Three contemporary French authors illuminate the president’s divisive neoliberal agenda and how a diversionary ‘Europe under attack’ narrative might be the key to his success.
Every novel Michel Houellebecq releases is a cultural event. The one he published on January 7, 2015, was a much larger story. Submission, the French novelist’s sixth work of fiction, imagined a near future in which France elects a radical Muslim president, who, without much resistance, then leads the nation to “submit” to Islam and Islamic values. Houellebecq is no stranger to Islam—in 2002 he called it “the stupidest religion,” a remark that saw him tried and acquitted for inciting racism—but in Submission he wrote about the religion with the same cold, flat impassivity he brings to all his novels, and imagined Islam quickly adopted by a French nation almost grateful for something new to believe in. The book was riling controversy even before its publication, and when Houellebecq appeared on a TV news program the night before its release, he shrugged off the freak-outs of both rightwing Islamophobes and anti-racist opponents, and tranquilly called his vision of an Islamic France “a possibility that exists.” When the moderator asked him, “Is your novel a gift to Marine Le Pen?”, Houellebecq, unfazed, responded, “She doesn’t need one.”
Submission would have caused a commotion at any time, but in early 2015, Houellebecq was walking right into a minefield of political, religious, and literary controversy. Le Pen’s hard-right Front National (FN) was on the rise—in the most recent election, for the European parliament, the party had placed first for the first time ever. Around the same time, Eric Zemmour, an author and widely read columnist for the center-right newspaper Le Figaro, published his bestselling screed The French Suicide, in which he argued that neoliberal markets, European meddling, and a denial of French history had hollowed the country out. This denial and ultimate denigration of French history, he argued, came largely out of trying to placate immigrants, especially those who, he said, refused to integrate. “Nobody knows it any more,” Zemmour said, referring to France’s history, “and nobody defends it any more, and nobody wants to continue it any more.” Other rightwing authors, such as the provocateur Renaud Camus, warned that France was on the verge of a “great replacement”—that is, a demographic shift that meant nothing less than a reverse colonization.
Houellebecq, unlike these authors, is largely apolitical, but if anything his outlook is even bleaker. “If there is an idea, a single idea that goes through all of my novels, which goes so far as to haunt them,” he wrote to the philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy in a series of published letters, “it is the absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay once they have begun.” Over the past two decades, Houellebecq’s oeuvre of pessimism and resignation has made his name as the most influential French novelist in the world. And it’s not just pure provocation either. Houellebecq genuinely believes that France and Europe are headed towards disaster. (He lives in Paris’s southeastern 13th arrondissement so that he can more quickly escape if chaos erupts.)
On the day Submission hit bookstores, the cover of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo featured a caricature of Houellebecq saying, “In 2015 I lose my teeth; in 2022 I’ll observe Ramadan.” (It rhymes in French.) The cover wasn’t particularly inflammatory, given what the magazine sometimes publishes; still, the caricature hit on the central premise of his novel, and imagined that even the famously atheistic Houellebecq might soon convert. Later that day, around 11:30 a.m., two gunmen entered Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office and shot twelve dead. Houellebecq was at home in Paris. He was placed on a police protection list and left the capital on an unspecified “rural retreat.”
Literary and media debate on France’s supposed decline, and the place of Islam in a country with the largest Muslim population in western Europe, grew only shriller in the months after Submission’s publication—which saw an even bloodier attack at the Bataclan nightclub in November 2015, and the launch of a presidential election campaign in which Le Pen led the polls.
But soon thereafter, another outsider shook up the sclerotic political class that Houellebecq mercilessly flayed in Submission. And he was rather different from the one the author imagined.
Emmanuel Macron, the energetic, charismatic, barely-forty-year-old French president, came onto the scene holding the opposite views of so much of this disenchanted literary class. His independent, centrist political party La République en Marche!— “The Republic Onwards!”, complete with can-do exclamation mark—takes the view that France is not in inevitable decline; rather, under his leadership, France might become the savior of the western world. Where Donald Trump and Brexit have left the globe in a tailspin, Macron sees his five-year term as a chance to fundamentally alter the narrative of decline, to put not just France but all of Europe on an upward trajectory.
