Protesters in Paris. (Photo by Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images)

June 8, 2021   5 mins

“I look on every side and all I see is darkness.”

I use that quote from Pascal (Pensées, 229) because I am not setting out to assert positive truths nor to defend opinions. I see a situation which — as Pascal writes in his next sentence — “offers nothing but cause for doubt and anxiety”.

In asking me to give an opinion on the now celebrated “Letter of the Generals,” UnHerd‘s Will Lloyd rightly notes: “What seems most extraordinary about the furore that followed is that so few people questioned the premise of the letter — that France is on the point of collapse.”

This is indeed surprising. Why France? Why France rather than any other European country when the others seem to be in a more or less similar situation and sometimes worse off?

I might as well admit from the beginning that I have no solution to this mystery (even though I know France well and I am a Frenchman). I will try to avoid straying into confused notions of the “psychology of nations” kind; but it will be difficult.

From the point of view of Islamist terrorism, it is true that, for a time, France was especially targeted by Isis, the latter believing (not without reason) that France had attacked them by intervening in Syria and Iraq. But those days are behind us, and if one considers the last decades, we see that Great Britain, Spain, Belgium and, to a lesser extent, Germany have also suffered murderous terrorist attacks. What would be difficult, in fact, is to find a country in the world that has been spared Islamist violence.

Are crime and violence, whether or not linked to drugs, really wreaking more havoc in France than in other European countries? I have no idea, but it would surprise me a little; if this were the case, French journalists would not have failed to emphasise it.

There is in France a vague and widespread ambiance of self-flagellation — something that hangs in the air like a gas. Anyone visiting France and watching television cannot help being struck by the obsession of its presenters, journalists, economists, sociologists and assorted specialists: they spend the greater part of their time on air comparing France to other European countries, invariably, with the goal of belittling France.

In general, it is sufficient to point to Germany; but sometimes Germany does not have such a good record so they refer to Scandinavia, the Netherlands and, more rarely, Britain. Whatever the subject may be, it is of course always possible to discover a country that is superior to us; but such an extreme delight in masochism is surprising.

This is just a detail. By far a more important subject, since it is not only a symptom of decline but decline itself — decline in its very essence — is of course demography. Recently, politicians and commentators were disturbed to learn that the “synthetic index of fertility” (that is, the number of children per woman) has fallen in France to 1.8.1

Such a figure would be a dream come true for the countries of Southern Europe: for Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, where the rate is 1.3.2 It is worse still in Asia, in parts of the world that are as technologically advanced as they are far away but generally admired. The rate in Singapore and Taiwan is 1.2.

South Korea is only 1.1. This country risks losing a tenth of its population by 2050; if that continues it will only have one chance of survival: to annex North Korea, which is at 1.9. I’m joking, but only just.

With a rate of 1.4, the Japanese are almost muddling through, which is surprising, since the most amusing news on declining birth-rates typically comes from Japan. These news items are so crazy that I hesitate to repeat them (but the improbable is sometimes true):

  • Old men are apparently so numerous in Japan that they can no longer be housed, so they have to find a way of breaking the law to find lodgings in prison.
  • The Japanese government is reported to have to broadcast pornographic videos in primetime on public television, in order to stimulate the sexual appetites of Japanese couples. After all, screwing does end up producing a few children.

In France, it is clear that we have not quite sunk to his level, at least not entirely. The truth is that French obsession with the idea of decline is far from new. Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserts somewhere (or is it Voltaire? I’m too lazy to check; these authors are tedious to read. Anyway, it is one of the two), that sooner or later — “the thing is certain”: we will be enslaved by the Chinese.

France sometimes reminds me of one of those hypochondriac old men who never stops complaining about their health; the kind who are constantly saying that this time they really do have one foot in the grave. People usually respond sarcastically: “You watch, he’ll end up burying all of us.”

The United States of America seems, on the other hand, to have erected optimism into a principle of existence. One can doubt the soundness of this attitude. When Joe Biden claims that “America is once again ready to lead the world” (here again, I am too lazy to find the exact quotation; Biden is even more tedious than Voltaire), I immediately interpret this as:

  • America will not be long in embarking on a new war;
  • As always, she will wind up conducting herself like a piece of shit;
  • She will waste a lot of money, while reinforcing up the near-universal loathing of which she is the target; this will allow China to strengthen its position.

No, we are not really dealing with a “French suicide” — to evoke the title of Eric Zemmour’s book — but a Western suicide or rather a suicide of modernity, since Asian countries are not spared. What is specifically, authentically French is the awareness of this suicide. But if we consent to set aside for a moment the particular case of France (and really it would be wise to do so), the conclusion becomes crystal clear: the inevitable consequence of what we call progress (at all levels, economic, political, scientific, technological) is self-destruction.

By refusing all forms of immigration, Asian countries have opted for a simple suicide, without complications or disturbances. The countries of Southern Europe are in the same situation, although one wonders if they have consciously chosen it. Migrants do land in Italy, in Spain and in Greece — but they only pass through, without helping to sort out the demographic balance, although the women of these countries are often highly desirable. No, the migrants are drawn irresistibly to the biggest and fattest cheeses, the countries of Northern Europe.

I should mention in passing the Leftist/progressivist/humanist opinion: we are not dealing with a suicide but with a regeneration. Ethnic composition is, admittedly, being modified, but in the essentials everything else remains unchanged: our republic (or rather in Europe, mostly our monarchy) our culture, our values, our “Rule of Law,” all that stuff. I sometimes hear this opinion being defended (though more and more rarely).

The 45% of French people who believe, on the other hand, in impending civil war help to show (and it is almost sweet) that France remains a nation of braggarts.

It takes two to wage war. Are the French going to take up arms to defend their religion? They haven’t had any religion for quite some time; and in any case, their former religion is the sort where you offer your throat to the butcher’s blade.

Would it then be a war to defend their culture, their way of life, their system of values? What exactly are we talking about? And supposing it does exist, is it worth fighting for? Does our “civilisation” really still have something to be proud of?

Europe seems to me to be at a crossroads. Reading Pascal helps me a lot: but, like him, I see “nothing but cause for doubt and anxiety”.


Translated by Dr Louis Betty

© Michel Houellebecq c/o Agence Intertalent

  1. The United States and Russia are both at 1.8; China is at 1.7.
  2. These figures from 2019 come from an informational bulletin, Population et sociétés, published by the Institut National d’Études Démographiques; their data come in turn from a report published by the UN’s population division. This bulletin also engages in projections of countries’ populations by 2050. They are probably banking on a certain percentage of immigration, which would explain the differences with what follows from fertility rates. As such, the population of the United States increases significantly (that of France as well, though much less), whereas that of Russia and China decrease slowly; in 2050, the most populated country in the world should be, by a wide margin, India.

Michel Houellebecq is a French author of novels, poems and essays. His latest book is Serotonin.