Fictions of a Fascist France

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By Paul Cohen

One of the most striking things about Donald Trump’s presidency is just how surprised Americans were that it happened at all.  On the very eve of the election in November 2016, despite polls’ margins of error showing him within striking distance of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s victory was unthinkable, a scenario too fantastic to contemplate (reportedly, even by Trump).  And once he became president, a constellation of pundits and media outlets treated Trump as a ‘normal’ president in what was at once a performance of bothesidesism and a denial of the very possibility that Americans might have brought an extremist leader to power.

This surprise, which has given way to a reluctance amongst many to properly acknowledge the transformation of the Republican party into a far-right political formation, can only be understood as an absence of political imagination, a poverty of historical understanding, a blindness to the forces actively corroding America’s democratic institutions.

The same will not be said of the French if ever the far right comes to power in France.

Since 2002, when the leader of the Front National (FN – renamed today the Rassemblement National) party Jean-Marie Le Pen faced off against the center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac in the second round of France’s two-round presidential election system, French voters and politics watchers have had to seriously contemplate the possibility that a far-right leader might someday march into the Élysée palace through the front door.  With the outgoing president Emmanuel Macron set to face off against Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine Le Pen in what polls suggest will be a closely matched second round of voting, French citizens heading to their polling booths next Sunday will have bathed in two dense decades of discourse on the electoral menace of the far right.

Nowhere has this grim thought experiment been pursued with more imagination than in a series of works of speculative fiction, each set in a near future in which the far right comes to power.  The very existence of this distinct genre speaks to the place that the far-right menace has come to occupy in the French cultural imaginary.  But these works should command our attention for another reason as well.  As the old certainties and traditional frames of reference that have long structured political life in western democracies like France have crumbled, political fiction can function as a kind of laboratory for thought experiments in which to explore horizons of political possibility, a crucial resource for thinking through how France got here and where it might be headed.

The American literary canon, to be sure, boasts comparable examples of political fiction.

Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here represents a classic of the genre, its tale of a fascist demagogue winning the presidency and imposing authoritarian rule presented as a warning to Americans that the United States was not immune from the political convulsions reshaping interwar Europe, its title regularly served up today as a commonplace by liberal democracy’s Cassandras.

Closer to our own historical moment, Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America offers a counterfactual history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, makes antisemitism federal policy, and keeps the US out of the war.

In his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick conjured up a 1960s America which, having lost the Second World War, was now partitioned between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Germany had easily coopted white Americans to build a fascist civilization and perpetrate the Final Solution, while Japan, in an inversion of American white supremacy, governed its zone through a Japanese settler elite dominating a white underclass.

Recalling that prominent Americans like Lindbergh and Henry Ford were ardent admirers of Adolph Hitler, these works force American readers to confront darker chapters of their nations’ past and consider the possibility that, had circumstances been a little different, the Greatest Generation might have made considerably less virtuous choices.

With the exception of Sinclair’s nearly century-old novel, however, these works locate their troubling historical thought experiments in the past, a move that frees readers from considering their implications for the present.

Though it had gone into production before the election, Amazon’s television miniseries adaptation of The Man in the High Castle took on new resonance with Trump’s victory and events like the 2018 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.  It was Trump’s election that inspired the creator of The Wire David Simons to adapt Roth’s novel as a miniseries for HBO, seeing in The Plot Against America something “allegorical … to our current political moment.”[1]

What accounts for American blindness and French lucidity with regards to their respective far-right demons?

Part of the explanation lies in the differences between the two countries’ political systems: in France’s multiparty system, far-right parties have advanced unmasked, their xenophobia, neofascist genealogies, and nationalist tropisms visible to all; America’s two-party system has made the transformation of one of the parties of government into an extremist, anti-democratic movement harder to recognize.

