Review: Submission (Michel Houellebecq)

I am not a liberal or progressive, but I feel like I understand them pretty well.  That’s aided by me having lots of friends who do identify as progressive.  I don’t have any conservative friends who couldn’t be better described as libertarian, and they didn’t vote for Trump either.    I want to understand Trump voters better, and I’m doing it my way, which is books and the internet.  By which I mean not the endless handwringing anthropological studies written by liberals, but actual conservatives articulating their actual views aimed at a sympathetic audience.  My original reading list came from Ross Douthat, and has picked up things from random sources since then.

[“Why not talk to people in person?” you might ask.  I see your point, but between the risk of annoying the crap out of the people I’m talking to and severe introversion, reading is the solution for me.  This has nothing to do with Trump voters in particular, I did it to the last three cultures/subcultures I got interested in.]

I just finished Submission, by  Michel Houellebecq (translated from French by Lorin Stein).  Submission is one of those weird novels that has an obviously speculative fiction premise, but the author isn’t versed in speculative fiction and everything feels slightly off in ways that are hard to articulate.  It’s also an obvious member of “literature professor writes about literature professor so filled with ennui that even fucking students has gotten boring”, except that Houellebecq never even attended university.  I suspect he’s drawing on the tropes of then ennui genre to make points which I am missing because I haven’t read any unironic works in the genre, plus lack of familiarity with the French version of the trope.  For bonus points, the literature professors’ area of expertise is clearly supposed to filter my understanding of what’s going on in the present, and I have never heard of this guy.


Submission is a dystopia, set just before a Muslim takeover of France, but the main character does not consider himself to be living in one.  For him, the Muslim takeover (and his eventual conversion) represent reinvigoration and a reclaiming of masculinity.  This book was not great for helping me understand Trump voters, because I too am horrified at the prospect of women being pushed out of the workforce and non-religious education ending at age 8.  The difference there is in our perceptions of the probability of that happening.  Alternately the dystopia for them could be that it’s the effete liberal college professors who get bonus wives.

But one thing did jump out at me.  A French nationalist character describes the Muslim Brotherhood’s long term plan to take over Europe.  It’s frightening because it’s a series of small steps, any one of which looks reasonable and in fact would be reasonable, except that it’s laying groundwork for Sharia law.  As I was reading this, I was debating with a commenter who couldn’t understand why I was getting all worked up about Trump’s actions when it was totally possible he wasn’t going to become a dictator.  I found this terrifying because by the time he’s a dictator, it’s too late.  That’s what dictator means.  You have to mobilize early… which  is exactly what that French nationalist character described, and what I suspect many anti-immigration people believe.  No, there might not be many consequences now, but this is obviously laying the groundwork for something terrible and by the time they can prove it it will be too late.  The idea that the other side has a plan and your side hasn’t noticed is terrifying.

Tangent: Trump apparently against the concept of judges and the idea that they have power over the enforcement of laws.



5 thoughts on “Review: Submission (Michel Houellebecq)”

  1. I don’t know much about the French right wing, but I’m not sure they’re a great match for Trump supporters. John Dolan reviewed an earlier Houellebecq book called Elementary Particles, and added a lot of context about the French right wing. The review has spoilers for a very good book, but you may find it interesting
    It’s on a .ru domain, but the reviewer used work for a Russian magazine.

  2. The French right maps imperfectly to the modern American right, so that’s a thing. Houllebecque is treading in a French intellectual tradition of deliberate transgression that doesn’t have a close American equivalent either. It goes all the way back to Rousseau, and often involves a fair amount of calculated outrageousness.

    “A French nationalist character describes the Muslim Brotherhood’s long term plan to take over Europe. It’s frightening because it’s a series of small steps, any one of which looks reasonable…” Muslims are a minority in France. The exact numbers are hard to know, because secular France doesn’t ask about religion when it does censuses, but 8-10% is probably about right. (By way of comparison, the number of African-Americans in the US is about 13%.) Their numbers are growing, thanks to immigration and a slightly higher birthrate, but neither the immigration numbers nor the birthrate numbers are high enough to make them a majority any time soon, i.e., in this century. They might reach 15% by 2050. That’s rapid growth, but it’s still a long way from demographic takeover.

