What if … It Had Been Ms Hollande?

Much proverbial ink has been spent on Mr Hollande and the affaire. This weekend, Le Monde had a big debate in its culture pages on how much should be publicly known about the private lives of les politiciens. It made an argument that I have come across various times already, and that relied on the idea that Latin cultures have different expectations from their political leaders than the Anglo-saxon world. Le Monde writes:

“D’un côté, Latins et catholiques, pour qui les zones d’ombre peuvent être tolérés. De l’autre, Nordiques et Anglo-Saxons, à la morale plus protestante, pour qui une clarté totale est de rigueur.”

In a nutshell, Le Monde argues that Latins are fine with giving up some transparency and living in the darker shades (of grey, pun intended). Anglo-saxons, in contrast, insist on absolute transparency. Latin cultures, it appears, readily turn a blind eye to their politicians’ private dealings whereas Anglo-saxon cultures are not so forgiving.

This argument raises the question of how Latin and Anglo-saxon cultures see private dealings within the political process. To get to the heart to this question, I turn back to an earlier time in Latin culture, namely the Renaissance period when the homo credens of Christianity started to be replaced by the homo politicus of the Italian city-state.

Influential thinkers like Marsilius di Padua, Niccolo Machiavelli and later Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent much time pondering how the common good of the citizenry could be ensured. They worried about politicians using the smokescreen of the common good to pursue private interests. Addressing this danger required the active involvement of citizens within the community. Citizens could remove a leader who failed to pursue the common interest. Their diverse interests would ensure that the rules of their community would be balanced without privileging the individual interest of one person, in particular a leader. Thinkers within the Latin sphere thus showed much concern for the private dealings of political figures. 

The private, here, is defined by opposition to the common good: the private interests of the individual. Private interests, for instance, would include business dealings that an elected leader, as an individual, could financially benefit from. In contrast, the private that Le Monde referred to is defined by opposition to the outside world: the private sphere of the home.

When it comes to the home, the political philosophers of Latin cultures do not differ much from their Anglo-saxon peers (who include figures like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke), at least up until the middle of the 19th century. They drew on a rather similar approach: the dealings of the home were irrelevant for matters of citizenry. Individuals within the home (i.e., women, servants and children) were considered unfit for political participation. In other words, the home is non-political because of the individuals who do most of their activity within its confines.

Could it be that the differences between the Latin and Anglo-saxon world that Le Monde mentions have little do with differences in how the home is viewed, at least from a political philosophy perspective? Could the differences, instead, arise because the specific individuals within the home have traditionally been women?

To get a sense of differences in attitudes towards women between Latin and Anglo-saxon cultures, I turn to voting rights. Latin cultures, overwhelmingly, were much later than the Anglo-saxon world in giving women the right to vote. For example, France instituted women’s suffrage in 1944, followed by Italy 1946. For the Anglo-Saxon world, Norway let women vote as of 1913 and the U.S. in 1920. [1]

I am thus left wondering whether differences in attitudes towards the home have little to do with privacy per se, and more to do with remnants of traditional attitudes towards those who used to be confined to the domain of the home, women. In other words, if the French affair had involved la Présidente, would people have claimed that her home is no one’s business? There is only one way to find out.

Your thoughts?

[1] Amongst Latin countries, Portugal and Spain led the pack and instituted women’s suffrage in 1931, followed by Brasil in 1932, France in 1944, Italy and Venezuela in 1946, Argentina and Mexico in 1947, San Marino in 1959, Monaco in 1961 and Andorra in 1970. For the Anglo-Saxon world, Finland started in 1906, then came Norway in 1913, Denmark in 1915, Germany in 1918, Canada in 1918 (at the provincial level, Francophone Quebec was the last to adopt women’s suffrage, in 1940), the Netherlands in 1919, the U.S. in 1920, Ireland in 1922 and the U.K. in 1928.

 Photo adapted, courtesy of Dale from Sea Dream Studio.

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