Another lies in the timeworn narratives many Americans tell themselves about their country, holding it up to be exemplary, exceptional, even providential, absolving it of the sins of slavery and Jim Crow, vanquished long ago by the better angels of America’s nature.  While the French national imaginary is also marked by a rich mythology celebrating the emancipatory, universal vocation of its revolutionary republican model, history has not afforded France the same luxury to construct a robust providential national romance.  Its revolutionary origins are more ambiguous.  Its great revolution was left unfinished, consumed in Terror, overthrown by an autocrat himself destroyed by the very continent-wide wars of conquest he prosecuted.  Its Second Republic was toppled in a coup by another autocrat.  Its Third Republic was destroyed by the Nazi invasion in 1940, when a First World War hero stepped forward to rule a collaborationist fascist regime.  Its Fourth Republic, shaken by a brutal colonial war in Algeria of its own making, collapsed after an attempted putsch by disaffected army officers.  French democracy has been overthrown, multiple times.  France has had a homegrown fascist head of state in living memory.  French people know it can happen there, because it has.

In the year preceding Macron’s real-life victory over Le Pen in 2017, the prominent sociologist Michel Wieviorka published Le Séisme [The Earthquake], a work of speculative fiction in which he mobilizes his intimate familiarity with the contemporary French political scene to weave a perfectly convincing scenario.[2]  A public intellectual close to the socialist party, Wieviorka’s wide-ranging body of work encompasses studies of racism, antisemitism, and the FN itself.  The book consists of a series of dispatches ostensibly penned by an American journalist, Michael Squirrel for an American newspaper called New Morning between May 8 and December 23 2017, covering Marine Le Pen’s runoff victory over the deeply unpopular socialist president François Hollande, who in this alternative timeline runs for reelection in the 2017 presidential elections.  This narrative conceit allows Wieviorka to frame his tale as straight-up political analysis of Marine Le Pen’s presidency.

Wieviorka maps out the political conditions under which Le Pen could govern once in the Élysée.  Though the FN does not win a majority in the subsequent legislative elections, it forms a coalition government thanks to a critical mass of elected officials who, out of sympathy for the far right’s ideals or simple opportunism, quit the center-right Les Républicains party once piloted by Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy to cast their lots with the far right.

The prominent real-life politicians with which, with barely disguised contempt, Wieviorka credibly populates his fictional Le Pen government underscore how many on the right have in recent years steadily eroded the boundaries separating it from the far right.  Gérard Longuet, who spent the 1960s as a far-right streetfighting thug with extremist groups like Occident and the Groupe Union Défense (GUD) before migrating to the more respectable Gaullist movement and serving Sarkozy as minister of defense, is named foreign minister.  Nadine Morano, who held multiple cabinet positions under Sarkozy and has long distinguished herself with ambiguous remarks on racial difference and immigration, is appointed minister of  youth and sport.  Sarkozy’s principal speechwriter Henri Guiano comes aboard as minister of the economy.  That the hard-right LR deputy Éric Ciotti recently declared in real life that he would not vote for Macron only confirms that Wieviorka was spot on in casting him as Le Pen’s secretary of state of finances.

To tighten her grip on power, Le Pen leans on an audiovisual media landscape which, having in real life offered the far right a platform with which to normalize its ideas, proves more than happy to amplify the government’s ambitions.  Wieviorka gleefully lampoons France’s real-life constellation of prime time television talk shows that mix pop culture and politics and made purveyors of racist vitriol like Éric Zemmour into household names (Zemmour in real life captured 7 % of the vote in the first round of this year’s presidential elections; in Wieviorka’s novel he is named minister of education).  In a hilarious talk show set piece, the increasingly reactionary pseudo-intellectual Alain Finkielkraut defends Le Pen alongside pop singer Vanessa Paradis and the retired soccer star Zinedine Zidane.

On the diplomatic stage, Le Pen’s clumsy efforts to renegotiate the European Union treaties and her withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command isolate France from its traditional allies; she in turn strengthens ties with Vladimir Putin.

