“Stop saying désolée,” a friend once hissed at me a few years into my arrival in France, as I was still just learning to use the language. “It’s too grovelly.” The Anglo apology—which must include the words “I’m sorry”—is part of the contract we make with our public figures. Make us believe the emotional display that comes with your acknowledgment of wrongdoing, and we’ll think you care, even if we suspect it’s transactional. It’s a matter of respect.
Something very different is at work in France, an ostensibly Catholic country that seems to have long ago dispensed with guilt. Sitting on my bookshelf in Paris is Comment Recevoir à la Française. It’s a manners guide the size of a phone book. “How to apologize à la Française” could be expressed in one word: “Don’t.”
“I Have Nothing to Say”
The examples of powerful men getting caught out and, even when the risk to their approval rating couldn’t be higher, either disappearing or shrugging are legion. The most recent one is Olivier Duhamel. The political analyst, former professor, and president of the body that oversees the esteemed research university Sciences Po—as well as a onetime member of the European Parliament and an adviser to the French Constitutional Council (a stop through which contested laws must pass)—was also, for at least two years in the late 1980s, sexually abusing his teenage stepson, according to his stepdaughter, Camille Kouchner. And their whole set knew it.
Kouchner’s memoir, La Familia Grande, which came out earlier this month, joins Vanessa Springora’s Le Consentement, which was published last January, in taking a torch to the May ’68 generation of elite left-wing intellectuals whose response to pedophilia and incest among their own was to open more wine. Springora’s denunciation was of her pedophile abuser, the fêted author Gabriel Matzneff, and, similarly, it set in motion a chain of confrontations with the connected and powerful, some of whom we meet again through Duhamel. (Matzneff has not denied his relationship with Springora.)
“How to apologize à la Française” could be expressed in one word: “Don’t.”
The statute of limitations for the particular acts of incest written about in La Familia Grande has passed, so Duhamel is at lower legal risk to address the matter, though his only public comment so far has been “I have nothing to say.” (The police are conducting an investigation to see if there were other victims—in addition to the two Kouchner kids, Duhamel and his late wife, the feminist intellectual Evelyne Pisier, adopted two children from Chile.) Nevertheless, he stepped down from his many posts and has done his best to simply vanish.
The blowback is hitting powerful friends such as former congressperson and minister Élisabeth Guigou, a longtime political ally in the Socialist Party, whom Kouchner accuses of protecting Duhamel. (Guigou denies that she knew about the incest allegations.) She was recently appointed as the head of a commission that examines incest—yes, really—and resigned earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Chez D.S.K. …
Some may recognize Guigou as one of the more soigné talking heads in Jalil Lespert’s Netflix documentary Room 2806: The Accusation, out last month. In it, she, among other members of the Socialist Party who supported Dominique Strauss-Kahn through his tribulations, made positively cringe-worthy justifications of the disgraced International Monetary Fund director along the lines of, Well, we knew he liked women and is love a crime? Lespert started his interviews in 2018, well after #MeToo went global. But they still didn’t understand that sexual harassment, which was alleged of D.S.K. at the I.M.F., and attempted rape, which he has been accused of more than once, have nothing to do with “liking” or “love.” (D.S.K. has never been convicted of any of the allegations that women have made against him.)
A few days before Lespert’s documentary officially debuted, D.S.K. tweeted an announcement that he, too, would be releasing a documentary, the first time he’ll have stepped up to tell his own story since 2011. Given his attempts at post-crisis cleanup so far, plan for your hair to be on fire sometime “in the fall of 2021.”
But for a few brief moments after the 2011 Sofitel affair, in which D.S.K. was accused of sexual assault and attempted rape by a hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo, the French presidential hopeful held his tongue. This is wise during a criminal investigation, though once the charges have been dropped and one hopes to rehabilitate oneself with a disgusted public, something a little more direct would be appropriate. The best he ever did was to privately express regrets to his colleagues at the I.M.F.
Strauss-Kahn went on French TV upon his triumphant return to Paris to admit that the lack of cohesion between his public duties and private behavior (as if the violent crimes he was accused of were private) was a “moral fault.” But the only true chagrin he expressed was that he “missed his appointment with the French people,” and to say that he no longer had a lightness of spirit around affaires de coeur. Bummer for him!
Discretion was not le mot juste for D.S.K.’s comportment during the so-called Carlton affair of 2015, where he faced charges of aggravated pimping for having allegedly helped to organize and pay for orgies that included prostitutes. This time D.S.K. took the stand, though mostly, it seems, to rail that his “libertinism” was being put on trial. To the judge, he complained: “Listen, I’m starting to have enough of this. What interest is served to constantly revisit these practices, except to make me appear sexually deviant?” At one point during the trial, he asked the courtroom sketch artist to sign a few of her portraits for him.
Apologies don’t make terrible things go away, but they are important. Though the French elite seem to have a hard time with them, their victims would certainly appreciate one nonetheless. Wrote Camille Kouchner of her stepfather, “I’m going to explain to you that you could have, at least, said you were sorry…. I’m going to remind you that instead of that, you threatened me. Your message on my machine: ‘I’m going to kill myself.’”
To the judge, he complained: “Listen, I’m starting to have enough of this.”
Jack Lang, the former minister of culture under François Mitterrand, gives perhaps the most classic example of the non-apology apology: an admission of error followed by a strident self-defense, and a claim of being victimized by the accusation. Lang ran in the same circles as the disgraced pedophile author Matzneff and was one of the signatories to a petition in 1977 pleading for the decriminalization of pedophilia on the grounds of sexual freedom.
Lang was also a featured star of Lespert’s documentary and, in a perfect trifecta of the company you keep, a colleague of Duhamel’s late wife and an associate of his. Here, excerpts of a recent statement given by Lang to the Europe 1 radio network:
“[Signing the petition] was a screwup. I said it. We were numerous at the time we signed: there was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, there was Michel Foucault…. And we were carried away by a kind of wrongheaded libertarian view, and it was an unacceptable screwup…. I have always fought against incest, pedophilia, and sexual violence. I fought for rape to be considered a crime, so I don’t have to justify myself right now…. What should I do? Set myself on fire in front of you?” It might be a start.
Apologies are often the first step toward real accountability, though perhaps some may finally be coming regardless of contrition, or the lack of it. Alain Finkielkraut, another leading intellectual, recently defended the chattering class’s silence around Duhamel by suggesting that sex with one’s 14-year-old stepson isn’t necessarily pedophilia. After saying Duhamel had committed “a reprehensible act,” he added, “We are talking about an adolescent. It’s not the same thing.” This time, it was a shrug too far: the network where he was a pundit, LCI, fired him.
Brigitte Macron, acknowledged by every French political observer with a clue to be a chief policy mind for her husband, Emmanuel, recently addressed Kouchner’s book, and a heartbreaking hashtag of testimonials, #metooinceste, that it has spawned on social media in the last weeks: In an interview on RTL radio, the First Lady, a former schoolteacher, cited the examples of Denmark and Canada, where primary schools cover the topic. When asked about a possible judicial reform on the subject, she said, “I wish for it. I hope for it. I really want to see it.” Political wishes are rarely worth the airtime they take up, but that one you can take to the bank.
Alexandra Marshall is a Paris-based Writer at Large for Air Mail