An expert's point of view on a current event.

Michel Houellebecq Hated Europe Before You Did

The latest novel by France’s most famous author cements his reputation as a prophet of populism.

Michel Houellebecq attends an art show on June 2, 2017, in Manhattan, New York. (Eduardo Munoz Alverez/AFP/Getty Images)
Michel Houellebecq attends an art show on June 2, 2017, in Manhattan, New York. (Eduardo Munoz Alverez/AFP/Getty Images)

With this week’s publication of his new book, Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq has reinforced his reputation as France’s diviner of the dreadful. In 2001, his novel Plateforme, which climaxes with an Islamist terrorist attack on a Thai tourist resort, was published shortly before the 9/11 attacks. In 2015, the publication of Houellebecq’s Soumission, which portrays an Islamist political party taking power in France, coincided with the bloody jihadist attack on the offices of the weekly paper Charlie Hebdo.

Now, with the release of Sérotonine, France’s best-known writer since Albert Camus or Simone de Beauvoir has again written another best-selling novel that has also won critical admiration. But that’s not all. Houellebecq again seems to have once again hired the Zeitgeist as his publicity agent, this time in the guise of the provincial protest movement known as the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. Though the novelist has not, unlike other figures on the right, championed the movement, he has earned the moniker of its “prophet.” This association, in turn, reinforces Houellebecq’s status, in the words of the newsmagazine L’Obs, as the “icon of extreme right” in France.

The backdrop to Sérotonine is rural Normandy, a landscape heavy with wintry mist and human misery. The local farmers, caught between the rise of international agribusiness and rules of the European Union, are as desperate as the livestock in the vast hangars dotting the fields. In a bleak description of an industrial chicken farm, Houellebecq notes that the “300,000 or so inmates, plucked and emaciated, struggled to live among the decomposing cadavers of their fellow chickens.” Upon entering these vast warehouses, the first thing one notices is the birds with a “look of panic and incomprehension, who don’t understand the conditions into which they’ve been heaved.” There is no need to be Roland Barthes to grasp this passage’s metaphorical link between the chickens and France’s farmers, plucked and desperate, unheeded by government officials and unseen by urban elites.

Sérotonine, by Michel Houellebecq, Flammarion, 352 pp., $25, Jan. 4,  2019 (France)

The novel’s protagonist, Florent-Claude Labrouste, lives in the Tour Totem—“a gigantic concrete mushroom”—that is one of the soul-numbing high-rises in the Parisian neighborhood Front de Seine, ground zero of the city’s dalliance in the 1970s with architectural brutalism. When Labrouste observes that the apartment has a “superb view,” Parisians know the catch: The view is superb because the Front de Seine cannot be seen.

Though he lives in Paris, Labrouste is often brought to the countryside by his work as an agronomist for the European Union. This profession happens to be the same one Houellebecq practiced before he turned his hand to writing, giving heft to his observations. A sympathetic observer, Labrouste is also powerless, unable to block the seemingly irreversible decline of traditional farming. “Where there are now slightly more than 60,000 dairy farmers,” he remarks, “there will be in 15 years 20,000. In short, what is taking place with French agriculture is a vast redundancy plan, but one that is secret and invisible, where people disappear one by one, on their plots of land, without ever being noticed.”

This sense of fatalism leads to the novel’s climax, a catastrophic clash between a group of striking farmers, who have barricaded a highway and are carrying hunting rifles, and a battalion of riot police. The confrontation ends with the death of several farmers, including their leader (and Labrouste’s only friend), who has the impossibly aristocratic name Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde. As one local resident gazes at the blood-soaked scene, he takes on the role of Greek chorus, shouting: “I say that they did the right thing! Things could not go on as they did, there are things that cannot be accepted. There are times when one has to do something.”

Since this is Houellebecq, there are yet other things that go on in this novel. “I will be reproached,” warns the narrator, “for giving too much attention to sex.” Indeed he does: Having scarcely cracked open the book, you encounter the first masturbation scene. Inevitably, the sex is either dreary, dismal, or both, ranging from loveless couplings to, yes, bestiality. No less inevitably, there is also what Houellebecq’s admirers call his political incorrectness, which his critics call his serial sliminess. Whereas Muslims have long been one of Houellebecq’s favorite targets, it is now women, often dismissed as “fat whores,” and gay people, referred to as “fags,” who take pride of place. Think of Louis C.K. with a Gauloise.

Yet crane your head above this mix of misogyny and misanthropy and you might catch an unsparing and unsettling view of the social fractures widening on both sides of the Atlantic. Christened in the German magazine Der Spiegel as “our era’s poet” and the French journal Challenges as the “ethnologist of the West’s decline,” Houellebecq seems to channel the discontents not just of those relegated to our social peripheries, but also to the well-educated elites hunkered down in the metropoles. Herein lies another, though elusive fracture: While the peripheries are subject to a material mal à vivre, or hard life, the metropoles are spiritually mal à l’aise, or ill at ease.