    Further France’s Muslims are very, very divided, both ethnically (no single ethnic group is a majority), generationally, and between different levels of secularism. The different ethnic groups don’t cooperate very well; an Algerian-French is likely to look down on a Senegalese-French, while a Lebanese-French curls his lip at them both. WRT religious practice, a minority are very observant, another minority are almost entirely secular but self-identify as Muslim for cultural reasons, and a plurality are somewhere in between. Culturally, they range from groups that want to put their women in burqas to groups that hang out on the beach in thongs and bikinis. Oh, and there’s also a steady trickle of ex-Muslim apostates who have become entirely secularized. These don’t get nearly as much attention as their opposites (ethnic French converts to Islam), but there are quite a few of them; I have one as a co-worker.

    Finally, about 10-12% of French Muslims are the _harkis_ and their children and grandchildren. The _harkis_ were Algerians who loyally served the French government in Algeria, up to and including serving as colonial military auxiliaries and fighting on the French side during the Algerian war. They were like the Loyalists in the American Revolution. After the end of the war, about a quarter of a million _harkis_ were allowed to resettle in France in the early 1960s. (The ones who stayed in Algeria were imprisoned, enslaved, or simply killed by the new post-colonial government.)

    The _harkis_ are Muslim, and mostly poor, but they’re ferociously patriotic — they will tell you they are literally “French by right of spilled blood”. They go in disproportionate numbers into the French military and they’re usually very right-wing in their politics. There’s no close American equivalent, but imagine a cross between Florida Cubans and Minnesota Hmong. The _harkis_ consider themselves separate from, and superior to, other Muslims in France. And while they’re socially conservative, they ferociously oppose any hint of sharia. Supporting sharia, in their eyes, would be taking the side of their inferior, unwashed cousins against holy France itself. It would be like Florida Cubans supporting a Communist overthrow of the US government.

    (When you read about French Muslims voting for Marine Le Pen or some other conservative figure who’s aggressively anti-Muslim, and you wonder what’s up with that? _Harkis_. “Oh, she’s not talking about *us*.)

    You never hear about the _harkis_ in conversations about Eurabia, because (1) most people outside of France have no idea they exist, and (2) the idea of poor Muslims who are ferociously patriotic, pro-military, and right-wing simply Does Not Compute to most Anglosphere readers. But they exist, and there are a lot of them, and they’d be the first ones to man the barricades against a hypothetical sharia takeover.

    Anyway, TLDR: a book by a dude who’s basically a very high end troll may not be a useful guide to the likelihood of a sharia takeover in France.

    Doug M.

    1. Thanks, that was super interesting and helpful. To be clear, I’m not reading a fictional book set in a country I know only on the surface level to understand what is happening, but how conservatives (red tribe?) perceive it. One thing that becomes obvious with this context is that the French red-tribes type view Muslims as a monolith (book was nonspecific on numbers, but it was clear the Muslims were winning because they were much better organized, not because they were a majority of the population), and that is incorrect.

      Can you share where you got the population projections? I’m reading Reflections on the Revolution in Europe now and it’s saying 20-30% by midcentury.

  3. Current Muslim population: Because France doesn’t allow census measurements, the numbers are all over the board. Low estimates are around 3-4 million, high estimates around double that. However, when you start looking into methodology, the high end ones look distinctly shaky — they do stuff like assuming that everyone who reports ancestry from a Muslim country is Muslim. As noted above, we know that’s not the case — there are a lot of Catholics from West Africa, for instance, and a lot of third-generation Algerians who are nonpracticing and effectively secularized, plus an unknown number who have effectively “Gallicized” (see below).

    Pew Research gives 4.7 million, which is around 7.5 of the population. I suspect that’s low-ish, but there are others in the same range.

    One respected French think tank puts it at 3-4 million:

    “Less numerous than claimed, but young.