A large part of Macron’s “onwards!” mentality centers on a revival of France’s economy, which still has an unemployment rate of about ten percent. As president, he has wasted little time passing a series of controversial labor reforms, which simplify employer-employee negotiations, make it easier for firms to hire and fire, and mitigate the power of federal collective bargaining. It seems almost every week new labor reform possibilities are popping up, and Macron is pushing them through; most recently, he’s set to alter unemployment insurance, decreasing benefits. His hope is to jumpstart the economy and to make France a global economic player once more. But, in doing so, some fear that he is also setting the stage for a resurgence of the far right in 2022.
Is he? What is the proper story to tell in France in the 21st century? A narrative of decline, or a politics of optimism? An embrace of neoliberalism to catch up with the rest of the globalized world, or a more protectionist, labor-friendly outlook? A slew of bestselling books, including Submission, Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims, and Edouard Louis’s The End of Eddy, offer a lens onto these very debates and the stakes of the Macron era. Does Macron represent a profoundly new way of thinking for France? Will he set the country on a course for future glory? Or will Houellebecq’s fatalistic “declinology” prevail?
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Emmanuel Macron grew up in Amiens, an unglamorous, mostly working-class city in the north of France. He married his schoolteacher, served as a secretary to the philosopher Paul Ricœur, worked at the French tax authority, became an investment banker, parlayed his money and connections into a ministerial job, and won the presidency on a platform of being pro-European, pro-economic growth, and not having Nazi ties like his second-round rival. He is already the most powerful man in Europe. On December 21, he turned 40.
Why, he seems to wonder, isn’t everyone else working this hard? Édouard Louis, who voted for the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, contends that Macron simply doesn’t see the working class. The reality is slightly different; he sees them, he just doesn’t think that public welfare and labor protections will help them in the long-term. Macron suggested as much during the campaign, when a t-shirt-clad trade unionist shouted him down at a meet-and-greet and mocked his expensive suits. The then-candidate, in the time-honored tradition of French politicians saying unwise, elitist things to dissidents in public, snapped back, “The best way to afford a suit is to work!” Such an individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps point of view is rare in a country known for its generous entitlements, single-payer healthcare, and labor protections. But Macron is tough to read, and unlike other politicians here—notably François Fillon, the baroquely corrupt former prime minister, whom Macron defeated in May—his endorsement of hard work and skepticism of the state does not derive from mere greed. Macron seems to genuinely believe that the whole country could transcend its political divisions under a new economic system, led by bourgeois investors and his beloved startups.
Macron’s victory in 2017 (and Le Pen’s second-place finish) broke the classic left-right oscillation of French politics. The authority of the mainstream parties has been fraying for years, especially among the working classes in the north of the country. But the biggest shift is that those who once reliably voted for the far left—the Socialists or Communists—now tend to favor the far right, which hoisted the FN into the final round and destroyed the left’s chance of beating Macron.
No book of recent years has done more to explain why this shift has occurred than Returning to Reims, a memoir-cum-sociology text by Didier Eribon, which dives into the emotional lives of the FN electorate. In Returning to Reims, Eribon ascribes the dissolution of the leftwing vote not to decisions by leadership so much as to the working-class voters themselves—an act of self-harm by, among others, his own family. “As soon as they were able to vote, they began voting against the left,” Eribon writes of his brothers. “The position that any individual occupies within the social world and within the field of labor is not sufficient to determine that person’s ‘class interest.’”
What can come across as arrogant from Macron—and Nicolas Sarkozy before him, another apostle of “hard work”—takes on a more personal and mournful strain in Eribon’s telling. Born in the northeastern city of Reims, Eribon became Michel Foucault’s biographer and one of France’s foremost intellectuals. (He is also openly gay, which he writes about often.) But he started out far from the elite universities, the son of a factory worker and a house cleaner. Growing up, Eribon and his family jumped between a series of tiny government-funded apartments. One of his few positive childhood memories was of the neighborhood celebrations put on by the French Communist Party. Both his parents were long-term, strong supporters of the Party, which provided them with a sense of communal unity, identity, and hope. “The Communist Party was the organizing principle and the uncontested horizon of our relation to politics,” Eribon writes in Returning to Reims. But, by the new century, Eribon’s entire family was voting for Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the FN (and father of its current leader Marine) who shocked the world with his second-place finish in the presidential election of 2002.
