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Civil Code, conquests, the arts … the flourishing Napoleon heritage throughout the world


Two hundred years after his death, the image of Napoleon is still very much alive in France but also in the rest of the world. Back in the footsteps of the French emperor in Europe and elsewhere.

On May 5, 1821, on the small island of Saint Helena swept by the winds of the South Atlantic, Napoleon passed away defeated by stomach cancer. But the history of the French Emperor does not end with his death. “Alive, he marked the world, dead he owns it”, said Chateaubriand of him.

Two centuries later, Napoleon’s imprint is still present in institutions, society and the arts. As soon as we mention his name, we cannot help but reconsider his impressive heritage: the Civil Code, the Legion of Honor, the baccalaureate, street numbering, garbage collection, departments, high schools, prefects, prudhommes, the Chamber of Commerce, the Court of Auditors, the Council of State. In Paris, the Arc de Triomphe, the Canal de l’Ourcq, the rue de Rivoli, the Church of the Madeleine, … The list goes on. Almost endless.

Painting made in 1843 by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse representing the French emperor Napoleon I on his deathbed, and exhibited at the Musée de l’Armée at the Hôtel des Invalides, in Paris. © Thomas Coex, AFP

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Conquest by Arms

The Napoleonic wars largely contributed to the propagation of the Civil Code in the occupied countries. Promulgated on March 21, 1804, the Civil Code or “Code Napoleon”, remains the major work of the Emperor. From his exile in Saint Helena, he will say: “My real glory is not to have won forty battles; Waterloo will erase the memory of so many victories; what nothing will erase, what will live forever, is my Civil Code. ”

Napoleon managed to impose it during his lifetime following his European conquests and annexations in Belgium, the Netherlands, Westphalia (West Germany), Switzerland, Italy and Spain. Does this mean that these nations were hitherto devoid of any legal codifications? No. In the second half of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century, civil law codes did exist in Europe. But many of these works were sometimes too abstract, sometimes archaic, a mixture of Roman rights and feudal principles. “Napoleon’s ability was to enforce the Civil Code in local languages. Everyone was thus able to appropriate the rules which govern daily life, in particular on marriage, divorce, inheritance, property”, explains to France 24 David Chanteranne, historian and editor-in-chief of the Revue Le Souvenir Napoléonien.

The Napoleonic heritage in the colonies

Long after Napoleon’s death, the emergence of the Civil Code continued throughout the world by capillarity through the colonies. France has notably introduced it in each of its territories, adjusting certain nuances linked to local particularities.

Between 1830 and 1850, the European powers which preserved the Napoleonic civil code also transmitted it in their turn to their colonies in Africa and Asia.

Later, during the Second World War, at a time when France had to administer the territories that had belonged to the vanquished powers, the Civil Code again continued to grow. Lebanon and Syria, which belonged to the Ottoman Empire, Cameroon and Togo, which formed German colonies, adopted the legal arsenal under French influence.

Civil Code, conquests, the arts … the flourishing Napoleon heritage throughout the world
Men dressed as Napoleon I’s imperial guards, August 14, 2018 during the Napoleonic days in Ajaccio, Corsica AFP

To read: Napoleon, a monument in French history that oscillates between left and right

The conquest of hearts

Napoleonic hegemony did not always go through arms or colonization. Napoleon also passed on his heritage by conquering hearts. In the 19th century, some countries imported the Civil Code out of fascination with Napoleon and the post-revolutionary ideals of France. This was notably the case for Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland. “The influence of Napoleon and France was such in Poland that even today, we can find the name of Napoleon in the national anthem”, underlines David Chanteranne.

To this day, “traces of Napoleon’s Civil Code can be found in Europe, Japan, South Korea, Chile and so many other countries that one can almost say that it is a Universal Code “, underlines to France 24 Thierry Lentz, historian and director of the Napoleon Foundation. Beyond that, “it is more generally the whole French model of administration that he exported during his lifetime, that is to say the way of conceiving the State. nothing, but at that time, there is neither administration nor civil servant in Europe where one still lives on feudal principles. ”

The spirit of Napoleon, his greatest legacy

But the Napoleonic heritage in the world probably remains less in its concrete achievements than in the spirit which animated the First Empire. This new fragrance borrowing from equality, social advancement and secularism inspires thousands of kilometers away. Determined to break the chains of Spanish oppression, a young man from the Creole society of Venezuela is conquered by the French conqueror and his Enlightenment spirit. Her name ? Simon Bolivar. The one who will later be nicknamed the “Libertador” who will push the old Spanish Empire of Bolivia and breathe a wind of freedom to the rest of Latin America, does not hide his admiration for the panache of the Emperor. His passage in France in 1802 will only rekindle the Napoleonic flame and complete his emancipatory ambitions.

Napoleon, source of inspiration for dictators

Napoleon also inspired the darkest figures in 20th century history. “Mussolini, Hitler, Franco or Stalin each claimed their heritage in one way or another through their speeches or commissions for films on the Emperor,” explains David Chanteranne. character, “it is necessary all the same to relativize its importance in the minds of the dictators, nuance Thierry Lentz. Hitler, who did not like the French, did not cease to recall also the supremacy Bismarck on Napoleon, Mussolini swore only by the Emperor Augustus, etc … ”

Fidel Castro has never made a secret of his fascination with the Eagle. During his only visit to France in 1995, he chose to meditate at Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides. Moreover, “the most beautiful museum of Napoleon is undoubtedly that of Havana, in Cuba”, estimates David Chanteranne.

Napoleon versus Jesus

The myth of Napoleon is also part of the arts. As an authoritarian leader, Napoleon naturally had recourse to artistic disciplines to ensure the communication of power. Architecture, painting, sculpture and decorative arts have alternately entered the service of the glory of the Empire. But the romantic hero he embodies, superb in the victory at Austerlitz as in the defeat at Waterloo, has also inspired a whole generation of writers around the world, to the point of becoming “the most fruitful muse of poets”, according to the expression of the poet Pierre-Antoine Lebrun.

Civil Code, conquests, the arts … the flourishing Napoleon heritage throughout the world

The character Napoleon is also very present in Russian culture and imagination. At the beginnings of his reign, Bonaparte was at the center of all conversations in the aristocratic salons of Russia. It is therefore not surprising to see it omnipresent in the literary works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. Praised or mocked, it is one of the great works of British authors such as Lord Byron, Hardy, A. Burguess, as well as of their Italian, German or Polish counterparts.

“Unhappy decisions” too

“Napoleon was an inexhaustible source for his contemporaries through painting, architecture, in particular with the ‘return from Egypt style’ which he widely encouraged, notes David Chanteranne. And since his death, the Napoleonic occurrences n ‘have ceased to multiply. And what about his filmography? Napoleon brings together more than 1,000 films around the world, far ahead of Jesus who only comes in second. “

All over the world, “the self-made man with a tragic fate fascinates”, sums up David Chanteranne. Fascinates and irritates. How not to mention, alongside the advances he made during his reign, the darker side of his heritage? Napoleon was also the one who reestablished slavery in 1802 and deprived women of legal rights in his Civil Code, subjecting them to the authority of the father and the husband. “Very unfortunate decisions, concedes Thierry Lentz, but slavery and the status of women were the same everywhere at that time. On this point, Napoleon did not innovate anything.”

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