The Latin Difference

PRINCETON – It is increasingly popular to think of Europe in binary terms. French President François Hollande is constantly flirting with the idea of building a new Latin bloc, in which Spain and Italy would join France in the struggle against fiscal austerity. In this vision, Latin superiority consists in a more expansive view of the state’s capacity to secure incomes and create wealth, and less of the “Protestant” obsession with the individual’s work.

The proposal is not altogether new. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recently emphasized, it appeared at the beginning of the postwar era. In August 1945, a French intellectual, Alexandre Kojève, submitted to General Charles de Gaulle a sketch for a new foreign policy, based on a Latin “third way” between Anglo-American capitalism and Soviet-Slavic Marxism.

But there are even older variants of the French vision of Europe. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the French Emperor Napoleon III actually created a Latin Monetary Union, which included Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland. Napoleon saw the scheme as a potential basis for a single world currency.

The British economist Walter Bagehot replied at the time that there would probably be two competing world currencies, which he termed Latin and Teutonic. By Teutonic, Bagehot seemed to mean the Protestant world: the United States, recovering from the Civil War, Germany, and Britain. He had no doubt about which vision would win out: “Yearly one nation after another would drop into the union which best suited it; and looking to the commercial activity of the Teutonic races, and the comparative torpor of the Latin races, no doubt the Teutonic money would be most frequently preferred.”