Eribon dates the start of this leftist decline in a leftist victory: the 1981 election of the Socialist president François Mitterrand. The initial excitement of his victory quickly turned to rage when—in trying to stabilize the currency by instituting de facto austerity measures—Mitterrand embraced “individual responsibility,” rather than a rhetoric of “domination” and “exploitation” for which the working class had voted. There was “a strong sense of disillusionment in working-class circles,” writes Eribon. The FN, on the other hand, gave them pride in their heritage and blamed immigrants for their woes—a seductive alternative for Eribon’s family. As early as the 1980s, the FN “offered them a discourse that seemed intended to provide meaning to the experiences that made up their daily lives.”
Returning to Reims was first published in French in 2009; it has since been translated into dozens of languages and adapted for the stage in France, Britain, and Germany. For cosmopolitan audiences, desperate to understand how Marine Le Pen came so close to power, the book has reemerged as one of the most compelling and comprehensive diagnostics of how the left lost the working class. But Eribon, now living in Paris, writes largely for a literary audience, and some of his conclusions seem likewise targeted. In a particularly contentious argument that hearkens to Plato and his philosopher kings, Eribon claims that many in the working class—his own family among them—simply don’t have the “competence” to vote for their own interests. “A philosophy of ‘democracy’ that is content simply to celebrate the primary ‘equality’ of each and every person, and to rehearse the notion that each individual is endowed with the same ‘competence’ as everyone else, is in no way an emancipatory way of thinking,” he writes. “If my reservations offend the sensibilities of those who dream of a return to the Athenian sources of democracy, so be it. However sympathetic their stance might appear, I find it highly disturbing to imagine what the results of it might be.” There is a surprising echo here of the views of Macron, whom Eribon has publically scorned. Both believe that a more distant form of governance, whether political or economic, must take hold before poor northerners will abandon the FN.
And yet France’s political left abandoned his family as much as they abandoned the party. Indeed, it has been leftwing governments, not rightwing ones, that have undertaken France’s principal efforts at privatization over the last 30 years. The center right, which cannot risk direct conflicts with student movements or unionized workers (as Alain Juppé discovered in 1995 and Dominique de Villepin in 2006), makes big promises but seldom delivers economic reforms. The center left is better positioned to make economic reforms but tends to make ones that betray their own voters. Most recently, in 2016, Manuel Valls, the prime minister under François Hollande, used a rare constitutional measure to force through a series of labor laws that would make it easier to fire and hire. The center right rejoiced; leftist voters felt betrayed. The subsequent strikes and protests saw Hollande’s and Valls’s popularity plummet to record lows.
But while Macron is the inheritor of their economic project, he is smart enough to know that continuing to ram through labor laws and economic reform won’t end well for him either.
In order to pass these laws and maintain enough respect to effectively govern, Macron has embraced what he calls “grand narratives”: cohesive, sometimes diversionary, visions of France that instill hope, existential meaning, and a certain kind of fear.
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Macron’s first grand narrative is to Make Europe Great Again, a project that will likely take up the majority of his presidency. He wants to create a eurozone finance ministry, which would regulate member-state budgets; he also wants to issue collective eurozone bonds, effect fiscal transfers between members, and create a new structure for European defense initiatives. This grand narrative of Europe is meant to offer a positive project that citizens can dream of realizing together, which Macron sees as desperately needed after decades in which any “great project” was suspect. Although well versed in literature and philosophy, Macron claims to abhor the postmodernist and poststructuralist criticism of the mid-20th century—of Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, and others. He says this kind of criticism has fragmented French democracy and led to today’s broken, nationalistic Europe. “Postmodernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy,” Macron told Der Spiegel after his election. “The idea that you have to deconstruct and destroy all grand narratives is not a good one. Since then, trust has evaporated in everything and everyone… I want to renew the European dream and reawaken ambitions for it.”
