In the UK, the man about to become leader of the government opposition – Labour's socialist hardliner Jeremy Corbyn – is under fire over his links to Islamists and anti-Semites, with whom he has shared platforms in his campaigning against the Israeli government and Western wars in the Middle East. And in France, a terror attack by a heavily armed radical Islamist aboard a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris was thwarted by four passengers – two were US marines, one a British grandfather, another a French civilian – who overpowered him before he could dispatch travellers with his AK47.
So there couldn't be better timing for the English-language publication of Submission by the French author Michel Houellebecq: a daring novel which charts the collapse of France's traditional centre-left and centre-right parties amid a political crisis in which the fascists of the Front National and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood struggle for power via the ballot box in 2022.
Houellebecq wrote Submission before the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. So his prescience on themes few are willing to discuss is all the more terrifying: in one scene, groups of masked and armed men march down the streets of Paris as the sound of gunfire rings out. The day Charlie Hebdo's offices were attacked by radical Islamists, who murdered 10 of its staff and two policemen protecting them, the satirical magazine's front cover featured a mocking cartoon of Houellebecq.
The protagonist and narrator, Francois, is a middle-aged and somewhat pretentious French literary academic at the Sorbonne whose life's work has focused on the 19th century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans. He is lonely, miserable and struggles to find meaning or purpose in society. He is detached from mainstream politics by a sense of distrust and distaste. He likes, as any Frenchman does, good food and great wine. There is the odd moment of misogyny and racism. And he watches around him the descent of France back into a state based on strict religious law, including the enforced modesty and marginalisation of women. Only this time it isn't Catholicism. It's Islam. But, at the end of it all, will he submit to Allah as the literal meaning of "Islam" demands?
Houellebecq touches on the pandering of the left to Islamists for the sake of shared anti-Western goals. In particular, their inability to take on clerical fascism because the Muslim Brotherhood leader in France is, well, a Muslim. This is the conclusion of an identity-politics obsessed with privileging as unchallengeable the voices of designated oppressed minorities, even if an individual is a nasty piece of work. It debilitates the criticism of ideas and politics because, based on their identity alone, some people are untouchable.
And Houellebecq's novel reflects on the fundamental irony of the liberal-left's empowering of Islamism in Western political spaces. It transpires that these religious social conservatives share a very similar worldview to other religious social conservatives: the far-right. This is less a clash of civilisations than a meeting of them. They are both deeply patriarchal, for example. So why wouldn't French traditionalists find a home within Islamism, asks Houellebecq.
In Submission, as economic malaise and the bland-but-pragmatic, almost technocratic, politics of centrism wears thin, the French public travels to the extremes of politics. Many are nostalgic for the traditionalism of old. Family and faith over the postmodern deconstruction of society and the erosion of a higher meaning, leaving a relativistic nihilism behind. An overarching hum of pointlessness in a consumerist society. So the 2022 election is between two frontrunners: Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Mohammed Ben Abbes of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Originally written in French, the prose in the English-language translation is quick, lucid and provocative. The novel's quality, and the way Houellebecq unfolds the exciting and sinister events in France, demands your submissive attention. And this quality justifies you losing several hours of a day to Submission.
Houellebecq has been compared to George Orwell, who recognised the evil in Soviet Russia long before many Western leftists had finished churning out their apologia for the tyrannical Stalin and his communist nightmare. Comparisons to Orwell are clichéd and too strong. But you cannot help note a parallel: Houellebecq is percipient on Islamism and the corrosiveness of identity politics in the west just as Orwell was on communism and the Soviet Union.
Submission is a straight-faced satire. But Houellebecq has said he thinks the political developments contained within it are realistic, though admittedly not on such a short timetable as 2022. While Submission's themes are contemporary, real and worthy of serious debate, the novel's unsettling conclusion feels like a work of fiction rather than a realistic prophecy. And some of it feels a little undeveloped. There are flashes of violence, for example, and hints of mass disorder. But we are only offered glimpses of this and are left asking: well what the hell is going on? There is some suggestion of a media blackout, but this is an unconvincing explanation in the age of social media.
Leaving these minor reservations aside, Submission is an intense, dark and devourable read. And there are themes within this layered novel to challenge everyone's politics, not just the anti-western left. Let's just hope its plot isn't as realistic as Houellebecq fears.
The hardback English-language version of Submission by Michel Houellebecq is published in the UK by William Heinemann on 10 September, 2015.