At home, Le Pen takes an authoritarian turn, imposing life sentences for serious crimes and reopening the notorious Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guyana.  The new government works to disseminate a decidedly nationalist ideology, imposing a secondary school curriculum that glorifies France’s past, banning all university-level teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences with the exception of a government-mandated program in history, and officially celebrating far-right literary figures like Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras.  And the government takes strong measures to reverse immigration: access to social services (notably public housing) is reserved for French citizens; the government ramps up expulsions of undocumented immigrants, annuls all naturalizations granted during Hollande’s presidency, and bans dual citizenship.  It tightly regulates the practice of Islam in the hexagon, requiring that all imams obtain administrative certificates and preach in French, and kicking foreign imams out of the country.  A multitude of violent, racist groups empowered by the new disposition and loosely tied to the FN mount attacks on French-Arabs across the country.

Marine Le Pen’s efforts to transform France encounter stiff resistance and unexpected problems.  The menace of EU sanctions and Frexit triggers capital flight, market turmoil, and an economic slowdown.  Government measures ignite teachers’ strikes and massive student protests (Nanterre, the flashpoint that started the May 68 uprising, is at the forefront of resistance).  Repeated waves of anti-immigrant violence feed the government’s mounting unpopularity.  In a scenario manifestly inspired by George W. Bush’s administration’s bungling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the government shows as much its inexperience as its incompetence in badly mishandling record flooding of the Seine river in Paris, and the subsequent chaos and pillaging in the capital provokes a collapse of popular support for the FN.  When news leaks that the army has rebuffed the government’s request to intervene to keep the FN in power, LR’s secessionists quit the coalition, toppling the government after only six months.

It is something of a paradox that an author whose scholarly work on the FN emphasizes the sociological contexts in which it has taken root chose in Le Séisme to construct a purely political narrative.  If at the close of Wieviorka’s speculative fiction France’s political institutions hold, they emerge much weakened from the FN’s short time in power.  The book’s conclusion posits this to have been a political crisis, born of the Fifth Republic’s failure to effectively represent and mediate French society, one whose remedy is a new set of institutions.  Wieviorka’s novel represents a plea for a Sixth Republic, thus joining a broader chorus that has called for far-reaching constitutional reform.

In its embrace of the French bande dessinée medium and of a more fully fleshed-out fictional universe, the three-volume graphic novel La Présidente is very different from Le Séisme.[3]  Its straight-up attempt to think through the consequences of a Le Pen victory in the 2017 presidential elections, however, is strikingly similar to Wieviorka’s.

La Présidente is the work of François Durpaire, who teaches American history at the Université de Cergy-Pontoise and has written widely on French multiculturalism, and of Farid Boudjellal, an established comic artist whose work explores themes related to immigration, and who is best known for his prize-winning trilogy Petit Polio, a semi-autobiographical account of growing up with polio.[4]

Durpaire and Boudjellal anchor their story to multiple narrative frames.  This first is the story of a family in the Belleville neighborhood of eastern Paris composed of Antoinette, a grandmother in Paris who fought with Resistance during the Occupation, her grandsons Stéphane and Tariq, and her roommate Fati, an immigrant from Sénégal and granddaughter of a tirailleur sénégalais (colonial troops who fought in the French army).  While they are resolutely left-wing in their commitments, the broader extended family encompasses white working-class relatives in the north of France sympathetic to the FN.  Their story introduces a dimension of human interest, allowing the authors to show how a far-right government would tear people’s lives apart.  The second narrative device is heavy reliance on the FN’s 2017 electoral program itself, reproduced extensively in the text in order to hammer home that the graphic novel’s political arc is eminently plausible.  The third device brings the reader inside the Élysée, where we spy on Le Pen’s meetings with advisors.  And finally, Boudjellal’s realistic style, composed of reworked photographs, hyper-realistic web pages, newspaper front pages, typeset official documents, legal decrees and administrative orders, glimpses of powerpoint slide decks, screen captures of television news broadcasts, and wide-angle portraits of the grand public rituals that mark Fifth Republic governance, allow him to paint a credible, richly textured fresco of French political life.  (It allows too for inside jokes, Boudjellal caricaturing how prominent cartoonists would themselves draw events, or Durpaire writing himself in as a talking head on a TV news show).

Though La Présidente’s political narrative closely tracks Wieviorka’s, its greater length allows its authors to cover more ground and explore more themes.

Their choice to extend the story over seven years and three presidential election cycles comes at a cost, however, forcing the authors to sustain the speculative fiction over three densely packed volumes which increasingly strain credulity as the narrative unfolds.

