Newspaper article International New York Times

Writers Move to the Forefront in Wrestling with France's Changing Identity

Newspaper article International New York Times

Writers Move to the Forefront in Wrestling with France's Changing Identity

Article excerpt

Two French best-sellers take different approaches to the cultural collision between radical Islam and secularism that is currently gripping France and the rest of Europe.

The cover of the latest Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that was the target of a massacre by masked gunmen on Wednesday, featured a cartoon of Michel Houellebecq, whose polemical -- some say prophetic -- new novel, "Submission," imagines a Muslim becoming president of France in 2022.

Under the headline "The predictions of the Great Houellebecq," the celebrated novelist, wearing a magician's hat and holding a cigarette, says, "In 2015, I will lose my teeth. In 2022, I will celebrate Ramadan."

Even before its official release on Wednesday, "Submission" had already set off intense debates in France -- about the line between satire and Islamophobia and between fantasy and Realpolitik, about the novelist's (and Islam's) treatment of women and about the political mainstream's struggles to keep pace with the rise of both Islam and the far right -- debates that the attacks are certain to intensify.

Earlier this week, President Francois Hollande of France said he would read it. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front, whom the fictional Muslim leader defeats in the novel, cashed in, calling it "a fiction that could one day become a reality."

With an ambitious initial print run of 150,000 copies, "Submission" is already the No.1 seller on Amazon in France. It is likely to join another book with a similar theme on the best-seller lists: "The French Suicide," a 500-page essay in which the journalist and writer Eric Zemmour, 56, argues that immigration, feminism and the student uprisings in France in 1968 set the country on a path to ruin. The top seller in France, the book has sold 400,000 copies since its release in October, according to its publisher, Albin Michel.

While Mr. Zemmour's is a work of reactionary nostalgia and Mr. Houellebecq's a futuristic fantasy, both books have hit the dominant note in the national mood today: "inquietude," or profound anxiety about the future.

Fueling this anxiety for many French are the fears of non- Muslims about Muslims, the threat posed by groups like the Islamic State recruiting in Europe, and rising anti-Semitism. More broadly, concern has grown that the political center is eroding and extremes are rising in a way that is reminiscent of the 1930s, along with a sense that France, which prides itself on its republican tradition and a strong, centralized state, has ceded too much power to the European Union.

"I think this anxiety is the idea of seeing France give up on itself, of changing to the point of no longer being recognizable," said the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, whose much-debated 2013 book, "L'Identite Malheureuse," or "Unfortunate Identity," discussed the problems immigration poses for French identity and cultural integration. "People are homesick at home," he added, speaking two days before the attacks.

Mr. Zemmour and Mr. Houellebecq wade into similar swampy waters, but reach different shores. "It's the same book, in that both talk about the same subject: the irreversible rise of Islam in society and in politics," said Christophe Barbier, the editor in chief of L'Express, a newsweekly.

For the pessimistic Mr. Zemmour, "the final prognosis is civil war. One day there will be a clash between the French who aren't Muslim and the French who think that a Muslim should be president of the republic," Mr. Barbier said. Mr. Houellebecq, he said, "takes the opposite tack: The rise of Islam is not civil war; it's civil peace."

"Submission," Mr. Houellebecq's sixth novel, paints France as a vision of economic stability under the reassuring presence of Mohammed Ben Abbes, the son of a Tunisian grocer and graduate of France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration. He wants to emulate the Roman emperor Augustus and bring parts of the Maghreb and Turkey into Europe. …

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