François Fillon and the politics of regret

Chris Prendergast
March 16, 2017

In a probing analysis of the French presidential election (in a recent issue of the LRB),  Jeremy Harding interestingly side-lines the so-called ‘centre right’  candidate, François Fillon, granting him but the flicker of a walk-on  part, for, one presumes, the very good reason that Fillon himself  appears to have side-lined himself. It is worth at least pausing,  however, over his candidacy for its flagrant relation to a particular  feature of the ‘discourse’ of contemporary politics, namely the place in  it of expressions of ‘regret’, along with a related constellation of  terms including ‘repentance’, ‘contrition’ and ‘conscience’. If this  sounds like an importation from religion, it is important to note that  the Fillon brand combines the right wing conservative of neo-Thatcherite  persuasions and the image of the devout Catholic with roots in the  rural communities of la France profonde.

There is of course a rich history of public professions of regret,  sometimes linked to apology and acts of penitence. The ancient Greeks  (Aristotle, for example) often saw such displays as a sign of weakness,  involving a loss of status and prestige. This, it seems, was also one of  the widespread reactions to the public penance of the Frankish king,  Louis the Pious and son of Charlemagne, for the death of his rebellious  nephew, Bernard (at first at his Attigny palace in 822 and then again  eleven years later in the St Medard church in Soissons). Since Louis  wasn’t nicknamed the ‘Pious’ for nothing, and added profusely and  gratuitously to the list of his confessed sins, there is reason to  believe that there was an element of genuine piety involved. But it was  clearly also an instance of how, in a polity scholars have termed the  ‘penitential state’ ideologically framed by the principle of  ‘accountability’, a Christian monarch, in emulation of Theodosius, could  use public display as an enhancement of royal authority. It does not,  however, seem to have played well with the barons, many of whom saw it  as a dilution rather than a strengthening of power. Theodosius’ public  penance (for the Thessalonica massacre) was not voluntary but undertaken  at the insistence of Ambrose and was unquestionably bound up with the  new relation between Church and secular rule at a time when Nicean  Chistianity had become a state religion. As for the spectacular  abjection of Henry II for complicity (which he always denied) in the  murder of Thomas Becket, the jury is still out on the question of  motive; most historians are agreed that, given the numerous crises Henry  had to deal with, it certainly did his political interests no harm. On  any rational assessment, in the vast majority of documented cases the  odds on ‘sincerity’ being a component of the performance are very long,  but there is no point in placing a bet since, given that we can never  know, there can never be a payout.

‘Accountability’ is of course also part of the ritual culture of  contemporary politics and public life. Here we are almost certainly on  much safer ground in laying serious intellectual cash on a punt with the  moral bookies. Bankers forced to explain themselves before  parliamentary committees have in recent years drenched us with avowals  of regret, even ‘profound’ regret, for financial havoc, as the prelude  to denying all responsibility for the behavior of a ‘market’ alleged to  be ‘beyond their control’; duty done and then it’s back to the bonuses.  Ministers, both current and former, have refined the arts of  regret-speak so as to be able to apologize while disclaiming intent (if  you were offended by what I said, I’m truly sorry, but it’s not my fault  if you misinterpreted my words): ‘As a former health minister and  policy adviser, I am passionate about supporting mental health and  disability, and hugely regret if my comment about the need to prioritize  the most serious disabilities inadvertently caused any offence which  was not intended’ (the only word that matters here is the second  adverb). The generals and their spokespersons issue statements of regret  in the wake of civilian casualties (pre-sanitized as ‘collateral  damage’) in a manner that combines the euphemistic and the evasive  (euphemistic as the politer version of ‘stuff happens’, and evasive as  deflection of responsibility,). Finer still, is the adjective  ‘regrettable’, more impersonal and free-standing, a predicate intrinsic  to the action without reference to the notionally regretting agent.  These are the fleshless bones thrown to appease stirrings of moral  unease, like blood drawn from the stone of the normally ‘no comment’  style of the public relations machine.

