Hollande and the separation of the public and the private sphere

French president Hollande has certainly become the subject of a controversy surrounding his affair with another woman than his then-current romantic partner. In line with France’s republican culture, this affair did not cause any uproar among the citizens of the French Republic. In sharp contrast with similar events in the UK or the USA, where the private life of politicians is less protected from the public eye.

The reason why the French don’t bother much about the private life of their president, has to be sought in the strong role republican thought plays in French political culture. Hence we have to understand what republicanism is.

The word Republic is derived from the Latin phrase Res Publica which can be translated into English as the public interest.  Res means thing or interest, and the English word public comes from publica, the English term commonwealth has a similar structure as res publica. Hence a republic is a system of government which promotes the public interest and consequently a state which only serves the interest of the government or a privileged part of the population is by definition not a republic.

A theme central to classical republicanism is the distinction between the public and the private sphere, a concept which dates back to Aristotle. In the private sphere (res privata) the individual is sovereign, and in the public realm sovereignty is shared by the members of the community. In less abstract terms one’s household belongs to the private sphere, and is under the full authority of the individual; whilst the things outside the households belong to public sphere and are under the shared authority of the community.

For classical republicans the government has no business in what citizens do in their private spheres, since the proper function of the government is to maintain the public sphere. Only if actions in the private sphere do violate the rights of others or endanger the public realm, the government is allowed to interfere in the private realm and only to the extent as is necessary to protect people’s rights and the public sphere. Any other intrusion of the government in the private realm is, in the eyes of classical republicans, a kind usurpation.

Since in classical republicanism the government is supposed to represent and serve the public, we can substitute the word government with public in the analysis of the previous paragraph. Hence we can conclude that according to classical republicanism the public has no interest to interfere with one’s private life.

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9 thoughts on “Hollande and the separation of the public and the private sphere”

  1. Is there no circumstance in which the conduct of an individuals private life may call into question their ability to carry out their public duties? if yes then perhaps scrutiny is required, however is the best way to achieve the corect level of scrutiny to leave it to a press more interested in sex than politics?
    In any event isnt always amazing that the press breaks out a juicy sex scandal when a leading politician proposes left of centre policies?

    1. Is there no circumstance in which the conduct of an individuals private life may call into question their ability to carry out their public duties?

      Of course, one’s private actions might affect the public sphere in certain circumstances, but in that case such action does not belong exclusively to the private sphere anymore. Just because they start to interfere with the public realm, and hence become a public issue.

      if yes then perhaps scrutiny is required, however is the best way to achieve the corect level of scrutiny to leave it to a press more interested in sex than politics?

      If the press is more interest in sex than in politics, I suggest the answer is no. I don’t care what sex position a leading politician is involved with, I would care more about if his/her sex partner is a spy (of foreign nations of even his/her political adversaries).

      In any event isnt always amazing that the press breaks out a juicy sex scandal when a leading politician proposes left of centre policies?

      I see your point, and I think it’s a valid one. But things work slightly differently in France than in, for instance, the USA. Looking at Hollande’s ratings in the polls, this “sex scandal” has actually improved his popularity. More importantly the affair was made public by a French gossip magazine, which is more interested in people’s fame than their political preferences.

      However, Mr. Hollande’s policy proposals should be judged upon their merits, and not upon the sexual behaviour of the president.

  2. The city of Toronto in Canada has a mayor with a notorious reputation apparently well known internationally. As I understand classical republicanism, his behavior of rude remarks, video of using crack cocaine, (assuming his attempts to buy back the video did not result in danger to life?) and so on, should have no bearing; provided his behavior does not compromise his running of the city (other than indirect impacts due to publicity). Thoughts? Your take on this? Do I misunderstand classical republicanism?

    1. We heard of this particular case. If the behaviour of this mayor (use of narcotics and making rude remarks) does not affect his running the city of Toronto negatively, then this should have no influence on whether he is allowed to continue his office. Though I doubt whether a mayor who has the habit to make rude remarks, especially if done in public, and to use narcotics, would have no adverse effects on his functioning as a major. If the use of cocaine is illegal (as I suppose it is), then this politician cannot hide this action as being part of his private, as it is unacceptable for politicians to be involved in crimes.

      Classical republicanism puts great emphasis on the separation of the private and public realm, and hence holders of public offices should be judged upon their performance in duty. This does not mean we have to approve of their private behaviour.

  3. I can’t agree more. Let Hollande live his life and the public to raise an uproar only if he has failed to perform the duties to which he was elected. It is sad though that sex scandals have led to the end of brilliant political careers.

  4. Great post. It amazes me how little this simple yet profound concept is understood these days. It has major implications in our daily lives from the regulation of business to the separation of church and state. There is tremendous need to have more comprehensive discussion on this topic, and I welcome it.

    1. There is tremendous need to have more comprehensive discussion on this topic, and I welcome it.

      You are lucky, as we intend to return to this topic on several occasions in the near future.

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