Houellebecq defends artistic right to produce ‘irresponsible’ works

French author Michel Houellebecq has paid tribute to murdered staff of ‘Charlie Hebdo’

French author Michel Houellebecq during a presentation of his new novel ‘Soumission (Submission)’  in Cologne, Germany, on Monday. Photograph: EPA/Oliver Berg

French author Michel Houellebecq during a presentation of his new novel ‘Soumission (Submission)’ in Cologne, Germany, on Monday. Photograph: EPA/Oliver Berg

 

French author Michel Houellebecq has paid tribute to murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine and defended the right of artists to produce “irresponsible” work.

At a public appearance on Monday evening in Cologne, his first since the Paris attacks two weeks ago, Mr Houellebecq denied his new novel Soumission (Submission) was Islamophobic.

The novel, set in 2022, envisages French voters electing a Muslim president who introduces Sharia law. It was a cover story for Charlie Hebdo two weeks ago and has been linked by some to the January 7th killings.

“Everything had changed” since the attacks, Mr Houellebecq told his German audience, forcing him to explain two things “on a permanent loop”.

“First, that my book is not Islamophobic, and second, that one has the right to write an Islamophobic book,” he said.

The French author, who lived for a time in Ireland, praised the “pig-headedness” of the Charlie Hebdo caricaturists and defended the fundamental right of artists to produce “irresponsible” work.

Irresponsible behaviour, he argued, cannot be limited to take into account religious feelings.

Wearing an anorak and denim shirt, Mr Houellebecq was quizzed by his audience as to why the far-right Front National (FN) had become so attractive for so many people.

“I would like to smoke a cigarette and think about that,” he said, lighting up on the stage.

Mr Houellebecq told his German audience they “could not imagine” the level of crisis in his country, he said. A conservative country that had elected a left-wing president, it was “caught in a trap”, he said. Politics had descended to a level of simplistic television debates and people were now “as political as a towel”. In this vacuum the FN was thriving by appealing to the patriotic nostalgia of the de Gaulle era.

“If [François] Hollande is elected again in 2017 this will be very bad and very dangerous,” he said, as it would allow the FN to grow further.

He suggested direct democracy as the best antidote to political apathy, and dismissed claims that his book has been grist to the FN mill about the direction France is taking.

“To be honest, I don’t care about that,” he said. “No one ever changed their political opinion because they read a book.”

The Cologne event took place under tight security, with 15 security guards on duty alongside the author’s own bodyguards.