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CULTURE

French prophet of doom Houellebecq launches political thriller

Michel Houellebecq is a giant of the French literary world and one of the country's best-selling authors overseas. His new novel 'Anéantir' is a political thriller set in the not-so-distant future.

French writer Michel Houellebecq has released a new novel
French writer Michel Houellebecq has released a new novel, "Anéantir", set in a politically chaotic not-so-distant future. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

France’s biggest literary star, Michel Houellebecq, was back in bookshops Friday, with many eager to know what the famously prescient author has to say in the midst of a bruising election campaign.

Houellebecq sells in big numbers: 300,000 copies have been ordered for the French release of his eighth novel “Aneantir” (“Annihilate”), with an English edition due later this year.

And he has an uncanny knack for capturing the moment.

His 2015 novel “Submission” about a Muslim winning the presidency, which taps into right-wing fears about the rise of Islam, was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

His next novel, “Serotonin”, about the plight of rural farmers, appeared just as the French countryside was exploding with “yellow vest” protests.

The new book looks similarly topical. It is set during an election in 2027 with characters that clearly resemble current politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a tough re-election battle in real life this April.

But the novel’s focus ultimately proves more personal, as the narrator tackles his relationships with a dying father and estranged wife.

Houellebecq himself, who cultivates the image of a depressed reactionary, dismisses any grand intentions in his work.

“Fundamentally, I’m just a whore. I write for the applause. Not for the money, but to be loved, admired,” he told Le Monde newspaper last week, between multiple glasses of white wine.

“Cantankerous old uncle”

The uncharacteristic traces of love and even hope in the new book suggest the 60-something chain-smoker, who married for the third time in secret in 2018, may be mellowing slightly with age.

“There’s no need to celebrate evil to be a good writer,” he told Le Monde.

But there is still plenty of the familiar misogynistic and xenophobic vitriol from his characters, alongside diatribes about France’s spiritual and cultural decline.

For many critics, it’s too much.

“From a young, highly lucid writer on society, Houellebecq has become a sort of cantankerous old uncle completely overwhelmed by his time,” wrote left-wing magazine Les Inrockuptibles.

But many other critics, across the political spectrum, have been full of praise.

Le Monde gushed over “fleeting moments, in the midst of the loneliness and dereliction, that make you cry”.

Houellebecq was a darling of the left in the 1990s, when his uncompromising accounts of those left behind by globalisation and sexual liberation in novels such as “Atomised” and “Platform” struck a chord around the world.

But in recent years, that same pessimism (he has summed it up as “the suicide of modernity”) has mapped more neatly onto right-wing fears about the decline of nation, church and family — as well as the misogyny of “incel” men, who blame gender equality for leaving them sexless.

In 2020, he released a book of essays that praised writer Eric Zemmour, now a far-right candidate for the presidency who holds divisive views against migrants.

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CULTURE

16 of the best festivals and events in France this summer

From old rockers to classic cinema, fireworks to modern theatre, here are some of our favourite French summer festivals.

16 of the best festivals and events in France this summer

JUNE

Festival de Nîmes

Starting mid-June and running through to July 24th, the Festival de Nîmes has brought modern music to the famous Roman Arena. This year, Gorillaz, Deep Purple, Gladiator Live, Kiss, Sting, Black Eyed Peas, Stromae and Sexion D’Assaut are among the headliners.

Fête de la musique

You will scarcely be able to move for musicians in France on June 21st, as villages, towns and cities are alive with the sound of music, celebrating the sheer joy of live performances and the breadth and diversity of musical genres.

It’s the 40th anniversary of the annual national, nationwide midsummer’s night festival. At l’Olympia in Paris, for example, Angèle, Pomme, Franz Ferdinand, Benjamin Biolay and Parcels are all performing in a series of concerts that will be broadcast on France Inter.

Rétro C Trop 

For three days between Friday, June 24th, and Sunday, June 26th, at the appropriately aged Château de Tilloloy, Hauts-de-France, there’s the ‘festival of old rockers’, this year featuring sets by Alice Cooper, acoustic ska band Tryo, Status Quo, Simple Minds, Madness, OMD, The Undertones, and Les Insus – you may know them better as 80s hit-sters Telephone.