The rupture with history begins once again in 2017, when Hollande loses his reelection bid in the runoff to Le Pen.  As with Wieviorka, the FN governs thanks to support from a sizeable share of LR deputies and a strikingly similar cabinet (in this version of history, Longuet is named prime minister).  The government pursues the same policies of restricting immigration and expelling those already present in France (including naturalized citizens).  The referendum to abandon the euro provokes massive devaluation, capital flight, and runaway inflation (as in Wieviorka’s account, global capitalism functions as a formidable obstacle to the FN’s plans).  Le Pen yanks France out of NATO and strengthens ties with Trump’s US, Putin’s Russia, and Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom.  In its efforts to bring French media and popular culture to heel, the government arrests prominent rap singers like La Fouine and Booba, accused of promoting terrorism.

Durpaire and Boudjellal also introduce new dynamics into the political mix.  There are hints of a cult of personality in the making, with the new busts of Marianne, the female personification of the Republic that holds pride of place in every city hall in France, modeled on Marine Le Pen herself.

La Présidente also explores the potential implications of the internal divisions that have long wracked the Front National.  In real life, these divisions provoked a veritable civil war within the FN in 1997, which split into two far-right parties, and more recently they have fueled lasting tensions between Marine Le Pen, determined to shed the party of virulent racist and antisemitic discourse in order to make it appear more respectable, and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, committed to a harder line (and who supported Zemmour in this year’s elections).  In La Présidente, Marion’s camp puts intense, at times violent, pressure on Marine to tack ever harder to the right (pushing for example to repeal gay marriage, restore the death penalty, and undo separation of church and state).

The authors also invite readers to think about how a far-right government would play out in France’s overseas territories (a question Wieviorka’s thought experiment does not pose).  After Le Pen cancels a referendum on independence in New Caledonia scheduled for 2018 (in real life, 56 % of voters supported maintaining the status quo), she dispatches the army to put down massive protests, resulting in violence and deaths.  Amidst mounting turmoil in the DOM-TOMs, Martinique and Guadeloupe both declare their independence from France.

Theirs is also a darker, more frightening scenario, one in which the government uses every lever in the highly centralized, executive-heavy French state’s toolbox to dismantle liberal democracy, stifle dissent, and wage its war against immigration.  Putting electronic surveillance, cell phone geolocalisation, drones, the welfare state’s vast information trove, and the expanded police powers granted by Hollande’s government in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris to work, Le Pen directs the state to compile files on political opponents and draft lifts of immigrants in preparation of mass expulsions (after authorities refuse to renew her residence permit, for example, Fati is arrested and deported to Sénégal).  The GAFAs offer their services to help France, Russia, the US, and the UK strengthen their police states in exchange for managing their health, data management, and educational systems.  When amidst Le Pen’s plunging popularity Mohammed Labbes, a French-Arab political leader who has built a new political force atop the ruins of the Socialist Party, emerges as the frontrunner in the 2022 presidential elections, a terrorist attack on the Catholic pilgrimage site in Lourdes gives Le Pen the pretext she needs to impose martial law and throw Labbes in prison alongside growing numbers of political opponents.  Durpaire and Boudjellal map out precisely how a far-right government could begin to rebuild France as an authoritarian regime.

As with Wieviorka, Dupriare and Boudjellal bring their story to a close with a happy end.  France’s dense fabric of labor unions and associations mobilize to organize resistance in the form of massive marches and protests.  Mounting inflation and unemployment, along with intensifying violent clashes between far right and opposition groups, fuel discontent.  The army and gendarmerie refuse to participate in mass expulsions of immigrants.

When the news leaks that France has offered nuclear technology to Algeria in exchange for accepting deported French Algerians, the ensuing crisis helps carry a ticket composed of Macron and Christiane Taubira (Hollande’s former minister of justice and progressive who in real life mounted an unsuccessful presidential campaign this year) to victory in the 2024 presidential elections.  The trilogy ends with Taubira’s imagined speech, her characteristic lyricism striking a note of hope.

