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How France’s provocateur-in-chief became part of the establishment

Michel Houellebecq’s seventh novel sold 90,000 copies within the first three days of publication on 4 January. At the same time he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

Recent events in France have seemed inexplicable to observers outside the country. The rise of the “gilets jaunes” movement has proved difficult to define or understand, partly because of the shocking violence it has unleashed, and partly because no one outside France can quite work out whether this is a revolt of the left or the right, or something else altogether. The mysteriously opaque politics of the gilets jaunes is matched in the cultural domain by the remarkable success of Michel Houellebecq, whose seventh novel, Sérotonine, sold 90,000 copies within the first three days of its publication on 4 January.

These figures are hard to imagine for a literary writer in Britain: it’s as if Julian Barnes were to be suddenly propelled to the status of JK Rowling. During the first few days of the book’s publication, Houellebecq’s gaunt and petulant face was everywhere: on television, in newspaper stands and bookshops. At the same time, it was announced that he had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur by Emmanuel Macron. This is France’s highest civilian honour and is recognition that over the past two decades Houellebecq has written powerful and prescient books – most notably Atomised (published in the UK in 2000) and Platform (2002) – which have not only reshaped French literature but changed the way French people think about themselves. It also places him at the heart of the French establishment, a long way from his original rebel status. In recent photographs he cuts a professorial figure, a long way too from the scruffy drunk, fag in hand, which has been his enduring public image until now.

It was not easy to get hold of a copy of Sérotonine. The first bookshop I visited had sold out of its stock that very morning and was awaiting a fresh delivery; in the second shop I went to, I queued behind two elegant middle-aged ladies and a scruffy student who were each clutching copies of the book.

Anyone who has ever read anything by or about Houellebecq will recognise the themes in the new book and their delivery: depression, impotence, alcoholism; all mixed into a stew of scenes that include bestiality, swingers’ clubs and forensic descriptions of genitalia. There are a few laughs, but not many, and those are usually at the expense of those whom Houellebecq thinks of as beings lower than himself (which is most of us). So, why is this clumsy, thrown-together excuse for a novel being celebrated as a great state-of-the-nation book about France? And what does its success tell us about French society?

I’ve met Houellebecq. In 1996, long before he was famous, a friend introduced me to his poetry. I called Houellebecq, told him I liked his work, and spent a long, drunken evening in his flat watching England and France get knocked out of Euro 96. I thought he was a difficult but talented drunk – an emmerdeur, translated best as a “shit-stirrer”. I thought he was worth the effort mainly because of the quality of his poetry, which reminded me most of all of  Morrissey of the Smiths.

More than two decades later it may well be that the comparison with the Mancunian poet and shit-stirrer still stands – but now for all the wrong reasons.

Part of an answer lies in the plot of the new novel. The central character of Sérotonine is Florent-Claude Labrouste, 46, an agricultural scientist. He goes through a mid-life crisis, brooding on his lost loves, and is sent to work in Normandy for the European Union. There, Labrouste sees at first hand how wretched life in rural France is these days. There are compelling descriptions of modern agribusiness; nightmarish scenes in poultry farms; dairy farmers being pushed to redundancy and suicide by EU regulations. The climax of the novel is a bloody confrontation between armed farmers, who have barricaded a road, and riot police.

It doesn’t take much to work out that this scenario has close parallels with the rage of the gilets jaunes. This is indeed one of the main reasons the book has been praised, as if Houellebecq were a kind of seer or prophet as well as a novelist.

Houellebecq has, however, hardly been alone in noticing the anguish of the French farmers or anticipating the violence that has flowed from their frustration. For one thing, the main French television channel TF1 has provided regular coverage of poverty in rural France and has a campaign called SOS Villages aimed at flagging up the so-called  desertification of the countryside. There has also been a series of non-fiction publications that have explored this subject. One of the most notable is a recent work called No Society by Christophe Guilluy. The book is written in French but the title is borrowed from Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “there is no such thing as society”. Guilluy argues that France has long since abandoned its traditional left-right rivalries and has become, instead, a society divided between metropolitan “winners” and the rural “losers” who make up “La France péripherique” (peripheral France). The revolt of the gilets jaunes is the inevitable result of this new form of class warfare.

In some ways, Sérotonine has taken Houellebecq back to where he started. He was trained as an agronomist in the early 1990s before he became a writer. His recent pro-Brexit statements (and by implication pro-Frexit views) will come as no surprise to anyone who knew him back then, when he was an ex-communist and an avowed enemy of Western social democracy as incarnated in the EU. This is why much of Sérotonine reads like extremely forceful and emotional anti-EU propaganda. This is also why he has been identified in the centrist French press as an “icon of the far right”.

The reality, however, is not quite so simple. Houellebecq, in his writing as in his public image, is above all a great shapeshifter. In this sense, for all that he now occupies an untouchable place in the first rank of French literature, I suspect that he has not changed much from when I first read him and met him – an emmerdeur, a perennially provocative and perverse comedian whose real gift is to remain always at odds with the world around him.

This article appears in the 18 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain