Authors: Michel Houellebecq
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics
But, he went on, everyone had to admit that times had changed. More and more families – whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim – wanted their children’s education to go beyond the mere transmission of knowledge, to include spiritual instruction in their own traditions. This return to religion was deep, it crossed sectarian lines, and state education could no longer afford to ignore it. It was time to broaden the idea of republican schooling, to bring it into harmony with the great spiritual traditions – Muslim, Christian or Jewish – of our country.
He spoke for ten minutes, in a smooth and purring voice, then he took questions. I’d often noticed how even the most tenacious, aggressive reporters went soft in the presence of Ben Abbes, as if hypnotised. And yet it seemed to me there were some tough questions to be asked – about the ban on co-education, for example, or the fact that teachers would have to convert to Islam. But wasn’t that how it already was with Catholics? Did you have to be baptised to teach in a Christian school? On reflection, I realised I didn’t know the first thing about it. By the end of the press conference, I felt that I was right where the Muslim candidate wanted me, in a state of free-floating doubt. Not only did none of this sound scary, none of it sounded especially new.
Marine Le Pen counter-attacked at twelve thirty. Brisk and blow-dried, shot from below, with the Hôtel de Ville rising up behind her, she was almost beautiful. This was quite a contrast to her earlier appearances. During the 2017 campaign, the National Front candidate had been persuaded that a woman had to look like Angela Merkel to win the presidency, and she did all she could to match the bristling respectability of the German chancellor, right down to copying the cut of her suits. But on this May afternoon, Le Pen seemed to have recovered a flamboyance, a revolutionary elan, that recalled the origins of the movement. For a while there’d been rumours that Renaud Camus was writing some of her speeches, under the direction of Florian Phillipot. I don’t know whether there was anything to that; in any case, her public speaking had certainly improved. Right away I was struck by the republican, even anticlerical, tenor of her remarks. Skipping the usual reference to Jules Ferry and the secularist reforms of the 1880s, she went all the way back to Condorcet and the historic speech he made before the Legislative Assembly in 1792, when he evoked the ancient Egyptians and Indians ‘among whom the human spirit made such progress, and who fell back into the most brutal and shameful ignorance the moment that religious power assumed the right to educate men’.
‘I thought she was a Catholic,’ Myriam said.
‘She may be, but not her voters. The National Front never got a foothold with the Catholics – they care too much about welfare and the Third World. So she’s adapting.’
She looked at her watch and stretched, wearily. ‘I have to go, François. I told my parents I’d be back in time for lunch.’
‘They know you’re here?’
‘Oh, yeah. They won’t be worried – it’s just that they won’t eat until I get there.’
I’d visited her parents once, when we were just starting to go out. They lived in a house in the Cité des Fleurs, behind the Brochant metro. There was a garage and a toolshed, it looked like something you might find in a little village in the provinces somewhere, anywhere but in Paris. I remember we had dinner in the garden, the daffodils were in bloom. Her family had been very kind to me, friendly and welcoming, and without treating me as special in any way, which was even better. As her father was uncorking a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it suddenly occurred to me that for the last twenty years Myriam had had dinner with her parents every night, that she helped her little brother with his homework, that she took her little sister shopping for clothes. They were a tribe, a close-knit family tribe, and as I thought back on my own life, it was so unlike anything I’d ever known that I almost broke down in sobs.
. Marine Le Pen gestured more vigorously. She shook her fist, she threw open her arms. Obviously Myriam would go with her parents to Israel. There was nothing else she could do.
‘I really hope I come back soon,’ she said, as if she’d read my mind. ‘I’m just going to wait a few months, till things calm down in France.’ I found her optimism slightly overdone, but I kept this to myself.
She stepped into her skirt. ‘With everything that’s going on now, it’s obvious the National Front’s going to win. That’s all we’ll talk about at lunch. “We told you so, sweetheart.” Still, they’re good people, they only want what’s best for me.’