For Houellebecq, both sides of this divide are symptomatic of a yet another mal—namely, a mal du siècle. The phrase, coined in the early 19th century and popularized by the poet and politician François-René de Chateaubriand, pointed to the disillusion and disappointment that afflicted Europe’s literary avant-garde at the time. This odd malady resulted, in part, from the rise of science and technology and decline in traditional social roles and rituals. In a sense, this is also true in its current version, but our seemingly parlous condition is now measured by real or perceived threats to the collective identity of a nation. In the diagnosis made last month by the French budget minister, Gérald Darmanin, France has been seized by an “identity crisis.” It is as if France itself risks becoming one vast Front de Seine suffering from terminal anomie.

If there is something vaguely Spenglerian to all of this, it is because it is Spenglerian. An admirer of the author of the pessimistic and potted Decline of the West, Houellebecq was last year’s recipient of the Oswald Spengler Society Prize. According to the organization’s director, all of Houellebecq’s writings are “characterized by the intense pain of a society reaching its end without knowing how to defend itself.”

Defend itself against what or whom? Elementary, my dear reader: the European Union. In his acceptance speech, Houellebecq declared he was less interested in the decline of the West than in its murder. By bringing its member states under a single set of laws, the EU “assassinated” them, Houellebecq concluded. To be sure, Houellebecq has never made a secret of his hatred for Brussels and all that it represents. As early as 1992, when France held a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, Houellebecq voted against it; as recently as in this month’s Harper’s magazine, he praised U.S. President Donald Trump for his hostility toward the EU. In fact, Houellebecq mixed the banal and bizarre in his observations on America’s president. He declared that Trump thinks that Europeans “don’t have a lot in common, especially not ‘values’; and I call this fortunate, because, what values? ‘Human rights’? Seriously?”

Human rights, it seems, are not a serious subject for Houellebecq. Nor, for that matter, is Europe. In a statement both obvious and oblivious, he declared that “we in Europe have neither a common language, nor common values, nor common interests, that, in a word, Europe doesn’t exist, and that it will never constitute a people … simply because it doesn’t want to constitute a people.” While the first assertion is indisputable, the second and third claims are invidious. As the Brexiteers have discovered, Europe does indeed have common values and interests.

Nevertheless, Houellebecq’s conviction that the European Union “is just a dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream, from which we shall eventually wake up” is but one reason leading figures on France’s ideological right idolize him. In 2017, the leader of France’s center-right Republicans party, Laurent Wauquiez, declared that he wished to “re-establish a dialogue” with right-wing intellectuals to make his party “a place to think.” He met with Houellebecq, who advised him that he needed to be “more transgressive” when it came to certain subjects. Shortly after, oddly enough, the party announced its new campaign slogan: “So That France Remains France.”

As for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally—the far-right party formerly known as the National Front—Houellebecq has kept his distance. Except, that is, when three sheets to the wind, he has run aground on these extreme shores. A few years ago, the translator Gavin Bowd revealed that, during an absinthe-soaked party in 2013, Houellebecq declared that he would call for a civil war against French Muslims and for voters to choose Le Pen. When Bowd protested that the then-Front National was indeed on the extreme right, Houellebecq waved him off, insisting the present party had nothing to do with earlier anti-Semites such as Édouard Drumont or Léon Daudet.

Though Houellebecq never followed through on his drunken vow, Le Pen nevertheless enlisted him to help make her party a place, well, to think. In 2017, among the books that National Front members were assigned for the party’s “summer university” was Submission. In an interview published by Valeurs Actuelles, a journal that promotes identity politics, Houellebecq set the tone for such right thinking. Warning that “civil war was in the realm of possibility” between Muslims and republicans, he suggested that Catholicism should again be made the official state religion. Only this, he insisted, would integrate Muslims into French society: “By occupying second place in a Catholic country as a respected minority, Muslims would accept their position much more easily than they do the current situation.”

Crucially, this kind of thinking has not made a dent in Houellebecq’s popularity. In fact, last week President Emmanuel Macron’s office announced that Houellebecq would be awarded the medal of chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He will thus join, among many others, France’s soccer team, the champions of last year’s World Cup, in being honored.

Of course, the medal is little more than a bauble. But as the man who created the Legion of Honor, Napoleon Bonaparte, remarked, it is with such trinkets that men are led. Or, in this case, misled. The irony is that the Legion of Honor, awarded to those who contribute to “ spreading the values ​​and the culture of France,” will be given to a writer who insists he hears the death rattle of this culture, strangled at the hands of not just Brussels bureaucrats, but also French Muslims. Perhaps Macron is acknowledging that Houellebecq, though he will probably never be honored by the Nobel Committee as fellow contemporary French authors Patrick Modiano and J.M.G. Le Clézio have been, is actually read not just by foreigners, but also by French who live beyond Paris’s Left Bank. Or perhaps the president is instead doubling down on his remark, made in the national address he gave at the height of the gilets jaunes crisis, that France must reconcile the question of immigration with its “profound identity.”

Only Macron, who has been hailed as the last great hope for a liberal Europe, can answer this question. But what must French Muslims make of the bauble soon to be pinned to Houellebecq’s chest? For the journalist Claude Askolovitch, the banality of Houellebecq’s anti-Muslim bias gives him license to detest certain categories of Frenchmen and women for their beliefs, practices, and very being: “We can, without thinking, torment them with one phrase or another, or with a trinket. Their suffering does not count.” In this case, a dose of serotonin will hardly help France or the French.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.