbonne who doesn’t really care about other people as long as he may lead his tranquil life. After the elections, at his beloved Sorbonne, women are no longer admitted and male professors are only allowed to stick to their post if they convert to Islam. In the meantime the famous university profits enormously from the strong links with the Middle-East – limitless amounts of money and women pour in.
The charismatic Ben Abbes delivers on his promises: a country almost without crime, a flourishing economy and the implementation of education 2.0 : girls go to school until the age of 12, after which they will be prepared for a life as house wife. On the international scene his ambitions are even bigger. France leads the creation of a new “Roman Empire”, spanning Europe and its neighbouring Muslim countries, such as Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. There is no serious opposition to those efforts.
Houellebecq book demonstrates the danger that lies in incremental change, people being nudged in a direction they might not want to. People are inclined to choose the easy way, to just bend towards the powerful or those who offer great benefits – ignorant about the fact that the result can very well be the complete opposite of what they hoped for. This novel is a strong denouncement of self-censoring media and it targets those willing to give up what they believe in to be able to live a comfortable life (which, in this case, means money and women in abundance).
Although it was no surprise that in the end even loner Francois succumbs to the seduction offered to him, I felt some disappointment. And it might even have, in an incremental way, slightly dented my confidence in humankind.