Contenders for the top spot in the shameless are numerous, but when  it comes to mixing lexically and conceptually, there are arguably few to  compare with François Fillon. First, there was the ‘Jewish Question’,  his opaque reference in late 2016 to an unspecified time when ‘we fought  the drive by Jews to live in a community that did not respect all the  rules of the French Republic’. His strangled response when called upon  to explain himself automatically reached for the term ‘regret’, but not  for anything he said; what he regretted was the deformation of his  meaning by others (‘I therefore regret that some people dared to twist  what I said’). This clarification did not prevent the ‘Question’ coming  back to bite him, when some months later a campaign aide posted an image  of rival candidate, Emmanuel Macron, as the archetypical ‘Jewish  banker’ of the 1930s. The term ‘regret’ reappeared in connection with  the scandal that erupted over the use of taxpayers money to pay very  large sums to his wife and children for what were allegedly non-jobs.  Fillon, while insisting he had done nothing illegal, expressed ‘regret’  at the ‘mistake’ not having caught up with the contemporary French  public’s ‘mistrust’ of using their money in this way. It was reported as  a ‘calculated act of contrition’ that ‘may have swayed enough  conservatives to keep his limping campaign afloat’). In other words,  based on fear of the negative consequences of the revelations for his  candidacy, it was more the political equivalent of ‘attrition’ rather  than a true contrition, the distinction that so exercised Pascal in The Provincial Letters.

But, extraordinarily, there was still more to come, a tour de force  in turning another, even more resonant, term not only against a rival,  but on its head. When Macron made a speech in which he said that France  had a lot to answer for in connection with its colonial history in  Algeria, Fillon responded as follows: ‘This dislike of our history, this  continual repentance, is unworthy of a candidate for the  presidency of the Republic’. ‘Repentance’ is an unusual term to find in a  context such as this. This is what the 16c and 17c theologians and  moralists wrestled with as the term for a transformation of the soul,  real or feigned, in respect of past sins or wrongs. Fillon, the good  Catholic, turned it inside out by making it part of a vocabulary of  insult directed at public acknowledgment by a rival of the sins of the  colonial past, describing its use as a stain on the honour of the  Republic and its highest office.

In the intensive media coverage of Fillon’s apparently doomed shot at  becoming President of the French Republic, no-one, not even in France,  seems to have thought of La Rochefoucauld. The Maximes, though  distinctively seventeenth-century in tenor and tone, are happily  portable; alternatively, we can easily imagine another time travel  narrative in which the portable becomes the transportable and Fillon,  the smooth, well-dressed [i]  former inhabitant of the Hôtel Matignon, is carried back to the Palais  Royal (Mazarin’s residence) where he becomes a delightfully  self-selecting candidate for the moraliste rapier thrust from  one of La Rochefoucauld’s best-known maxim: ‘Our repentance is not so  much regret for the ill we have done as fear of the ill that may happen  to us as a consequence’. La Rochefoucauld cleverly uses inversion to  position the less ethically resonant term ‘regret’ as a lever for the  exposure of   the fake forms of the weightier term ‘repentance’. Fillon  went one stage — in fact several stages — further, all the way to  somewhere in lexical outer space where the dictionary is re-arranged in  such a way that a term associated with conversion undergoes a major  semantic perversion.

Fillon’s use of the term would presumably have left Pascal not so  much stunned as frankly baffled. La Rochefoucauld, on the other hand, we  can imagine taking the scalpel of his anatomical psychology to it with  considerable relish, especially when, cornered, Fillon once more sought  to brave it out with a mangled and table-turning reference to that other  consecrated term, ‘conscience’: ‘I’ve examined my conscience… I  wouldn’t wish anyone to have to do the same in such circumstances. I  call on members of my political family. It’s for you now to examine your  consciences’. Now let’s please move on and seize the moment of  opportunity, there’s an election I want to win. ‘Moving on’ — the kairotic  companion to modern public regret — is a very long way from Hannah  Arendt’s belief in the act of ‘forgiving and promising’ as the means of  an authentic ‘turning’ from a past of error and harm to a future of  reparation. Moving on, however, currently looks like moving to a quick  political death (the latest stage of the saga is the announcement that  he is now under ‘formal investigation’ in connection with alleged  fraudulent use of public money). La Rochefoucauld’s other maxim comes to  mind: ‘Death, like the sun, cannot be looked at steadily’.


[I] Incredibly, To The Growing Heap Of Scandal There Were Also Added Reports Of Lavish Tailor’s Bills Paid For By A ‘well Wisher’.

All by
Chris Prendergast