La Présidente also draws precisely the same conclusion on the urgent necessity for institutional reforms as Wieviorka did in his novel: the final image of the graphic novel reproduces the first page of the text of the Sixth Republic, as viewed on a smartphone screen.

Considered together Le Séisme and La Présidente are both written from the same left-leaning perspective supportive of a multicultural France, and both are animated by a common purpose: to warn their compatriots what would be in store for them were they ever to vote the far right into power.  Durpaire is explicit about his aims, arguing in his forward that France is in “denial” about the risk; a sticker on the cover captures the graphic novel’s didactic tone when it announces, “You won’t be able to say you didn’t know”.

Little surprise that when Éric Zemmour sought to trade on his noxious television notoriety to mount his own campaign for the presidency this year, and when early polls suggested he could make it into the runoff, Durpaire and Boudjellal joined forces once again to hastily put together ElyZée.

This graphic novel mobilizes the same devices and techniques as La Présidente in a more stripped down form, in order to imagine a Zemmour victory over Macron and the early weeks of his presidency.  Zemmour’s cabinet recycles the same rogues gallery of cryptofascists, fellow travelers, hacks, and amoral opportunists that would plausibly people any far-right government.  His government immediately repeals jus soli and gay marriage, halts all immigration and begins deporting foreigners on French soil, and mandates that schools only celebrate the French nation.  Fiction here serves a political purpose, aimed at waking voters up to the terrible risks in store, winning their hearts and minds, and helping stave off the far-right’s march to power.

If credit for the genre’s invention must go to journalist and writer Denis Tillinac, who first laid down the canons of the speculative Le Pen-as-president novel in his 2011 Les Deux-cent jours de Marine Le Pen [The 200 Days of Marine Le Pen], his political aims were decidedly different from those of Wievorka, Durpaire and Boudjellal.

Published under the pseudonym Frédéric Deslauriers, Tillinac’s novel narrates the FN founder’s daughter besting outgoing president Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election runoff (a red band across the bottom of the book’s cover screams “What would happen were she to be elected …”).[5]  A close friend and advisor to Jacques Chirac, Tillinac penned a sympathetic portrait of Marine Le Pen for the Catholic daily La Croix during the 2017 presidential campaign[6], and he was in the final years before his death in 2020 a regular contributor to the far-right news weekly Valeurs Actuelles.  Tillinac thus fashions his fiction from a decidedly right-wing perspective, and his political commitments necessarily shape his narrative.

As with Le Séisme and La Présidente, his book analyzes the FN’s rise in largely political terms.  Tillinac lays the ills to which the FN proposes a remedy squarely in the lap of a fragmented political landscape, fractured to the point of fatal stasis by petty squabbling amongst power barons, just as the Third and Fourth Republics had been.

Though the FN pursues predictable policies, with predictable results (withdrawing from the euro, limiting immigration and restricting social services to citizens), Tillinac’s tediously detailed narrative of political push-and-shove serves to normalize the FN, to suggest even that a Le Pen presidency would not really be out of the Fifth Republic ordinary in any substantive way.  Tillinac even writes himself into the story as Le Pen’s minister of culture, though it is difficult to tell whether this is a joke or evidence that he would have accepted such a position. The book can be read as a demonstration of the claim Tillinac made in another context in 2016, that “the FN is no longer a far-right party.”[7]

Six months into Le Pen’s presidency, the Constitutional Council disqualifies her election on charges of illegal campaign financing, presented in the novel as a kind of deus ex machina so incredible (or rather, so in keeping with the machinations of a political class bent on keeping outsiders out of power) as to be illegitimate.  So far gone is the Fifth Republic, Tillinac seems to be saying, that Le Pen would never stand a chance even if she were elected.

Though Jérôme Leroy builds his novel Le Bloc atop the same premise of a far-right march to power as the preceding three works, his aims are altogether different.[8]  First published in 2011, the novel is as much a work of speculative fiction as it is a roman à clef, set in an alternate universe in which France’s dominant far-right party is the Bloc Patriotique, closely modeled on the Front National.