Joking aside, previous festivals have featured the likes of Sting, Stray Cats, Tears for Fears, and Scorpions – so they know actually do know how to rock out at the 17th-century chateau. And also how to pace themselves…

Nuits de Fourvière

From the beginning of June  through to July 30th, the spectacular Gallo-Roman theatre at Fourvière hosts 60 equally spectacular performances of theatre, dance, music, cirque. There could surely be no better venue to watch Midnight Oil on July 14th.

JULY

Z’accros d’ma rue, Nevers

Theatre, circus and music are in store at Les Z’accros d’ma rue in Nevers in July, as they have been since the opening event in 1999. Most of the shows are free

The La Rochelle Film Festival

Rugby fans have rediscovered La Rochelle this year, but cinema-lovers should not ignore the Charente-Maritime resort between July 1st and 10th, as it hosts its 50th film festival, which this year pays tribute to the legendary Alain Delon.

Some 21 films featuring the French actor with eyes of ice will be screened during the festival. There’s also a retrospective of the films of the 50s queen of Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn – including Roman Holiday, Funny Face, Sabrina, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Other highlights include a day of Brad Pitt films, five films from Bulgarian pioneer Binka Zhelyazkova – whose works were frequently banned in her home country, and a celebration of the centenary of the birth of Italian visionary Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Festival de Carcassonne

Deep Purple, Orelsan, Rag n Bone Man, John Legend, Sexion D’Assaut, Calogero, and Jack White are among the acts gracing the music, theatre, arts, dance, comedy and cinema festival in the historic city between July 5th and 31st. Comedian Gad Elmalah will also perform, and there are numerous free off-festival performances.

Pause Guitare

Julien Doré, Orelsan (again), Bob Sinclar and Mika headline the four-day Pause Guitare programme. The relatively little-known music festival that routinely punches above its weight, runs from July 6th to 10th in the World Heritage city of Albi, southwest France.

Festival d’Avignon

No rundown of summer events in France would be complete without mentioning the Festival d’Avignon, which runs from Thursday 7th to Tuesday 26th July.

Celebrated Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, who’s currently banned from leaving his country, has been chosen to open the theatre festival. Whether he’ll actually be there remains to be seen, but the opening ceremony on July 7th kicks off three weeks of performances from some of the world’s leading stage performers across a range of disciplines.

Pyrotechnic Art Festival

Not satisfied with the bright lights of its Film Festival in May, Cannes turns on the lights again for its summer Pyrotechnic Art Festival, which runs from July 14th to August 24th. 

Nice Jazz Festival

Where would you find sultry chanteuse Melody Gardot, influential bassist Marcus Miller and punk’s grandad Iggy Pop on the same poster? The Nice jazz festival, which runs from July 15th to 19th. 

They’re not the only performers joining in the fun on the Riviera. Some 33 acts are taking part in the Festival proper, while several more are performing in the Off festival programme.

Fête nationale

July 14th marks France’s Fête nationale, known as Bastille Day in the Anglophone world, which is a public holiday. The big military parade is on the Champs-Elysée in Paris but most towns do something to mark the occasion, with concerts, parties and fireworks displays. 

AUGUST

MiMa 

MiMa is the International Festival of Puppet Art, held from August 4th to August 7th in the medieval town of Mirepoix, Ariège. The festival is open to young creators as well as artists who influence and update the recent history of puppet theatre, an inventive art with many faces. The line-up showcases a variety of techniques, with glove puppets, string puppets and marionettes portées.

Festival du Bout du Monde

The darkly named End of the World Festival takes place from August 5th to August 7th at Landaoudec Prairie on the Crozon Peninsula in Brittany, a few hundred yards from the wild Atlantic ocean. The wonderful Ballaké Sissoko is on the programme this year, as is the drum-and-trumpet fusion of Gallowstreet, as well as Julian Marley and Selah Sue.

Rock en Seine

Stromae, Rage Against the Machine, Arctic Monkeys, Jehnny Beth, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, London Grammar, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, Crawlers, and Baby Queen are among the numerous acts lined up for this year’s annual and mostly family friendly – if you don’t mind Zack de la Rocha’s swearing – Rock en Seine festival at Domaine national de Saint-Cloud.

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