Tag Archives: President Hollande

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.