PARIS – Jacques Chirac couldn’t stand it. Nicolas Sarkozy has kept his distance. François Hollande avoided it. But on the 200th anniversary this week of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emmanuel Macron chose to do what the last French presidents avoided: pay homage to the man who in 1799 destroyed the nascent French Republic in a putsch .
By choosing to lay a wreath on Wednesday on Napoleon’s tomb under the golden dome of the Invalides, Mr. Macron enters the heart of France’s cultural wars. Napoleon, still a contested figure, became a Rorschach test for the French in a time of tense cultural confrontation.
Was Napoleon a modernizing reformer whose legal code, the lycée school system, the central bank and the centralized administrative framework laid the foundations of post-revolutionary France? Or was he a backward racist, imperialist and misogynist?
By paying homage to Napoleon, Mr. Macron will please a reluctant French right wing dreaming of lost glory and a time when, under its turbulent emperor, France stood at the center of the world. The French obsession with the romantic epic of the rise and fall of Napoleon is eternal, as countless magazine covers and talk shows have pointed out in recent weeks.
But in the spirit of the times, Napoleon’s decisive role as founder of the modern French state tends to pale alongside his record as a colonizer, warmonger and assailant. Mr. Macron is taking a risk. Officials close to him described his planned speech as an attempt to look Napoleon “in the face”, light and shadow. Others, however, insist that Napoleon should be condemned rather than commemorated.
“How to celebrate a man who was the enemy of the French Republic, of several European peoples, but also the enemy of humanity in that he was an assailant?” Louis-Georges Tin, author and activist, and Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, political scientist, wrote last month in Le Monde.
They argued that the Invalides should be turned into a museum of the five republics of France and that Napoleon’s remains, like that of Franco in Spain, should be returned to his family. The remains have already come a long way. It took them 19 years to reach France in 1840, after Napoleon’s lonely death at the age of 51 in British-imposed exile on the isolated South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.
“Yes, the head of state, the commander-in-chief, must bow before the tomb of the victor of Austerlitz”, wrote Jean d’Orléans, descendant of the French monarchy in Le Figaro, referring to one of Napoleon’s greatest soldiers. triumph. Honoring Napoleon is “honoring the French people, honoring us”.
Yet this brilliant general who fought to free Europe from the feudal chains of monarchy also re-established slavery by decree in the French Caribbean in 1802, following its post-revolutionary abolition in 1794.
The revolts in Guadeloupe and in the French colony of Santo Domingo, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, were ruthlessly suppressed. Haiti prevailed, declared independence in 1804, and abolished slavery. France, the only country to have put an end to slavery and then re-established, did not re-abolish slavery until 1848.
This story has tended to be overshadowed by the magnetism of the Bonapartist saga. Now, as with Jefferson’s possession of slaves in the United States, or the criticism in Britain last year of Churchill for his comments on racial hierarchies, a new era has a new purpose.
Claude Ribbe, whose book “The Crimes of Napoleon” caused an uproar when it was published in 2005 because of his descriptions of French brutality in the Caribbean, said: “We can commemorate it, but never celebrate it, at because of the shadow of its racism, still felt in France today.
This view gained ground as France embarked on a review, encouraged by Mr. Macron, of its colonial past, particularly in Algeria, and a heated debate began on whether the model the country’s allegedly colorblind universalist masks widespread racism.
Josette Borel-Lincertin, the socialist president of the departmental council of Guadeloupe, told Le Monde that her community would not participate in the tributes to Napoleon, whom all Guadeloupeans know, reestablishes slavery. “We can only send this side of the ocean the echo of our pain,” she said.
This echo, in metropolitan France, may seem weak. The fascination with Napoleon appears more powerful than ever, as if, in a time of uncertainty caused by a pandemic, he embodied everything France felt it had lost. Napoleon’s life remains a parable for many, including Mr. Macron, of national action and greatness – imperfect, no doubt, violent no doubt, but transformative.
This general in his twenties, this “Robespierre on horseback” carrying the anticlerical message of the revolution of 1789 across Europe, this mastermind of the battles of Marengo and Austerlitz, represents a quintessence of daring and French genius for a France which must now be satisfied with being a medium-sized power.
Pascal Bruckner, writer, said: “Why this obsession? Because with Napoleon, the Gallic rooster became an imperial eagle. Now, it’s just a tired old hen on her steeple.
Eric Zemmour, author of “Le suicide français”, characterizes the vision of the right of Napoleon. Mr. Zemmour likes to remember how it took all of Europe to defeat Napoleon in 1815. In 1940, Nazi Germany crushed France in three weeks. Today, he argues, the country is even struggling to control its borders.
It is this caricature of French decline behind a letter last month from 20 retired generals who described France as being in a state of “disintegration” and warning of a possible coup. Marine Le Pen, the right-wing leader who is Mr Macron’s biggest challenger in next year’s presidential election, applauded her.
This is the delicate context of Mr. Macron’s tribute to a man who came to power by a coup d’état. On May 9, it will mark Europe Day, a celebration of unity in Europe that Napoleon reduced to carnage, perhaps best illustrated by Goya’s performance of an execution in “El Tres de mayo” . The next day, May 10, Mr. Macron will commemorate the law passed in 2001 which recognized slavery as a crime against humanity.
Gabriel Attal, the government spokesperson, said: “To commemorate is to have your eyes wide open to our history and to look it in the face. Even with regard to the choices that today seem questionable. “
The choice of Mr. Macron is both political and personal. With the left in tatters, her main challenge comes from the right, so laying a wreath on Napoleon’s grave is also a way to counter Ms. Le Pen. But his own fascination with Napoleon – like him, a young provincial upstart who came to power from nowhere with the mission of remaking France and changing Europe – has long been evident in his recurring reflections on France’s need for a “renewed ambition and daring”.
“Macron is Rastignac”, declared Nicole Bacharan, political scientist, alluding to the hero of a novel by Balzac who conquers Paris with his charm and his cunning. “And in Napoleon’s literary, political, strategic, military and intellectual range, he finds a source of inspiration. Likewise, in the fact that France was then “the center of the world, for better or for worse”.
Mr Macron took former President Donald Trump to Napoleon’s crypt in 2017 – French presidents tended to avoid accompanying foreign leaders there because Hitler paid homage to Napoleon at Les Invalides in 1940. While this was a history lesson, it had mixed results. “Napoleon ended a bit badly,” summarizes Mr. Trump.
President born after the trauma of the Algerian war of independence, Mr. Macron wants to face a difficult history because he believes that openness will heal. This determination sparked much needed debate, even within his own government.
Elisabeth Moreno, the Minister for Equalities in France, described Napoleon as “one of the great misogynists”. The Napoleonic Code, amended long ago, says that “a woman owes obedience to her husband”, which was not uncommon at the time.
François-René de Chateaubriand, the 19th century French writer and diplomat, observed of Napoleon: “Alive, he let the world down. Dead, he conquered it. Something in his extraordinary orbit from Imperial glory to the windswept island of his death will not let the French imagination be. The reason may be Napoleon’s hard-won realism, expressed on Saint Helena to his secretary, Emmanuel de Las Cases.
“Revolution is one of the greatest evils with which the heavens can afflict the earth,” Napoleon declared to his aid. “It is the scourge of the generation that does it; the gains it provides cannot compensate for the distress it spreads throughout life. He enriches the poor, who are not satisfied; it impoverishes the rich, who will never forget it. It turns everything upside down, makes everyone miserable, and doesn’t bring anyone happiness.
For Napoleon, as for all human beings, it proved impossible to escape the times in which he lived.