Houellebecq's 2022 Prophecy Revised
In Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Soumission, Ben Abbes, leader of the French Muslim Brotherhood party, wins the 2022 French presidential election, having forged an alliance with members of the ancien régime determined to thwart their mutual enemy Marine Le Pen.
With two years to go until the 2022 election and no prominent Islamic movement having emerged on the political scene, the scenario imagined in the novel—one of Houellebecq's best—seems unlikely.
However aspects of the book are portentous, and require re-examination in light of recent events.
There is a marginal and dangerous figure on the French political scene who may be parachuted into the Elysée in 2022. His name is not Mohammed Ben-Abbes but Jean-Luc Melonchon.
While Abbes favours the relegation of women and non believers to the political and economic margins—radical inequality—Melonchon favours radical equality.
But in other respects Melonchon’s movement—France Insoumise—shares many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s characteristics. Both favour nationalising independent institutions, and both harbour anti-Semitism in their ranks.
Melonchon denies France has any culpability for the deportation of 75,000 Jews from its territory to concentration camps during the Holocaust, and called Jeremy Corbyn weak for investigating and apologising for anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party.
Melonchon is also, like Abbes, a populist and opportunist, a fact which has been on naked display in the last few days.
Melonchon has slammed Macron’s policy of re-opening schools following an eight-week confinement, calling it “the first time in France’s history we’ve asked parents to accept endangering their children.”
This elides the fact that the average age of casualties from the disease in France is 84, and poses less risk to children than travelling in a car.
His other meretricious ideas include requisitioning the entire textile industry to make masks available for free and hotels to quarantine the millions of Frenchmen and women who have been exposed to the virus since the outbreak.
The best thing that can be said of Melonchon is that he is France’s answer to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn: a deeply unimpressive man who has never created a job or anything of material value in his life, has no insights, new ideas or knowledge of history and has spent his entire adult life decrying the turpitude of the system from which he has benefited so greatly.
None of this would matter very much, except for the fact that Melonchon has a real chance of winning the next French election, of becoming something like the Ben Abbes of Houellebecq's novel.
France has a two-stage presidential election procedure. In the first round, a list of party leaders compete in a nation-wide ballot. The two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the second round in which the public makes a binary choice between them.
In 2002, France was shocked when hard right Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round where he was crushed by Jacques Chirac.
This might be dismissed as an aberration, except for the fact that Le Pen’s daughter Marine led the same party to the second round in 2017 and was defeated comfortably but not crushingly by Emmanuel Macron.
Things have changed since then. Although initially popular, Macron's tenure has been characterised by malcontent bordering on mutiny, with sustained transport, teaching and health sector strikes and the longest protest movement in the country’s history in the form the Gilets Jaunes.
That movement became politically amorphous. But it started as anti-EU, left wing and populist, the very province of politics dominated by Jean-Luc Melonchon.
Despite this, and the fact that Melonchon won 19.6 per cent of the vote in the first round of the last election—enough to place first in many previous votes—the French don’t view him as a threat in 2022.
This may be explained by a scandal that occurred around six months ago.
In October of last year, police raided Melonchon’s offices while investigating him and his party for claims of fraud. Melonchon stormed inside and proceeded to scream in a police officer’s face in front of the assembled media.
Melonchon was convicted by a Paris court for obstructing the investigation and fined several thousand euros, a judgment which, as one might expect, he refused to accept and decried as politically motivated.
This event may have hurt Melonchon in the short term. But, as mentioned, things have changed a lot recently. What we once viewed as grave and momentous now seem trivial and mundane.
Unemployment is skyrocketing. Malcontent, festering behind closed doors, threatens to burst out onto the streets. And the worst is yet to come, with France likely to be at the peak of its economic and social crisis two years from now.
Who stands to profit? The buttoned-down, mainstream technocrats, or the unhinged, hectoring demagogues?
There is a real danger that the two most dangerous candidates in the next election—who only require around 20 per cent of the public’s support each—will advance to the second round.
Then French voters will be presented with the same dilemma as that of the fictional public of Michel Houellebecq’s imagination, two equally dangerous sides of the same coin.