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’.