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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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CLIMATE CRISIS

French doctors advise ‘be more Spanish’ as heatwaves continue

With a fourth summer heatwave on the horizon for France, French doctors are advising their compatriots to copy Spanish habits to deal with the high temperatures.

French doctors advise 'be more Spanish' as heatwaves continue

France has had a dangerously hot summer – one that emergency doctor, Patrick Pelloux, estimates will lead to “5,000 to 10,000 excess deaths” by the end of the season.

French weather forecaster Météo France has repeatedly sounded the alert for dangerously high temperatures via its heat alert system – as of Wednesday, 18 départements are on ‘orange’ alert for high temperatures.

As a result, several emergency medicine doctors have announced new recommendations to help the French adapt and stay safe in the warmer temperatures.

Interestingly enough, it might involve mimicking the behaviours of France’s neighbours to the south – known for their heat adapted lifestyles (e.g. the afternoon siesta).

French daily Le Parisien, has even published a map comparing temperatures in French cities to those in Spain:

Here’s how these doctors recommend the French become more Spanish:

Alter the daily routine – Spain is famous for its afternoon siestas and late evening meals. In France the classic apéro or ‘happy hour’ usually begins at about 5 or 6pm with dinner at 7pm or 8pm, but during the heatwave many bar owners are reporting that terraces are empty at 5pm, and only fill up from 9pm when the temperatures start to fall.

Pelloux recommended to Le Parisien that the French may need to begin adjusting their working hours to avoid the hottest part of the day, but continue until later in the evening.

Another emergency medicine doctor, Agnès Ricard-Hibon, who works as head of the Samu du Val-d’Oise emergency unit, told the newspaper: “It is logical that we imitate the Spanish rhythm.

“When it’s very hot, you have to get up earlier and take a break in the afternoon, especially if you’re a vulnerable person with a risk of complications due to dehydration.”

It might also be recommended to extend the classic 12-2pm shop and office closure and keep shops closed during the high heat of the early afternoon, and instead take evening strolls at 8pm, rather than earlier.

Pelloux said that as France transitions “from a temperate to a tropical climate, we will have to stop working between noon and 5 pm.” 

No more tanning and goodbye suits – With skin cancer on the rise in France, experts worry about the popularity of the tanning trend, particularly during the hottest parts of the day.

Emergency physician Christophe Prudhomme told Le Parisien that it might be necessary to “close beaches at the hottest times” in order to keep people safe from the heat.

He also said we might have to change our fashion habits – dark coloured clothing, such as suits, hold in heat on hot days. Prudhomme recommends embracing fashion trends with more breathable fabric, such as cotton or linen.

In Spain, prime minister Pedro Sanchez is leading the way by announcing that he will no longer wear a tie when the weather is hot.

Lighter lunches – Ricard-Hibo told Le Parisien that as the days go by, we must learn to accept the heat and lighten our lunches.

Other experts recommend eating lots of hydrating foods during heatwaves, so maybe this is your opportunity to test out a particularly tasty gazpacho for your midday meal. The Local Spain has some other delicious recommendations to test out during the hot weather. 

READ MORE: The best Spanish food and drink to keep you cool during the summer heat

What about the official governmental advice? 

Meanwhile, the French government’s official advice is of course to drink plenty of water, but it is also a bit contradictory to the gazpacho suggestion – in the graphic below, you can see the French government recommending regular meals to keep from feeling faint in the high temperatures.

The government also recommends keeping the shutters closed, avoiding alcohol (maybe go light on the sangria), and staying cool by ‘getting your body wet’ whether that be by jumping in a fountain or standing in a brumisateurs (the machine that pumps out water vapour).

Eat sufficient meals and shut the shutters – French government advice for staying cool in a heatwave

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