French & Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking

French thinking at Villandry

Having spent virtually all of my adult life within “Anglo-Saxon” cultures and institutions (not least in the hyper-English milieu of The Economist), I must have adopted Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking.

And what are those?

In this post, I’ll try to describe them, by contrasting the Anglo-Saxon mind with what I consider to be its foil or opposite.

Which is to say: French thinking.

And I’ll do that with just three little examples plucked from life:

  1. gardens
  2. cities
  3. laws

1) French and English gardens

In 1992, I spend my summer in Tours, France — allegedly learning the local language but mostly biking along the Loire and its tributaries with friends, visiting the various chateaux in that area.

I was twenty-two at the time, and gardening was not necessarily foremost in my thoughts. And yet, the gardens of those chateaux left an impression. That’s because I had an intuition that they explained a lot else I was observing in the country

Look at the garden of the Chateau of Villandry, above. Or look at the same castle from another view:

More French thinking

The principle that guides this and all “jardins à la française” is the expression of mastery over nature.

A landscaper imposes, through his reason, absolute and mathematically Cartesian symmetry and order onto what would otherwise be disorder.

It is a top-down notion of order. In fact, these gardens are best viewed from above, which is why almost all the chateaux are laid out so that there is a viewing platform above the jardins (as in the picture).

English landscaping developed largely in response to French landscaping and spread to many non-French parts of Europe.

The difference is striking. Here, for instance, is a view of the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the center of Munich, where I grew up:

Yup, those are sheep, in the middle of Munich.

Munich’s Englischer Garten was conceived during the Enlightenment by an Englishman, and the German landscapers to this day observe its “Anglo-Saxon” landscaping philosophy. Here, for instance, is a recent addition, a theater:

Let’s try to make the philosophy behind this landscaping style explicit:

If the French approach is to display top-down mastery of nature with an imposition of order, the English way is to integrate the human into nature, to adjust to the spontaneous or “bottom-up” order of nature itself.

The best way to enjoy such a garden is in fact “from below” — ie from the ground. You’re assumed to be in the garden, not looking down on it from above.

To give this the subtlety it deserves: English gardening does not deny the ability of man to create order (after all, there still is a landscaper). But the landscaper takes a much more humble approach to nature, choosing to see order in its disorder and incorporating its “accidents”.

Let me use a different phrase: The English landscaper “muddles through“.

2) Paris and London

Now think of the two cultures’ capitals as a “tale of two gardens,” writ large.

The “landscaper” of modern Paris was Baron Haussmann (Alsatian, hence the German name, but French). Between 1852 and 1870, he imposed order on the medieval street warren that Paris had been.

Here is the new Paris as he conceived it:

Haussmann's Paris

Boulevards (in red) as straight as swords now cut through the organically evolved webbing of streets, to clear vistas and let armies parade.

And that’s not enough. Along these straight boulevards, the houses must meet regulations as precise as Cartesian math. They stand in a row like soldiers being mustered:

Now London:

A century before Haussmann (and shortly after Descartes’ death), medieval London was burnt down in the The Great Fire of 1666. To the French, this would have been an opportunity to remake London in a rational and orderly way. There even was an equivalent of Baron Haussmann: It was Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect of many churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral.

What did Sir Christopher do? It was very English. He largely honored the network of streets as it had evolved over time. Using legal jargon, you might say that he respected stare decisis (“stand by things decided”).

Adhering to precedent, he then proceeded to … muddle through.

And that’s what London has been doing since. This is its street grid today:

In fact, that picture does not do its organic beauty/chaos (depending on your point of view) justice. London, unlike Paris, is not one city (even politically). It is many cities and towns that grew together. Each bit retains its own charms and problems, and the connections are haphazard and arbitrary.

London cabbies, in fact, spend years learning what they call “the knowledge” to navigate this maze. And London’s streetscapes are full of surprises, both positive and questionable:

3) Code Napoléon v Common Law

French law is a code. In some ways it goes back to Roman law, but its direct ancestor is the Code Napoléon of 1804.

