The Controversial Book at the Center of Charlie Hebdo's Latest Issue

Michel Houellebecq's Submission imagines France under Sharia law. His satirical take hits close to home for the country's liberals.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

The cover of the most recent issue of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo—published just before two gunmen massacred 12 at its Paris headquarters this week—didn't, as the publication often did, lampoon fundamentalist Islam. Instead, the target of Charlie's satire was the novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose sixth novel, Submission, was published on Wednesday, the day of the massacre.

The cover shows a grotesque caricature of Houellebecq, wearing a wizard's hat, under the headline: "The Predictions of Wizard Houellebecq." "In 2015, I lose my teeth," says one. "In 2022, I do Ramadan." The reference is to the two things the novelist is famous for in France: his run-down appearance and his outspoken attitude toward Islam. True to form, Houellebecq skewers the faith in Submission, which imagines France falling under Sharia law in the very near future. But the novel also presents an uncomfortable message for the French establishment—they are perhaps not as different from their country's extremists as they'd like.

Submission—whose English translation is expected to arrive later this year—reportedly tells the story of Francois, a bored 44-year-old literature professor at the Sorbonne with an obscure academic expertise and a habit of sleeping with his students. The novel is set in 2022, when Francois becomes transfixed by that year's presidential election, whose two leading candidates are Marine Le Pen, the real-life leader of France's far-right National Front, and Mohammed Ben Abbes, the head of a fictional Islamic Party. In order to prevent Le Pen from winning, Ben Abbes cuts a deal with France's left-wing party and is subsequently elected president. Almost immediately, France is placed under Sharia law.

In order to maintain his job at the Sorbonne, Francois is forced to covert to Islam. But surprisingly, the libertine professor doesn't mind. In fact, he rather likes the new arrangement. The Sorbonne's Saudi underwriters pay him better than ever before, and Sharia's permissive attitude toward polygamy dovetails neatly with his womanizing lifestyle. For the bohemian Parisian intellectual, perhaps Sharia isn't so bad!

Houellebecq has described Submission as a funny, biting social commentary. But not everyone in France is amused. Laurent Joffrin, editor of the left-wing Liberation newspaper, sniffed that the novel "will mark the date in the history of ideas on which the ideas of the extreme right made their entrance in high literature." Houellebecq's past hasn't helped. Throughout his career in public life, the novelist has obtained a reputation as a gadfly whose dismissive attitude about Islam once landed him in legal trouble. (A 2002 case brought against Houellebecq for calling Islam "stupid" was ultimately dismissed.) Even today, he has little use for the term "Islamophobic" and disputes its similarity to traditional racism. Nevertheless, Houellebecq maintains that his views on Islam have softened over the years; and that Submission, in any case, wasn't meant to endorse a political ideology.

In fact, Submission doesn't condemn fundamentalist Islam so much as show that its rise has turned old political conventions in France upside down. A fundamentalist Muslim might find much to like in National Front's social policies, but Marine Le Pen's party explicitly warns about the threat he or she might pose. Houellebecq described this contradiction in a recent interview in Paris Review.

On [social] issues, obviously, [Muslims in France] are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever.

But Submission mainly pokes fun at the group left outside of France's increasingly extremist politics: the left. In centering his novel around Francois, Houellebecq satirizes how an archetypal French liberal—a Sorbonne literature professor—finds that life under Sharia suits him quite nicely. Francois' envy of his new boss, a Saudi with multiple wives, resonates with the "philandering liberal" tradition in contemporary French politics.

Take Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former director of the International Monetary Fund whose sexual peccadilloes derailed a once-promising political career in his home country. After a chambermaid at a New York hotel accused DSK of sexual assault in 2011, fresh allegations soon emerged that the world-famous economist was a serial womanizer and likely worse. But his wife, the journalist Anne Sinclair stood by his side, claiming that DSK's sexual conquests did not bother her—though they did divorce two years ago. In 2006 she told a French newspaper that she was "rather proud" of her husband's reputation: "It's important for a politician to be able to seduce," she said.

The horrific attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store last week have only exacerbated the common lament that France's divisions have hardened. The timing of its release has drawn Submission into a nationwide discussion over whether the country's artists should refrain from racial and cultural provocation. If anything, Houellebecq's latest novel seems to underscore the opposite point: For all of the country's divisions, France's various groups are more alike than any of them would like to admit.