Macron’s “grand narratives” approach doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has become common coin in France that collective visions of a better future stalled in the years after 1989—which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the European Union, and the increasing alignment of the country’s two main parties. Understanding the emptiness of life in this era has been the principal project of Michel Houellebecq, whose previous novels (Whatever, The Elementary Particles, Platform, The Possibility of an Island, The Map and the Territory) probed the banality and spiritual exhaustion of quotidian life: bad sex, TV dinners, urban loneliness. Wealthy westerners live so poorly and so dully, he reasons, because they don’t know what else to do. “Anything can happen in life,” he wrote in Platform, “especially nothing.” His revulsion with the very idea of having to live through modernity is particularly intense. “I don’t like this world,” he wrote in his 1994 debut, Whatever. “I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke.” It is from this angle—of a western civilization that has been beaten down, emasculated, and condemned to living in drudgery—that his most recent novel largely springs.
Submission takes place during the presidential race of 2022. The mainstream candidates of the center-left and center-right are eliminated in the first round (as happened this past May), and Marine Le Pen faces off against a fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes, a member of the likewise fictional Muslim Brotherhood. Attempting to block Le Pen at all costs, the eliminated parties flock to the charismatic, professorial Ben Abbes (perhaps based on the real-life Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Islamic scholar who has been recently roiled by a sexual assault scandal). Once in power, Ben Abbes slashes the education budget; public schooling ends around age twelve, with private Muslim schools providing further education. The money from those cuts is put into government subsidies to discourage women from working. Unemployment rates subsequently fall. Polygamy is permitted and encouraged. Ben Abbes also begins a campaign to enlarge the European Union to include North Africa and Turkey, with an Islamic France leading a revived continent.
In Submission, Houellebecq depicts the entire French political class as rolling over in the face of an Islamic accession. Ben Abbes’s prime minister, for example, is the real-life centrist politician François Bayrou (who endorsed Macron with equal opportunism in 2017—a vital endorsement for Macron to capture, further shoring up the center-right, and giving him an instant five-percent bump in his polls). Houellebecq’s satire clearly hit its mark. The grand narrative of European submission has since swept across the continent. In a recent speech in Hungary, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, proclaimed that Europe faced two existential threats: from extremists within and from refugees and migrants, most of them Muslim, without. “I also do not find any justification for the helplessness demonstrated sometimes, to the effect that ‘this wave is too big to stop it,’ or the submission, just like in Michel Houellebecq’s fiction,” Tusk said in December. “To put it bluntly: there will not be a Europe as we know it, if there are no borders and no law enforcement—and there will not be a Europe we desire, if it is taken over from within by our political barbarians.”
France’s fear of having its values eroded has an intense history, most recently with last summer’s blowup over the “burkini,” a full-body swimming costume that critics called “incompatible” with French values. (Wearing the veil has been illegal in French schools since 2004; face coverings such as the niqab have been banned everywhere since 2010.)
It’s against this backdrop that we have to examine Macron’s (and Tusk’s) talk of reviving a grand narrative of Europe. The new French president takes a far more generous view of French diversity than his predecessors, and yet even his positive vision seems to give visceral credence to unfounded fears that Europe is losing some unnamable essence. Thanks to Tusk’s speech in Hungary, countless migrants and refugees might now be further discriminated against; the European nations that are accepting them now may scale back. As Macron endorses his vision of a “new Europe,” it would not be difficult for him to redirect frustrations stemming from his economic and labor policies towards these same fears of submission. But it would come at a heavy cost.
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While Houellebecq puzzles out Europe’s fears and Eribon looks to the working class’ woes, a third bestselling author, the young novelist Édouard Louis, has been looking towards the future of France. Just 25, Louis has become a media darling for his anecdotal, largely autobiographical novels that explore what it means to be gay in working-class France, and what it means to have a working-class background in glamorous Paris. His first novel, The End of Eddy, offers a portal into why the grand narrative of submission works so well with the working class—and, incidentally, how both the far right and the far left are tapping into it.
Louis grew up in Hallencourt, a village of about 1400 people in northern France, just a 40-minute drive from Macron’s hometown of Amiens. (That makes him, and Eribon too, rarities in the French media. Parisians often stereotype those in the north as being less educated and less civilized. The 2008 film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, for instance, in which a post office manager living in the south of France is sent to a small town in the north and experiences their brutally-unsophisticated-but-ultimately-sweet culture, is the highest grossing French film of all time.) When he was a student in Amiens, Louis went to see Eribon give a reading of Returning to Reims, which “overwhelmed” him, he later said, and offered him a model of writing that might examine how the politics of power shaped his own childhood.