The novel, whose action unfolds over twenty-four hours during which the Bloc successfully negotiates a deal to take power, gives voice to two first-person narrators.  The first is Antoine Maynard, the husband of the Bloc’s leader (and daughter of the Bloc’s founder, all easily recognizable as Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen), who thinks back on the path that led from youthful rebellion against his staid provincial bourgeois Christian Democrat upbringing to a prominent role as literary enfant terrible of the far right and then to his current place as a powerful figure within the Bloc.  The second is Stanko, the son of a laid-off steelworker who first escaped the misery of his home in postindustrial northern France into an ultraviolent skinhead scene, before rising to become the head of the Bloc’s paramilitary security service.  As Stanko flees for his life, the Bloc having dispatched the very men he had trained to rub him out because his past dirty work has become politically inconvenient, he too weighs his own life choices,

Leroy’s novel seeks neither to shed light on how the far right might come to power nor on how it would govern if it did.  Instead, its dark, gripping narrative seeks to understand the far right from the inside, to explore militants and activists’ psychologies and motivations.

Maynard was drawn to the far right for two reasons.  First, his admiration of France’s grand yet noxious far-right literary tradition, peopled by figures like Charles Maurras and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle.  And second, his fascination for far-right violence, addicted as he is to the rush he derives from battling with far-left militants.

Though Stanko’s whole existence has been organized around violence, the Bloc saved him from social marginalization and the self-destructive path he had embarked on as a skinhead, giving him a situation, a purpose, an identity, and self-discipline.  Both characters share the same delight in the power they can exercise over others thanks to the violence that the Bloc gives them license to wield.

Ultimately, neither are particularly interested in seeing the Bloc govern France.  Both would prefer it to pursue its course as a subculture, a world apart, marked by its brutal rituals and pleasures.  Indeed, a melancholic Maynard fears “the Bloc of after, the one that will come to power, that will be presentable,” longing instead for “the Bloc’s crazy, romantic side, it’s finished because you’re on the verge of coming to power, and power is serious.”

A self-described communist[9], Leroy throws open a window onto the world of lettered hate-filled thuggishness that represents an important part of the French far right, reconstructing its appeal and psychology with disturbing plausibility and even psychological sympathy.  In its effort to bring the reader inside the FN, it can perhaps be thought of as a kind of fictional pendant to journalist Anne Tristan’s classic Au Front (1987), a chronicle of her year spent infiltrated in the FN in Marseille just as it was emerging as a political force.[10]  The world described in Le Bloc is that of figures like Renaud Camus, the writer whose delirious theories on the “great replacement” have found such a toxic echo in the global, anti-immigration hard right.  It is also the world of Loïk Le Priol a former GUD member who was arrested only a few weeks ago after shooting a retired Argentinian rugbyman to death on the streets of Paris.  And most importantly, it is the world of Marine Le Pen, who, however hard she has worked to clean up her public image, continues to draw from the hate-filled wellsprings of Maurrassisme and surround herself with a phalange of GUD veterans.

Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission [Submission], published in 2015 and set in a France in which an Islamist party wins the 2022 elections, is not obviously comparable to the other works discussed here.[11]  While Wieviorka, Durpaire, Boudjellal, and Leroy all situate themselves resolutely on the left, Houellebecq’s political affinities and intentions are far less clear.

Never afraid to court controversy and confuse the issue of his political convictions, Houellebecq has been accused of racism, misogyny, and even far-right sympathies.  Indeed, the attentive reader of Présidente will spy Houellebecq in black tie, holding a bottle of champagne and glass as a guest at the first traditional July 14th garden party at the Éysée of Marine Le Pen’s presidency (Wieviorka has Houellebecq lambasting the Nanterre protests).  Durpaire even cites Soumission in his forward as an antimodel, taking its account of France’s first Muslim president literally, rather than, say, as an imaginative effort to diagnose France’s ills.

Indeed, it is possible to read Houellebecq’s account of Mohammed Ben Abbes, a high-ranking civil servant and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood party who wins the 2022 presidential elections in a runoff against Marine Le Pen and proceeds to impose Islamic law, as a pure fantasy.

