PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron, who mapped a delicate path between condemnation and celebration of Napoleon Bonaparte on the 200th anniversary of his death, has said the Emperor’s restoration of slavery in 1802 was an “error, a betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment”.
It was the first time that a French president specifically condemned Napoleon’s reestablishment of slavery in the Caribbean, after its post-revolutionary abolition in 1794. Mr. Macron used the word “fault”, which in French carries more solemnity and opprobrium as “error” or “error” in English, something closer to an offense.
France, the only country to have ended and restored slavery, has not abolished slavery again until 1848. This painful history tended to be overshadowed for many by the magnetism of the epic Bonapartist saga, which Mr. Macron described as “above all, an ode to political will”. He continued: “Without him, the fate of France would not have been the same.”
Mr Macron’s comments come as France engages in a debate, encouraged by the president, about its colonial past and whether the country’s universalist model, which is said to be color blind, actually masks a widespread racism.
Karfa Diallo, the founder of Senegal-born Mémoires et Partages, an organization campaigning for a fuller account of France’s colonial and slavery past, said he supported the commemorations but lamented what he saw as bad. recognition of Napoleon. racism.
“I am in favor of the government which commemorates Napoleon, but it has a duty to say that Napoleon was racist and this was not sufficiently evident in Macron’s speech, who used words that were too vague,” said Mr. Diallo .
Mr Macron spoke under a dome, at the home of the Académie Française, representing the revered quintessence of French lore, before heading to Napoleon’s tomb under the golden dome of Les Invalides. There, in a solemn ceremony, he laid a wreath of red and white flowers, before the Marseillaise was sung.
“Napoleon, in his conquests, never really cared about the loss of human life,” Macron said. “Since then, we have come to place a higher value on human life, whether in wars or pandemics.”
Millions of lives were lost as Napoleon sought to spread the anticlerical and anti-monarchical message of the French Revolution across the continent before his final defeat in 1815. This he did so as a self-proclaimed emperor is just one of the many contradictions of his stormy life.
Mr. Macron’s speech followed the model he adopted to face difficult passages in French history, including the Algerian War of Independence: full and sincere recognition without repentance. It was also typical of a leader whose tendency to balance different sides of an argument is so marked that he became known as the president “at the same time”.
The president’s most serious challenger in next year’s election is Marine Le Pen, the right-wing leader. She chose to commemorate this anniversary with the words: “Long live the Emperor! Long live greatness! “
Mr. Macron is a centrist, but very concerned for the moment by the need to counter the call of the extreme right. “We love Napoleon because his life looks like the possible, because it is an invitation to take risks,” he says. He continued, “His life has been an epiphany of freedom. Eagle and ogre, Napoleon could be both the soul of the world and the demon of Europe.
Napoleon has always been a contested figure in France, even in the perpetual fascination he exercised, to the point that recent presidents have hesitated to honor him. But that’s not Mr. Macron’s style.
At a time of tense cultural confrontation over whether French universalism masks racism, he condemned Napoleon’s use of slavery in the Caribbean in newly frank terms, while praising the achievements of a hero. national.
The French legal code, the lycée school system, the central bank and the centralized administrative framework are part of Napoleon’s legacy.
But Mr Diallo said France’s universalist model was still “locked in denial” on racial issues, unable to fully recognize that the country had for decades promoted racist policies and slavery.
“Napoleon is the man who gave shape to our political and administrative organization, to the uncertain sovereignty that emerged from the Revolution,” Macron said. “After months of failure, with France under siege, Napoleon was able to embody order.
Constant Méheut contributed to the report.