‘Yes, they are good people. Truly good people.’
‘But what about you? What will you do? What do you think’s going to happen at the university?’
We were standing at the door. I realised that I hadn’t the slightest idea, and also that I didn’t give a fuck. I kissed her softly on the lips, and said, ‘There is no Israel for me.’ Not a deep thought; but that’s how it was. She disappeared into the lift.
There followed an interval of, I suppose, several hours. The sun was setting between the apartment towers by the time I fully regained awareness of myself, of my circumstances, of everything. My mind had wandered in dark and troubled zones. I felt unutterably sad. Those sentences from
kept coming back to me, piercing me, and I was painfully aware that I hadn’t even suggested that Myriam come and live with me, that we move in together, but I knew that wasn’t the real problem. Her parents were prepared to rent her an apartment, and mine was just a one-bedroom – a big one-bedroom, but still. Living together would have spelled the end of all sexual desire between us, and we were still too young to survive that as a couple.
In the old days, people lived as families, that is to say, they reproduced, slogged through a few more years, long enough to see their children reach adulthood, then went to meet their Maker. The reasonable thing nowadays was for people to wait until they were closer to fifty or sixty and then move in together, when the one thing their ageing, aching bodies craved was a familiar touch, reassuring and chaste, and when the delights of regional cuisine, as celebrated every Sunday on
Les Escapades de Petitrenaud
, took precedence over all other pleasures. For a while I sat there toying with the idea of writing an article for the
Journal of Nineteenth-Century Studies
in which I’d cite the proliferation of hit TV shows devoted to cooking, and in particular to regional cuisine, to argue that, after the long tyranny of modernity, Huysmans’ clear-eyed conclusions had come round again, and were more relevant than ever. Then I realised that I no longer had the energy or desire to write an article, even for a publication as under the radar as the
Journal of Nineteenth-Century Studies
. I also realised, with a kind of incredulous stupefaction, that the TV was still on, still tuned to iTélé. I turned on the sound: Marine Le Pen had given her speech hours ago, but all the pundits were still talking about it. She had called for a giant march on the Champs-Élysées. She had no intention of requesting a permit from the police, and if the authorities tried to interfere, she warned, the march would take place ‘by any means necessary’. She’d concluded with a quotation from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the one from 1793: ‘When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.’ Naturally, the word
had provoked a fair amount of comment. It even drew François Hollande out of his years of silence. At the end of his second disastrous administration – having been re-elected only by pandering shamelessly to the National Front – the departing president had gone quiet, and the media seemed to have forgotten all about him. When he appeared on the steps of the Élysée, in front of the nine or ten journalists who showed up, and called himself the ‘last bastion of the republican order’, there was brief but clearly audible laughter. Ten minutes later, the prime minister issued his own response. Purple-faced, veins bulging in his forehead, he looked apoplectic, and he warned that those who tested the limits of democratic legality would be dealt with as criminals. In the end, the only one who kept his cool was Ben Abbes: he defended the right of free assembly and challenged Le Pen to a debate on secularism – which the pundits generally agreed was a clever move, since it was nearly impossible for her to say yes. So he emerged, at no special cost to himself, as the voice of moderation and dialogue.
In the end I got bored and wound up flipping back and forth between reality shows on obesity, then I turned off the TV. The idea that political history could play any part in my own life was still disconcerting, and slightly repellent. All the same, I realised – I’d known for years – that the widening gap, now a chasm, between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to something chaotic, violent and unpredictable. For a long time France, like all the other countries of Western Europe, had been drifting towards civil war. That much was obvious. But until a few days before, I was still convinced that the vast majority of French people would always be resigned and apathetic – no doubt because I was more or less resigned and apathetic myself. I’d been wrong.