In this reading, Soumission represents an explicitly political contribution to Houellebecq’s broader project to document and critique the social and sexual atomization of post-1968 French society.  The narrator, a melancholic Sorbonne literature professor and specialist of Joris-Karl Huysman, an emblematic figure of the nineteenth-century Decadent movement, comes to recognize in Ben Abbes’s new France a way out of modernity’s anomie, a means even to reverse the nation’s decline.  Where modernity in all its liberal democratic, communist, and fascistic variants represented a vain, desperate “attempt to struggle against liberal individualism”, a society rebuilt atop Islam promises a sure cure to solitude, an answer to humanity’s need for transcendence, for social ties dense with meaning, and for traditional hierarchies that function to assign everyone a meaningful place.

In the twenty-first century context, Islam is described (in a political vocabulary manifestly borrowed from the far right, but put here to surprising ends) as “a historic opportunity for the moral and familial rearmament of Europe, opening the possibility of a new golden age for the old continent.”

Houellebecq’s novel makes the claim that the far right, imbued as it is with traditional Catholicism, and political Islam are in fact in broad agreement. “On the rejection of atheism and of humanism, on the necessary submission of women, on the return of the patriarchy: their fight, from every point of view, was exactly the same.”

The novel, then, uses its fantastical political scenario to make an argument for the far-right’s appeal in France: its reactionary program offering comfort to a fractured, uncertain society robbed of any grand narratives giving meaning to existence.  Where Wieviorka, Durpaire and Boudjellal are interested in thinking through the consequences of a Front National government and Leroy focused on exploring the subcultures of the far right, Houellebecq prefers to examine what he sees as the deep-rooted causes of the rise of the far right.

No one is obliged to agree with Houellebecq’s diagnosis that liberalism and capitalism are to blame.  But we must take seriously the argument that the rise of far-right movements in France and elsewhere is not the simple fruit of unhappy political conjuncture or faulty institutions, but rather have deep sociocultural roots.

* * *

Insofar as they represent literary efforts to think through a possible far-right government in France, these five works offer much food for thought but little comfort.  Twenty years after Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the runoff of the 2002 elections, no one in France can claim that a Le Pen presidency would come as a surprise.  The very existence of these works testifies to the real estate the far-right menace has come to occupy in French people’s minds.

The sad fact is that these warnings have not staunched Marine Le Pen’s political reach.  Americans woke up to president Trump with wide-eyed astonishment; the broad range of emotions with which French citizens would take in the news of a Le Pen triumph will not include surprise.

According to polls, the likeliest outcome tomorrow (Sunday April 24 2022) will be that another, though more fragile, republican front will forestall a Marine Le Pen presidency.

If this comes to pass, the hard, urgent work of thinking and pulling France out of the political tango of death with the far right it has been locked in for two decades – creating a Sixth Republic, for example, or enacting some form of deeper economic and social reform – will have to begin.

Paul Cohen is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.

[1]David Greene and Arezou Rezvani, “ In ‘Plot Against America,’ David Simon Finds Present Day in an Imagined Past,” NPR (13 March 2020)

[2]Michel Wiewiorka, Le Séisme (Robert Laffont, 2016).

[3]François Durpaire and Farid Boudjellal, La Présidente, 3 vols. (Les Arènes, 2015-2017).

[4]Boudjellal, Petit polio, 4 vols. (Soleil-Futoropolis, 1998-2007).

[5]Frédéric Deslauriers, Les Deux-cents jours de Marine Le Pen (Plon, 2011).  Interestingly, Wiewiorka acknowledges the genealogy attaching his book to Tillinac’s, Le Séisme, p. 15.

[6]Denis Tillinac, “Marine Le Pen, racontée par Denis Tillinac,” La Croix (5 April 2017)

[7]Béatrice Gurrey, “La mort de l’écrivain et journaliste Denis Tillinac,” Le monde (28 September 2020)

[8]Jérôme Leroy, Le Bloc (Gallimard Série Noire, 2011).


[10]Anne Tristan, Au Front (Gallimard, 1987).

[11]Michel Houellebecq, Soumission (Flammarion, 2015).

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