    “There would be between 3 and 4 million. The Montaigne Institute dares a figure on the presence – often fantasized – of Muslims in our country. We are far from the 8% to 10% of the population claimed by the catastrophists of the “grande replacement”. According to IFOP, they would represent 5.6% of those over 15 years living in France, and 10% of those under 25 years old. It is therefore a particularly young social group: 84% are under 50 years of age. The average age is 35.8 years (it is 53 years for those who declare themselves Christians and 43 years for those “without religion”). Contrary to popular belief, conversions to Islam of young people whose parents are not Muslims appear half as many as the “exits” of Islam – that is, the disaffiliation of young people from Muslim families.”

    20%-30% by midcentury: okay, let’s do some math. The current population of France is 66 million. Let’s say that’s 9% Muslim, which gives us about 6 million Muslim and 60 million non-Muslim. Right now France has a TFR just a bit above replacement rate, meaning the total population is slightly growing without immigration. Immigration right now is mostly non-Muslim, but it gets complicated because there are a lot of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who may or may not stick around. For arguments’ sake, let’s say that the non-Muslim population is growing at 0.2% per year while the Muslim population is growing at 2% per year. I’m pretty sure those figures are low and high, respectively, but let’s play with them.

    1.002^33 = 1.07 x 60 million -> 64.2 million non-Muslims in 2050
    1.02^33 = 1.92 x 6 million -> 11.5 million Muslims in 2050

    total population of France in 2050: 75.7 million
    percentage Muslim 11.5 / 75.7 = 15.2%

    Now, obviously you can get different numbers if you start with different figures and/or make different assumptions about growth rates. But you have to work hard to reach 20%, and very hard indeed to reach 30%. That one requires really high immigration rates, really high levels of fertility, and no outflows or secularization. Relative levels of fertility are annoyingly hard to measure — that census thing again — but what evidence we have suggests that most of France’s Muslims are well into the demographic transition, meaning that their TFRs (the number of children per women) are falling and will probably continue to fall.

    A thing that’s not much discussed is that it’s relatively easy for a lot of Muslims, especially ones from North Africa, to launder their origins and “pass”. There’s not a lot of ethnic difference between Tunisians and Algerians and native French, especially French from the Midi (the south of France). People from the Midi often have olive or light brown skins, black hair, dark eyes, and a wiry “Mediterranean” build. People from the coastal regions of Tunisia and Algeria can be surprisingly fair; Tunisians with light skin and light brown hair are pretty common, and blue eyes are not unknown. Over the centuries, there’s been a lot of mixing across the Mediterranean. So, while nobody likes to talk about it, that’s definitely a thing — people change their names, stop going to mosque and, bam, as far as anyone can tell they’re a native French from Marseilles or someplace. (Obviously this isn’t going to work with Senegalese or Congolese, but that’s a whole other story.) The polite term for this is “Gallicization”. There are less polite terms, because both groups are made uneasy by it.

    Doug M.

  4. Two other thoughts. One, red tribers in general may well think of Muslims as a monolithic mass all hell-bent on Imposing Sharia. Houllebecque? He almost certainly knows better. But the complexity would get in the way of the clever and provocative fable he wants to weave, so never mind.

    Two, I keep mentioning things like secularization and Gallicization because they’re so consistently ignored. Yet in the US, you see that stuff happening all the time. “Orthodox grandparents, Reform parents, Unitarian kid” is a cliche. The super-conservative Christian family has five kids and home schools them all, but twenty years later only a couple of the five are still conservative Christians; the youngest boy is openly gay, the one girl stopped going to church after her second divorce, and Bobby moved to Brooklyn and doesn’t like to talk about religion or politics. It’s actually really hard to maintain a conservative religious lifestyle in engagement with a modern secular socially liberal late-capitalist society. We know this from our experience in the US. Quiverfull families and the Duggars notwithstanding, nobody is really worried about the fundamentalists outbreeding the rest of us Yet we’re quick to assume that somehow Muslims must be immune to the same forces we can see acting on other conservative religious communities. There’s actually a fair amount of evidence suggesting otherwise.

    Doug M.

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