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French Fiction Reveals Faux Democracy

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A version of this column originally ran in the Providence Journal on February 26, 2015.

The French novelist Michel Houellebecq might seem an odd person for me to cite on the decline of Western democracy, but fiction writers sometimes see clearly what pundits and historians can’t seem to grasp. A writer of imagination can pierce the veil of political rhetoric and cut right to the chase. 

Houellebecq’s latest work, Soumission (Submission), describes a peaceful Muslim takeover of France’s secular education system via maneuverings by mainstream political parties that permit the candidate of a fictional Muslim Brotherhood party to win the presidency. It sounds patently absurd, but well-crafted absurdity often makes for the best satire. Embroidered throughout Houellebecq’s amusing tale is a penetrating analysis that couldn’t be more relevant to today’s corruption of the body politic. 

Last week, evidence of democratic decay was everywhere, but especially in France and the United States. In Paris, President François Hollande essentially suspended parliament by letting Prime Minister Manuel Valls use emergency powers to implement pro-business, pro-E.U. “reforms” that overrode left-wing objections within Hollande’s Socialist Party. By invoking Article 49-3 of the Constitution, the French government can pass any law it wants unless a majority in the National Assembly responds with a no-confidence vote, something not a single Socialist deputy supported on February 19, since a real rebellion would have caused the fall of the government. New elections would certainly have led to a defeat of Hollande’s increasingly unpopular party, which is pro-Europe to a fault and more than ever subservient to Germany and the arrogant Brussels bureaucracy that serves the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

Yet Hollande and Valls are no different than the “opposition” UMP party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his prime minister, François Fillon. In a 2005 referendum, the French people voted down the proposed European Constitution, a document designed to further erode the national sovereignty of the European Union’s member states. So in December 2007, Sarkozy, Fillon, and the then-foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, acting as “plenipotentiaries,” signed France to the Treaty of Lisbon, an E.U. agreement that instituted most of the rules contained in the rejected European Constitution. That the French parliament rubber-stamped the treaty two months later was just another display of contempt for the will of the majority. 

Houellebecq, who is neither radical nor left-wing, understands perfectly France’s political elites and its duped and disempowered electorate. In Soumission, he mocks “democratic alternation” between center left and center with deadpan humor: “Curiously, Western countries were extremely proud of this elective system that nevertheless was little more than power sharing between two rival gangs; sometimes they even launched wars to impose it on countries that didn’t share their enthusiasm.” In any event, “The real agenda of the UMP, like that of the Socialist Party, was the disappearance of France, its integration into the whole of a European federation.” Can anyone seriously argue the contrary?

Houellebecq’s new novel was published January 7, eerily coinciding with the Muslim terrorist attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, so in France his critique of faux democracy and Europe was overshadowed by the controversy over his critique of the Koran and Islamic culture, particularly the treatment of women. Since the book is not yet available in English, Soumission has gotten limited attention in America. But Adam Gopnik’s review in the New Yorker is very likely typical in its appraisal of Houellebecq as a “conservative” who “hates … Enlightenment ideas and practices” as well as “contemporary consumer society.”

This is at best an oversimplification, but Gopnik’s greater error is to overlook Houellebecq’s mockery of Western democratic pretensions. For Houellebecq’s send-up of Socialist/UMP oligarchy also applies to this country’s Democratic/Republican alternation, whose “bipartisan” spirit will soon play out in the campaign to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a “trade” agreement that is fundamentally anti-democratic in conception and in practice. In order to negotiate TPP to the liking of his corporate supporters, President Barack Obama has requested “fast-track” authority from Congress, which would permit the White House to draft the deal in secret with representatives from eleven other countries. Once completed, Congress has to vote up or down on the entire text with no amendments from pesky congressmen who may be looking after the interests of their constituents. Like the North American Free Trade Agreement, TPP is mainly an investment agreement designed to help companies escape U.S. workplace laws and environmental regulations by moving production to countries such as Mexico, Vietnam, and Malaysia, where the labor is very cheap and the restrictions on pollution very weak.

And how will “liberal,” pro-labor Democrats vote on TPP? As with the Socialists in France, most of them, I wager, will vote no confidence in democracy and the working class before they’ll vote no confidence in their party leadership.

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