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

The bicentenary of Napoleon’s death has rekindled the left-right divide with debates over whether to commemorate the former French emperor. When some, on the right, admire this figure in the history of France, praising his heritage and his figure as a leader, others, on the left, castigate him, recalling in particular his decision to restore slavery. This opposition has not always existed, however.

The approach of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, Wednesday, May 5, has revived an old debate between the left and the right on the usefulness of commemorating or not the former French emperor. The subject of the Napoleonic heritage is so upsetting the political class that the President of the Republic waited until the last minute to announce the way in which he was going to pay him homage.

Emmanuel Macron finally decided to give a speech at the Institut de France before laying a wreath at the Invalides, where Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb is located. “All of Napoleon’s contradictions will be considered. The line is neither repentance nor denial,” said the president’s entourage on April 28 to BFM TV.

The head of state will have to find the right words to avoid the criticisms of policies that have been straining for several decades on the approach to be adopted vis-à-vis Napoleon. Schematically, there is on one side the right, for whom Napoleon symbolizes the past greatness of France, and on the other the left, which prefers to emphasize its authoritarianism and militarism. Several forums illustrating these positions have thus been published in the press.

“Ignoring the bicentenary of the death of Napoleon would be a fault against the Nation”, estimated the deputy Les Républicains (LR) Julien Aubert in a column published on February 20 in the Journal du dimanche. “To celebrate his memory, just look around and see how France today still bears the traces of his work: the Civil Code, the Penal Code, the prefectural body, the Council of State, the Court of Auditors, the Legion of Honor, the university, the baccalaureate, the Special Military School of Saint-Cyr, the Bank of France … Who says better? “asks the deputy for Vaucluse.

“Very clear continuity between the Revolution and Napoleon”

The response was quick. “The Republic cannot pay an official tribute to the one who was the gravedigger by putting an end to the first Republican experiment in our history to create an authoritarian regime,” said the deputy La France insoumise (LFI) Alexis Corbière in a statement. column published on March 3 in Le Figaro.

Like the deputy LFI, the left as a whole, which prefers to glorify the French Revolution, does not fail to recall that Napoleon restored slavery in the French colonies in 1802, that the Napoleon Code of 1804 inscribed the inferiority of women in the law and that its militarism caused the loss of more than a million French soldiers. In 2014, the former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin even published a prosecution essay, “Le Mal napoléonien” (Seuil), in which he went so far as to compare Napoleon Bonaparte to Marshal Pétain.

“Do not count on me to celebrate it on May 5. He not only restored slavery, he ordered atrocious expeditions to Guadeloupe and Santo Domingo. What he did remains an injury, an attack to our dignity “, for his part explained Serge Letchimy, deputy (close to the Socialist Party) of Martinique, to the Parisian.

However, the left did not always hate Napoleon. When President Pompidou paid her a solemn tribute in 1969 to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of the former emperor, she associated herself with this event. “Albert Soboul, historian specializing in the French Revolution and Napoleon, also a Marxist, urges the Communists, in several articles published in L’Humanité, to celebrate Napoleon in the name of a patriotism from which the party could not depart”, recalls Arthur Chevallier, editor and author of several books on Napoleon, including “Napoleon and Bonapartism” (Presses Universitaires de France, coll. Que sais-je?, 2021), contacted by France 24.

For the specialist, also curator of the Napoleon exhibition at the Grande Halle de la Villette, almost all historians, on the right and on the left, agreed to recognize “a very clear continuity between the French Revolution and Napoleon” . “The Revolution itself was ultramilitarist, insists Arthur Chevallier. Robespierre was initially pacifist then became militarist in 1793. As for the status of women, they lose their political rights from 1795. Napoleon in reality formalized in the Civil Code the state of French society in 1795. There is an obvious continuity. “

“The left let go of Napoleon in the 1970s”

So what has happened on the left, so that his outlook on Napoleon has evolved in this way over the past decades? “At the beginning of the 1970s, the pacifist movements born during the wars of decolonization recomposed the left and forced it to rewrite her personal historiography and her own history of France. It was at this time that she let go of Napoleon”, explains Arthur Chevallier.

Then a second rereading took place at the time of the bicentenary of the Revolution, in 1989, under the leadership of François Mitterrand. “Certain episodes of the French Revolution were selected and others put aside to embody what the Revolution was supposed to be according to the left, which at that time made it the symbolic and founding event of its own history. suddenly, the right had only to recover Napoleon “, analyzes the specialist.

Thus, the emperor is now the embodiment of so-called right-wing values ​​such as authority, public order or conservatism, but also of the past greatness of France. And when Le Figaro Magazine asks candidates for the primary of the right and the center, in 2016, to define which event or which figure best illustrates the history of France, with the exception of Charles de Gaulle, who all claim to be, two of them cite Napoleon and the battle of Austerlitz. “Napoleon is the man of paradoxes, and that makes him a very French hero,” then sums up the former minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.

More recently, it was the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, who took as an example, in his book “Le Séparatisme Islamiste” (Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2021), Napoleon’s action concerning the assimilation of Jews, arousing in the process a lively controversy. In search of the stature of a firm and uncompromising statesman in the face of the rise of Islamist radicalism, the former member of the Les Républicains party did not choose Napoleon for nothing. This reference speaks to the right-wing electorate, of which he is partly responsible for convincing him to vote Emmanuel Macron in 2022.

Similarly, the president of the Hauts-de-France region, Xavier Bertrand, who formally declared at the end of March in an interview with Le Point his candidacy for the 2022 presidential election, cites Napoleon as a historical reference alongside De Gaulle, Richelieu and Saint Louis. “Napoleon, more than Bonaparte, because it is he who made the synthesis between the Old Regime and the Revolution”, affirms the old LR.

It’s hard to imagine a left-wing candidate referring to the former emperor in order to please his electorate. Especially since part of this political family continues to change. After the antimilitarism of the 1970s and the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989, the rise, in France in 2021, of movements such as post- # MeToo feminism, decolonial anti-racism or “cancel culture” – a consistent practice to ostracize an individual or a personality because of his positions – pushes her even more to distance herself from Napoleon.

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