Napoleon, being not only French (well, sort of) but a product of the Enlightenment, believed in the power of reason to impose order (here meaning justice) from above on the chaos of life, the infinite number of situations that can arise and must be adjudicated. The result was a document. Here is its famous first page:

Legal thinking in France and all other civil-law systems is therefore a process of deduction: You find the general principle in the code, then apply it to the instance in real life.

English law is not a code. In fact, England does not even have a written constitution (as its Anglo-Saxon nephew America does). Sure, there are statutes, laws written by legislators over time. But the core of the system in all Anglo-Saxon countries is the common law.

And what is it? In essence, it is the history of all former cases.

For about a millennium, the English have been considering each new case by comparing it with precedents, a bit as Sir Christopher Wren built St Paul’s on the site of the former church that had burnt down.

Which issues does this case raise? Aha, then it must be like X. But it is different, so it must also be like Y. And so on.

The process is inductive: The Anglo-Saxon mind starts with the particular, searches for a general principle, returns to the particular, adjusts the general principle, and so forth.

Put differently, the English mind muddles through.

Conclusion: Churchill vs Balladur

This post has been muddling through by inducing from particulars to generals. I will leave you with two quotes by former prime ministers that I think say it all:

Edouard Balladur of France:

What is the market? It is the law of the jungle. And what is civilization? It is the struggle against nature.

Winston Churchill:

The English know how to make the best of things. Their so-called muddling through is simply skill at dealing with the inevitable.

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How the French view my media habits

You might remember that I wrote a post last fall about my own, personal media habits and how they have been changing.

Based on observing only myself, I concluded that, contrary to what you might have read or heard in the media, there is no media crisis for citizens and consumers, who can inform themselves better than ever — and indeed that we may be at the beginning of a second Renaissance.

La Francophonie écoute

Well, somewhat to my surprise, that little post has had quite a career in the French-speaking world. It probably began when Francis Pisani, a respected French blogger in America, picked it up in Le Monde.

A while later, a French-Canadian newspaper, Le Devoir, ran a cover story (picture above) on it. 😯

And now Owni, a cutting-edge website, has not only translated my post but invited two experts to rebut my thesis. (As you know, intelligent rebuttals delight me, because they make me learn and refine my views, which is sort of the point of life, isn’t it?)

Divina Frau-Meigs

The first expert is Divina Frau-Meigs, a media sociologist and professor at the Sorbonne. In her rebuttal, she

  • concedes that access to news and information has become more “democratic” for those who are “intellectually and technologically equipped”, whom she calls the “info-riches”;
  • laments that this does not resolve the economic, social and cultural “divides” — in other words, she worries that people whom she calls “info-précaires” lose out;
  • dismisses the idea (which she believes I espouse) that we can just get rid of journalists, since most citizens don’t have the time to do the hard work of investigating and reporting on the world’s problems;
  • appeals for a wholesale reform of media education, both for the young and for poor adults;
  • sets out principles she believes should guide that reform.

Bruno Devauchelle

The second expert is Bruno Devauchelle, a researcher at a think tank in Lyon. In his rebuttal, he

  • redefines the crisis as one of overinformation;
  • argues that blogger-journalists like me feel good only because we have all the necessary skills to deal with this, whereas most young people today lack those skills;
  • also appeals for better education;
  • calls in particular for teachers to be trained in internet technology and internet culture;
  • calls for new pedagogic techniques.

De quoi s’agit-il?

I will respond to these rebuttals in a separate post. But first, I want to make sure that I do justice to Divina and Bruno. My own French went from passable (circa 1992) to laughable, so the translation was hard work for me. But among you, there may be more proficient speakers of French.

If you’re so inclined, read their rebuttals and put their main points, to the extent that I have not captured them above, in the comments.

And, of course, go ahead and give your own opinion.

