Monday, 3 April 2017

A little political fiction

At a time when fake news and alternative facts are flying thick and fast, it seems hazardous to indulge in political fiction. But a novel I have just finished provides an opportunity that I cannot resist. It is the most recent novel by the French writer Michel Houellebecq, (pronounced Wellbeck) Soumission (published in France by Flammarion in 2015 and in an  English translation by Lorin Stein as Submission by Picador books in 2016).

Houellebecq is a controversial and somewhat provocative contemporary novelist who has won the prestigious Prix Goncourt and other literary prizes.The themes taken up in Soumission will be familiar to his regular readers but one of them in particular has special resonance against the background of the upcoming French presidential elections. The novel is set in 2022 and narrated in the first person by a rather unsavoury university professor, observing the political situation in the run-up and immediate aftermath of the presidential elections of that year, just five years from now. Many of the politicians he refers to are household names in French politics today and are involved, in one way or another, in the election campaign of 2017: Marine le Pen, Manuel Valls, François Hollande and François Bayrou, to name just four. Houellebecq is clearly seeking to extrapolate from the political situation prevalent at the time of writing in 2014. Without wishing to spoil the story for those who have not read it, the scenario described for 2022 is the elimination in the first round of voting of the traditional right and left wing and centre parties that have governed France since 1958 and the triumph, in the run-off, with wide-ranging support from those same parties, of a new figure, heading a new party that had been unheard of five years previously.

Sound familiar? Coming back to the real world of 2017, opinion polls are now predicting that the mainstream candidates of the right and left will indeed be eliminated in the first round of voting on April 23 and that the run-off will be contested by Marine Le Pen and a new figure in French politics, Emmanuel Macron, at the head of a party that was founded a year ago almost to the day, on April 6, 2016.  He has so far won pledges of support from many leading figures in the socialist party, including Manuel Valls, a few from the right and, most significantly, the centrist party of François Bayrou!

In Houellebecq’s novel, one of the characters paints a highly unflattering picture of Bayrou. He is described as vain, obtuse and unprincipled, motivated solely by an obsession to win power. Observers of the real world will have a sardonic smile on their lips as they read or re-read this ferocious portrait, in the knowledge that Bayrou, having lost almost every election he has contested during his political career to date, was one of the first to rally to Macron’s standard and is now well placed, in the event of a Macron victory, to become Prime Minister.

However, the real mould-breaking event described in the novel is not the elimination of the mainstream candidates in the first round of voting in 2022 but that the previously unknown candidate who wins the election that year, beating Marine le Pen in the run-off, is called Mohammed Ben Abbes, at the head of a new party, the Muslim Fraternity, which goes on to introduce an Islamic regime to which French society is obliged to submit.

One can of course debate at length whether this scenario, or a similarly scary one, will play out in 2022. Be that as it may, Houellebecq has pinpointed with uncanny foresight the current and possible future consequences of the slow decomposition of the French body politic since the surprise elimination of Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election of 2002 and the run-off, that year, between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and founder of the Front National. Since 2002, despite the gathering strength of the protest vote at every election, neither Chirac nor Sarkozy nor Hollande have devised, let alone implemented a convincing and credible political and economic strategy designed to bring large swathes of the French electorate back into the mainstream and away from the protesting fringes.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that one of Houellebecq’s implicit messages is that the next President of France will have one last chance, over the next five years, to put the country back on track…and stop the purveyors of fake news and alternative facts from gaining the upper hand.

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