On the day Submission hit bookstores, the cover of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo featured a caricature of Michel Houellebecq saying, “In 2015 I lose my teeth; in 2022 I’ll observe Ramadan.” (It rhymes in French.) The cover wasn’t particularly inflammatory, given what Charlie Hebdo sometimes publishes; still, the caricature hit on the central premise of Houellebecq’s novel, and imagined that even the famously atheistic author might soon convert. Later that day, around 11:30 a.m., two gunmen entered Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office and shot 12 people dead. Houellebecq was at home in Paris. He was placed on a police protection list and left the capital on an unspecified “rural retreat.”
The literary and media debate over France’s supposed decline, and the place of Islam in a country with the largest Muslim population in western Europe, grew only shriller in the months after Submission’s publication — which saw an even bloodier attack at the Bataclan nightclub and elsewhere in November 2015, and the launch of a presidential election campaign in which Marine Le Pen led the polls. But soon thereafter, another outsider shook up the sclerotic political class that Houellebecq had flayed in Submission. And he was rather different from the one the author imagined.