Myriam didn’t call until Tuesday evening, a little past eleven; her voice was bright and full of confidence in the future. She was sure things in France would sort themselves out before long. I had my doubts. She’d even managed to persuade herself that Nicolas Sarkozy would return to politics, and be greeted as a saviour. I didn’t have the heart to disabuse her, but that struck me as improbable in the extreme. I had the sense that Sarkozy was finished with politics, that after 2017 he’d moved on.
Her flight was early the next morning, so there’d be no time to see each other before she left; she had so much to do – she had to pack, for starters. It wasn’t easy to cram your whole life into thirty kilos of luggage. This was as I expected, but still I felt a pang as I put down the phone. I knew that now I’d be truly alone.
Wednesday, 25 May
Yet I felt almost cheerful the next morning as I took the metro to my class. The events of the last few days, even Myriam’s leaving, seemed like a bad dream, a mistake that would be corrected soon enough. So I was taken aback when I got to the entrance of the building where my class was held, in the rue de Santeuil, and found that the gate was locked. The guards normally opened up at 7.45. Several students, including a few I recognised as my second years, stood waiting at the entrance.
It wasn’t until almost eight thirty that a guard emerged from the administration building, stood in front of the gate, and informed us that the university was closed today, and would be closed until further notice. There was nothing more he could tell us, we should go home and wait to be ‘contacted individually’. The guard was a black gentleman, Senegalese if I remembered right, whom I’d known for years and liked. As I was leaving, he took me by the arm and told me that, judging by the rumours among the staff, things were bad, really bad – he’d be extremely surprised if the university reopened in the next few weeks.
Maybe Marie-Françoise would know what was going on. I tried to reach her several times that morning, without success. Around one thirty I gave up and turned on iTélé. A lot of protesters had already shown up for the National Front march. Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries were thronged. According to the organisers there were two million people – the police said three hundred thousand. Either way, I’d never seen such a crowd.
A giant, anvil-shaped cumulonimbus cloud hovered over the north of Paris, all the way from the Sacré-Coeur to the Opéra, its sides a dark sooty grey. I looked over at the TV, where the huge crowd continued to gather, then I looked back at the sky. The storm cloud seemed to be moving slowly south. If it burst over the Tuileries, the demonstration would be seriously disrupted.
At exactly two o’clock, Marine Le Pen led the marchers down the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe, where she was scheduled to make a speech at three. I turned off the sound but went on looking at the screen. An immense banner stretched across the avenue, bearing the inscription ‘We Are the People of France’. Many of the demonstrators had been given small placards that read, more simply, ‘This Is Our Home’. That was the slogan they’d started using at extremist rallies – explicit, yet restrained in its hostility. The enormous cloud still hung there above the demonstration, motionless and threatening. After a few minutes I got bored and went back to
Marie-Françoise called a little after six; she didn’t have much news. The National Council of Universities had met the day before, but no one was talking. In any case, she was sure that the university wouldn’t reopen till after the elections – probably not until autumn. The exams could always be given in September. In general, the situation seemed serious. Her husband was visibly worried. For the past week he’d been spending fourteen-hour days at headquarters – he’d even slept there the night before. Before we hung up, she promised to let me know if she heard any news.
There was nothing to eat at home, and I didn’t want to deal with the Géant Casino – after work was the wrong time to go shopping in such a densely populated neighbourhood – but I was hungry. More than that, I felt like buying stuff to eat,
blanquette de veau
, pollock with chervil, Berber-style moussaka. Microwave dinners were reliably bland, but their colourful, happy packaging represented real progress compared with the heavy tribulations of Huysmans’ heroes. There was no malice in them, and one’s sense of participating in a collective experience, disappointing but egalitarian, smoothed the way to a partial acceptance.
The supermarket was strangely empty, and I filled my trolley fast, in a surge of enthusiasm mixed with fear. For some reason, the word
crossed my mind. Some of the cashiers, lined up behind their deserted checkout counters, were listening to transistor radios. The protest was still going on, so far without any incidents of violence. That would come later, I thought, once the crowd began to disperse.