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Privacy law: US “liberty” vs European “dignity”

These naked Germans are enjoying themselves in the middle of Berlin. I’ve been just as gleefully naked in Munich, Berlin and various other European places. To Germans and other continental Europeans this is a) fun and b) part of freedom. The word for public nudity, in fact, is Freikörperkultur (‘free body culture’), often abbreviated to FKK.

To Americans, of course, this tends to be awkward if not shocking:

“Don’t these Europeans have a sense of privacy?”

Then there is, for example, Monica Lewinsky and that whole thing with the president of the United States. A special prosecutor — nay, all of America — parsed every word of the country’s head of state, demanding to know exactly what these two had been up to in which closet — from “distinguishing characteristics” to stains on dresses and all the rest.

To Americans this was part of freedom — the free press and the right to hold government accountable.

To continental Europeans, by contrast, this was amusing at first, then awkward, then distasteful and finally undignified:

“Don’t these Americans have a sense of privacy?”

The Two Western Cultures of Privacy

So there you have it: two western cultures of privacy, each (being “Western”) deceptively familiar and yet incomprehensible to the other. Here are some questions, which fit perfectly into two of my threads here on The Hannibal Blog: the thread on America and the one on freedom.

  • What is privacy? What is to be kept private from whom, when, where and why?
  • And how does that interrelate with freedom and dignity?

James Q. Whitman

James Q. Whitman, a professor of comparative law at Yale, has written a profound article about exactly this. It is called “The Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity Versus Liberty.” I recommend it. Here is the PDF.

For the rest of this post, I’ll try to describe the Atlantic culture clash and then the possible historical causes as Whitman sees them. In the next post, I’ll talk about two cases that are great examples of the two cultures. But first — and before you jump into the comments with your counterexamples (there are many) — note that Whitman himself admits that this is a matter of nuance:

The issue is not whether there is an absolute difference. Comparative law is the study of relative differences.

I. The clash

The conventional wisdom — with which I mostly but not totally agree — is that continental Europe has much stronger privacy laws than America does. In a long list of areas, Europe circumscribes what information can be circulated about people, whereas America hardly does so at all:

  • consumer data
  • credit reporting
  • workplace privacy
  • “discovery” in civil litigation (ie, rummaging around in the records of your opponents in a lawsuit)
  • the dissemination of nude images on the Internet
  • and so on.

As Whitman says,

I have seen Europeans grow visibly angry, for example, when they learn about routine American practices like credit reporting. How, they ask, can merchants be permitted access to the entire credit history of customers who have never defaulted on their debts? Is it not obvious that this is a violation of privacy and personhood, which must be prohibited by law?

By contrast, privacy is explicitly enshrined in European law (both national and EU law). For example, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects “the right to respect for private and family life,” and the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights features articles on “Respect for Private and Family Life” and “Protection of Personal Data.”

But Americans can counter with a different list to prove that it is actually Europe which allows the compromising of privacy:

  • those “private parts”! (= nudity)
  • baby names: Several EU governments restrict what parents can name their children!
  • Official ID cards/registration: In Germany, for instance, you have to register with the local police when you move to a new place.
  • Court-room use of evidence that Americans would consider illegally seized
  • phone tapping, which apparently happens much more often in Europe than in the US

So the question is: What’s going on here? How did these differences come about? As Whitman puts it,

Why is it that French people won’t talk about their salaries, but will take off their bikini tops? Why is it that Americans comply with court discovery orders that open essentially all of their documents for inspection, but refuse to carry identity cards? Why is it that Europeans tolerate state meddling in their choice of baby names? Why is it that Americans submit to extensive credit reporting without rebelling?

II. Causes: Liberty versus Dignity

Let’s first try to analyze the two cultures of privacy in terms of what each thinks must be kept private from whom and for what purpose.

a) Europe (= dignity)

European privacy laws aim to protect a person’s dignity. In practice, this means protecting the individual’s control over the use of his

  • image,
  • name,
  • reputation, or
  • information

So dignity is implicitly defined as control over one’s public image. You have a right not to be humiliated or embarrassed in public.

