July 29, 2022 - 3:30pm

Michel Houellebecq’s public interventions usually attract attention. So when one of the most-translated and best-selling French writers in the world gave a conference earlier this month to the monarchist group Action Française, it is surprising to see that it hasn’t filtered into the Anglo press.

Action Française, or “AF”, is no ordinary political group. Founded in 1899, it became the nation’s leading reactionary voice, providing the French Right of the early 20th century with prominent intellectuals. The group included the historian Jacques Bainville and most famously the virulent anti-German and antisemitic essayist turned Vichy supporter Charles Maurras. Entire generations of Right-wingers, including a young Charles de Gaulle, would read the AF’s daily newspaper, edited by Maurras. Maurras’s Vichysme cost the AF dearly after the war however, with the organisation now a shadow of its former self, and only seeing something of a revival in the past decade.

So when Houellebecq, perhaps France’s most well-known intellectual, granted a two-hour audience at the AF’s Parisian headquarters, naturally many were curious to hear what the media-shy author had to say. Houellebecq began by delivering some pugnacious zingers against the Left to the delight of the tightly packed room. For the author, “The Left feels lost, and just like an injured animal, it becomes mean. It wasn’t the case when I started writing. It now feels itself dying so it becomes mean.”

Nonetheless, he fell well short of coming out as a monarchist. Houellebecq admitted to finding most of the work of the AF disappointing, and has hardly read the AF’s Pantheon of authors. The reason for his presence? Simply his “curiosity for le royalisme”.

And yet Houellebecq, among his more literary remarks — he cares little for style, and admires authors like Balzac or Dostoyevsky who both “wrote somewhat carelessly and sacrificed a lot in the name of intensity” — did give a rare insight into his bleakly pessimistic and reactionary worldview. The French Revolution? A “disaster” for Houellebecq, who also confessed his admiration for the reactionary essayist Joseph de Maistre. The Renaissance? The start of a long decadence: “after that it’s all downhill, and it’s not over”.

He also believes that “there will be a war with Islam, we have to know that and prepare for it”. Indeed in his novel Submission (2015), Houellebecq had already imagined the democratic election of an Islamist president in the 2022 French election and predicted a relatively peaceful transition towards an Islamic society. And he still believes that “all happiness is of a religious nature, even the religion is crappy,” which makes the demographically vibrant Islam a better fit for survival in the upcoming consumerist and transhumanist era.

Houellebecq does find one source of optimism: the gilets jaunes who had rocked Emmanuel Macron’s first term. He felt “complete solidarity” with those that were “presented as hicks and beggars”, but also he saw a “real level of thought”. He believes they could come back, but in the meantime offers a populist cookbook of measures to unite a France torn by class war: referenda, the election of judges (“no reason for the judiciary to evade democracy”) and a national budget voted by citizens. Surprisingly revolutionary proposals from a man who is billed as a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary.

François Valentin is co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast and a Senior Researcher at Onward’s Social Fabric Programme.