Cultural Caviar

A Pardon for M. Fillon

March 18, 2017

Multiple Pages
A Pardon for M. Fillon

These are wonderful times for conspiracy theorists. Not a sparrow falls but M. Trump, Obama, or Putin is behind it, if not the CIA, the FBI, the FSB, MI6, or Mossad. The problem is that conspiracies do occur. I once had a patient who believed her mother was trying to poison her, and whose mother was trying to poison her. Persecution, like conspiracy, occurs, but persecution mania is at least as common as persecution itself and has the slight compensatory benefit for him who suffers it that he is at least worth persecuting.

Most people believe in conspiracy theories because they want to do so rather than because the evidence compels belief. Again, this brings the slight consolation that events are under human control, even if that control is malign. And, of course, the conspiracy theorist thinks he has penetrated appearances to reach into the reality of things, which makes him superior to those who have not.

The affaire Fillon in France is a rich stimulus to conspiracy theories. François Fillon is a candidate who promises to reduce the role of the state in the French economy, balance the budget, and so forth. He is a strong Catholic who would like to restore a little order in family life. He is against all that the intellectual elite is for.

“When it comes to most choices, we have only appearances to go by.”

Suddenly, when it appeared that he was leading in the polls (in whose accuracy everyone believes however many times they get things wrong), it was revealed that he had in effect been on the take for more than twenty years from the very state whose size he wants to reduce. He was said to have obtained a salary for his wife for work she did not do. It is not illegal in France for a politician to employ at public expense a close relative to assist him or her, but the relative employed must at least do something for his or her money.

It was the timing of the accusation, rather than the accusation itself, that provoked the imagination of the conspiracy theorists (who also once had a jolly time with the case of Strauss-Kahn, another whose downfall as presidential candidate occurred while he was leading the polls). How is it that a crime—if it was a crime—that had been continuing for so long should come to light just now, played as a kind of trump (though not a Trump) card? Who gave the information to the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné and when? It is true that M. Fillon was an unknown at the beginning of his career, when it was understandable that no one should have been particularly interested in his personal finances; but in due course he became prime minister, and his defalcations, if such they were, must have been known and worth revealing. But it was only when he became the probable next president of France that they were allowed to come to light. 

There is an extensive list of beneficiaries from his downfall—assuming that the latter is final. Personally, I thought him the best of the candidates, not only because of his policies, but because of his face. It was that of a man you could trust.

I accept that my judgment in the matter of faces is not evidence and is, moreover, fallible. For example, that nice Mr. Madoff also had a very good face, and I should have gladly entrusted my fortune, such as it is, to its possessor. I was saved only by the fact that I was far too small a fry for him to bother with, and I did not fall into the category of person whose money he consented to manage (the brilliance of his scheme was that you could become his victim by invitation only).

Still, when it comes to most choices, we have only appearances to go by. The Haitian peasants say that behind mountains there are more mountains, and, in everyday politics at least, behind appearances there are only more appearances. Moreover, an election is not a choice between patron saints; you are lucky, especially nowadays, if it is not a choice between scoundrels.

M. Fillon has been replaced as favorite by Emmanuel Macron, who has the face of an intelligent shark and whose voice, when he tries to play the role of passionate demagogue, is enough to shatter glass. For some reason his voice, when he tries a crescendo, reminds me of that of Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize winner in literature: She sounded like a bird scraping its beak down a windowpane.

I try, therefore, to make excuses for M. Fillon. His sin was a venial one; they are all at it, I tell myself, whoever they may be defined as being. And the man with the best policies is still the man with the best policies.

What moral bearing does the argument have that he is no worse than the others who seek the same office? When I am caught speeding, I cannot argue in my defense that many others do the same without being caught and suffering no penalty, and that therefore I should suffer none. It is hypocritical, no doubt, for M. Fillon to attack the state whose finances he has exploited (I suppose he could in theory argue that public money should be used to pay politicians’ spouses but not the unemployed or the sick, yet this would not increase his standing very much); but is his hypocrisy any worse than that of the leftists who argue for equality and live like elites—in other words, are egalitarian in everything except their lives?

When considering who to vote for, should we bear in mind what Hamlet said to Polonius:

Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?

Or should we, on the other hand, demand of our politicians that they are like Caesar’s wife—above suspicion? Or something in between the two?

If the latter, we need what we most lack: judgment. The easiest is to throw up one’s hands in despair and conclude that all politics is a conspiracy against the electorate.

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