And who is the enemy/threat? Who would typically do the humiliating? Well, the press, or its new-media descendants today. Let’s just call them all the paparazzi.

b) America (= liberty)

American privacy laws, by contrast, aim to protect a person’s liberty. The word liberty is here defined in the traditional American (and quite narrow) sense of freedom from government tyranny. (Freedom can have many, many meanings: see here, here and here. ;))

Who is the enemy/threat in this culture?

Well, certainly not the press, whose freedom of speech is one of the things most in need of protection, even when that means that individuals (Lewinsky, Clinton) are being humiliated in public.

Instead, the enemy/threat is the state.

The locus of maximum protection, moreover, is not the public sphere (as in Europe) but the private sanctum of an individual’s home. The government must, to the greatest extent possible, be kept out of it. The police must (in most cases) not break in and search it. (This is true in Europe, too, of course, but the relative emphasis is stronger in America.)

In this culture, the right to privacy decreases as an individual moves further (physically or metaphorically) from his home. Once you’re in the workplace, in the subway, on the street, at the beach or otherwise in public, you’ve “asked for it.” Clinton, Lewinsky: you’re fair game!

Whitman puts the mutual incomprehension this way:

When Americans seem to continental Europeans to violate norms of privacy, it is because they seem to display an embarrassing lack of concern for public dignity—whether the issue is the public indignity inflicted upon Monica Lewinsky by the media, or the self-inflicted indignity of an American who boasts about his salary.

Conversely, when continental Europeans seem to Americans to violate norms of privacy, it is because they seem to show a supine lack of resistance to invasions of the realm of private sovereignty whose main citadel is the home—whether the issue is wiretapping or baby names.


Let’s take another look at the example of public nudity:

Europeans assume that you have a right to both nudity and dignity in public. So, for instance, the paparazzi (or neighbors) do not have a right to take a picture of you and then put it on the internet, because you must remain in control of your public image. It’s not even OK for others to stare at you. (I’ve gotten in trouble over that.)

This concept of private public nudity is entirely alien to American law. In fact, it sounds oxymoronic (perhaps even just moronic) to Americans. They assume that once you have left the sanctum of your home and entered a public space, and indeed metaphorically shed the “walls” of your mobile “home” in the form of clothes, you can no longer expect privacy. You have, as it were, asked for it.

Just one illustration: The US Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in Vernonia School District v. Acton.

The question before the court was whether high school athletes could be subjected to mandatory drug testing. Yes, they could, said the court, because — and this is the logic that confounds Europeans to the point of making them guffaw — athletes regularly shower together (naked, we assume), and by voluntarily exposing themselves, these athletes can therefore expect less privacy, which means it is OK to test their piss.

(This might also shed light on the debate we had when I proposed “shaming” people who text and drive by snapping pictures of them and publishing them on the web. It seems that we are “free” to implement my idea in America, but not in Europe, where this might compromise the dignity of the drivers.)

III. History

So where do these fascinating differences come from? The conventional answer is that Europe after the Fascist horror of the 1930s and 40s, and in particular Germany after the Nazis, corrected for the sheer indignity of those crimes against humanity by elevating human dignity to the highest value.

I happen to believe this is largely correct (Whitman does not, and in my opinion this part of his thesis is the weakest). For example, Germany’s constitution, written in 1949, explicitly starts with the phrase

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar (The dignity of each human being is untouchable)

I pointed to this in my post on the different views of healthcare in America and Europe, and alluded to it in my post on the different attitudes toward prisoners. (European law protects the rights of prison inmates “to a degree almost unimaginable for Americans,” as Whitman puts it. The European in me is shocked by the prison conditions in America.)

But Whitman traces the origins of the differences between America and Europe several centuries further back, and this is the most fascinating part of his argument. So here, in brief, are the histories of privacy law in Europe (France and Germany) and America:

1) Europe

In Europe, the concept of dignity “descends” from that of honor and the so-called law of “insult” that accumulated over the centuries around it.