“When you’re subjected to endless violence, in every situation, every moment of your life,” Louis told the Paris Review last year, “you end up reproducing it against others, in other situations, by other means.” Like a father who beats his kids who will subsequently beat their own children, French people who are exploited by those in power subsequently desire to exploit someone else. The FN gives them easy targets—foreigners and Muslim—and, through the narratives of submission and symbols like the burkini, they make their xenophobia seem like a legitimate grievance.
The End of Eddy takes place in a village in Picardy quite like the one in which Louis grew up. He quickly recognizes the fractured, complex political heritage of his fellow villagers, who voted overwhelmingly for Le Pen in the recent election. “I came to understand that many different forms of discourse intersected in my mother and spoke through her,” says the narrator of The End of Eddy, “that she was constantly torn between her shame at not having finished school and her pride that even so, as she would say, she’d ‘made it through and had a bunch of beautiful kids,’ and that these two modes of discourse existed only in relation to each other.” Louis, having graduated from the École Normale Supérieure and now living in Paris, champions a more straightforward logic than that of his mother; but he also understands the extent to which class shame can push one to vote against one’s own interests.
His mother knew she wasn’t educated, and she hated this, but she was grateful that it let her become a mother earlier. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive events: you can get an education and become a mother. But this twisting of logic is all that stands between her sense of self and a deep shame. Likewise, when Louis’s parents voted for Le Pen, he recalls them saying, “We do it because she’s the only one who talk about us, the little people.” “That wasn’t true,” Louis says, “but it reveals the sentiment of invisibility that strikes the dispossessed.” It also reveals a political logic that is based on feeling, which, even more than it did in Eribon’s day, maintains significant sway.
As with the votes for Trump, for Brexit, or for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the FN does best not in diversifying French regions but in regions with low numbers of migrants and small Muslim populations. Its appeal rests on a fantasy—on a hidden, mysterious other and their grand machinations.
Why, though, would Muslims want to “take over Europe” anyway? Why would a few women wearing “burkinis” destroy “French values”? The narrative of submission is so compelling because of its emotional core—us versus them—and it successfully riles this working class Louis describes.
Unsurprisingly, it has been embraced and aided by both Le Pen and, in a very different way, the anti-European leftwinger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whom both Louis and Eribon endorsed in the last election. Mélenchon’s party is called “La France Insoumise”—or, France “unbowed,” a party refusing to submit. “Submission,” after all, is a classically communist term, and it holds direct appeal to the working class.
Against them all stands Macron, who has been careful to not use the “us versus them” rhetoric, and who implacably attacked Le Pen during the last election while other mainstream European leaders went soft on populism. Narratives of decline and submission only tear us apart; it is the globalized market that should bring us together, he insists.
With almost all France’s other parties in tatters, he has a clearer shot than any of his predecessors to complete the halting neoliberalization that began here more than 30 years ago. France and the United States will soon, economically at least, likely come to look increasingly alike. The working class will likely continue to suffer; Paris seems poised to become a global finance capital (and is offering a warm welcome to Europeans leaving London). And, all the while, Macron will have the fertile rhetoric of “European values” in his arsenal—which means one thing to him, and another to the devotees of “submission”—to divert attention while he advances his economic agenda at home.
Macron is a particularly difficult person to understand. Houellebecq recalls meeting him and leaving with the feeling that he had not met a single person; Macron was either many people in one body, or, somehow, no person at all. “We do not really understand what he thinks,” Houellebecq told Der Spiegel in a separate interview. “He cannot be deciphered. We cannot obtain from him any clearly articulated conviction.”
Houellebecq, in Submission, imagined a once-in-a-generation president animated by deep convictions, who transforms the country in ways that seemed unimaginable. But in contrast to his fictional President Ben Abbes, Houellebecq believes that there is no “true Macron,” and that all his grand narratives are mere marketing ploys. The realist would say politicians want the same two things: re-election and the enrichment of oneself and one’s friends. Macron is a very talented politician, and he will likely get both. But when protestors are in the street, when his polling numbers inevitably take a bit of a hit, will he press on with his European project, proving that when he says “onwards” he really does mean it? Or will he turn and say what so many French and European leaders have said, and what so many voters want to hear: “don’t blame me; it’s them”?