In a nutshell, what we are talking about here are a bunch of toffs dueling, as in the picture above. It was aristocrats and other high-status individuals who protected their honor (ie, their “public image”), both from the prying eyes of the press and from insult by others. Gradually, society lost its taste for cleaning up the gore after duels and encouraged the toffs to meet in court instead.

What Europe’s various revolutions, starting with the French one in 1789, did over time was to elevate more and more low-class individuals to the same “royal treatment.” Eventually, after World War II, all Europeans became entitled to it, just as all adult French and Germans, of whatever status, could now expect to be addressed by other adults as vous or Sie.


France and Germany, took subtly different paths to get to the same place: In France, the main body of law was written during the 19th century in response to famous artists and writers doing sexy things of a questionable nature. (I know this comes as a shock.) I’ll highlight one such case, involving the author of The Three Musketeers, in the next post. In most cases, whenever the dignity of a prominent individual was threatened after sexy photos of him or her were published, even when that individual had expressly sold the right to those photos (!), the courts opted to preserve dignity.


In Germany, also during the 19th century, the individuals whose cases drove the law forward were not so much lascivious artists but brooding philosophers. (Again, I know this comes as a shock.)

Influenced by Hegel, Kant and their ilk, the German lawyers wanted to prove the pre-eminence of free will. They went all the way back to ancient Rome and the law of my hero Scipio to re-interpret the Roman law of “insult” (injuria). From this, they constructed the concept of Persönlichkeit (personality or personhood), which is often used in the same contexts that Americans use liberty but with a twist.

In a nustshell: To be free meant, as Whitman puts it,

to exercise free will, and the defining characteristic of creatures with free will was that they were unpredictably individual, creatures whom no science of mechanics or biology could ever capture in their full richness…  The purpose of “freedom” was to allow each individual fully to realize his potential as an individual: to give full expression to his peculiar capacities and powers.

(Sounds a lot like Abe Maslow’s self-actualization, don’t you think?)

In any case, both the French and the German legal traditions put much less emphasis on the sordid American obsessions with consumer sovereignty and commercial freedom (credit reporting, for example) and much more emphasis on creativity and the presentation of self, of Persönlichkeit in all its eccentric splendor.

2) America

America, by contrast, embarked on the journey of privacy law with the Bill of Rights. And it focused on limiting state power. The Fourth Amendment specifically establishes the right against unlawful searches and seizures as the main expression of privacy.

Searching and seizing is usually done in one’s home, so right from the start, the concept of privacy resided there.

Of course, there have been American lawyers over the years who have tried to make American law more “European”. The main attempt was “The Right to Privacy” by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in 1890. But these attempts never went far.

Property rights and/or freedom of speech almost always prevail in American courts over appeals to privacy and dignity. Whitman cites, for example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn and Florida Star v. B.J.F. In these cases, the media published the names of rape victims. In both cases the Supreme Court found that the First Amendment protected media outlets against suit. European courts would have been concerned with protecting the rape victims. Ironically, because those victims might once have been aristocratic toffs.

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Good writing, II: Orwell vs. academia

In the interests of cross-cultural diversity, I thought I should just update my post on George Orwell’s six rules for good writing with the French academic counterpart.

I wouldn’t single out French academia–without any doubt, academic writers in all countries will applaud me–except that I happen to be re-reading Serge Lancel’s impressively researched biography of Hannibal. And, well, I did spend three summers in France, trying to read their books.

Here goes:

George Orwell
French Academia
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Only use phrases that tenured professors or famous dead scholars have already used
Never use a long word where a short one will do. There are short words?
If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out. Say the same thing over and over again until you hit your wordcount
Never use the passive where you can use the active. Only use the passive; anything else is for amateur lightweights
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Use utilize Greek, Latin or Sanskrit terms. The more banal your thought, the more exotic the word.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Never break these rules. They are rules.

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