PARIS – Jacques Chirac could not stand it. Nicolas Sarkozy kept his distance. Francois Hollande avoids it. But on the 200th anniversary this week of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death, Emmanuel Macron chose to do what the most recent presidents of France had avoided: honoring the man who in 1799 destroyed the nascent French Republic in a coup.
Choosing to lay a wreath on Wednesday at Napoleon’s tomb under the golden dome of Les Invalides, Mr. Macron stepped into the heart of the French Cultural Wars. Napoleon, always a contested figure, became a Rorschach test for the French at a time of intense cultural confrontation.
Paying homage to Napoleon, Mr. Macron will please the troubled French right, dreaming of lost glory and a moment when, under their tumultuous emperor, France stood at the center of the world. The French obsession with the romantic epic of Napoleon’s rise and fall is immortal, as countless magazine and talk show covers have highlighted in recent weeks.
But in the current Zeitgeist, Napoleon’s crucial role as the founder of the modern French state tends to fade beyond his records as a colonizer, warrior and enslaver. 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, not honored.
“How can we celebrate a man who was an enemy of the French Republic, of a number of European nations, and also an enemy of humanity because he was an enslaver?” Louis-Georges Tinne, author and activist, and Olivier Le Cours Grandezon, a political scientist, wrote last month in Le Monde.
They argued that Les Invalides should become a museum of the five French republics and that the remains of Napoleon, such as Franco’s in Spain, should be returned to his family. The remains have 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 exile on the remote 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’Orleans, a descendant of the French monarchy at Figaro, referring to one of Napoleon’s greatest soldiers. Honoring Napoleon is tantamount to “honoring the French people, honoring ourselves.”
Yet this brilliant general, who fought for the liberation of Europe from the feudal shackles of the monarchy, also restored slavery by decree in the French Caribbean in 1802 after its post-revolutionary abolition in 1794.
The riots in Guadeloupe and the then French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, were ruthlessly repressed. Haiti prevailed, declared independence in 1804, and abolished slavery. France, the only country to end and then restore slavery, did not abolish slavery until 1848.
This story tends to be overshadowed by the magnetism of the Bonapartist saga. Now, as with Jefferson’s slavery in the United States, or Churchill’s criticism in Britain last year of his comments on racial hierarchies, the new era has a new focus.
Claude Ribe, whose book The Crimes of Napoleon caused outrage when it was published in 2005 over descriptions of French atrocities in the Caribbean, said: “We can celebrate him, but never celebrate him, because of the shadow of his racism, always still felt in France today. “
This view has taken on a certain position as France began a calculation, encouraged by Mr Macron, of its colonial past, especially in Algeria, and launched a vigorous debate over whether the country’s supposedly color-coded universal model masks widespread racism.
Josette Borel-Lincertin, the socialist president of Guadeloupe’s departmental council, told Le Monde that her community would not pay homage to Napoleon, whom every Guadeloupe knows he has restored slavery. “We can send the echo of our pain from this side of the ocean,” she said.
This echo in mainland France may seem faint. The fascination with Napoleon seems stronger than ever, as if in a time of pandemic uncertainty he embodies everything that France feels it has lost. Napoleon’s life remains a parable for many people, including Mr. Macron, for national action and greatness – vicious, no doubt violent, no doubt, but transformative.
This general of his 20s, this “Robespierre on horseback” carrying the anti-clerical message of the 1789 revolution throughout Europe, this leader of the battles of Marengo and Austerlitz, is the quintessence of French audacity and genius towards France, which now must be satisfied with as medium strength.
Pascal Bruckner, a writer, said: “Why the mania? Because with Napoleon the Gallic rooster became an imperial eagle. Now it’s just a tired old bell tower hen. ‘
Eric Zemmour, author of The French Suicide, presents the right’s view of Napoleon. Mr. Zemmour likes to remember how it took all of Europe to defeat Napoleon in 1815. By 1940, Nazi Germany had crushed France in three weeks. Today, he argues, the country has difficulty even controlling its borders.
It was this caricature of the French decline that lurked behind a letter last month from 20 retired generals, describing France as in a state of “disintegration” and warning of a possible coup. Marin Le Pen, the right-wing leader who is the strongest candidate for Mr Macron in next year’s presidential election, applauded him.
This is the delicate context of Mr Macron’s homage to a man who came to power in a coup. On May 9, he will mark Europe Day, a celebration of unity in Europe, which Napoleon reduced to the carnage perhaps best captured by the depiction of Goya being executed in El Tres de mayo. The next day, May 10, Mr. Macron will mark the law passed in 2001 that recognizes slavery as a crime against humanity.
Gabriel Atal, a government spokesman, said: “To celebrate means to have our eyes wide open to our history and to look it in the face. Even with regard to the elections, which today seem dubious. “
Mr Macron’s choice is both political and personal. With the left rags, his main challenge is on the right, so laying a wreath on Napoleon’s tomb is also a way to counter Mrs. Le Pen. But his own fascination with Napoleon – like him, a young provincial populist who came to power out of nowhere with a mission to remake France and change Europe – has long been evident in his recurring reflections on France’s need for “renewed ambition and audacity.”
“Macron is Rastinyak,” says Nicole Baharan, a political scientist, alluding to the protagonist of Balzac’s novel, who conquers Paris with his charm and cunning. “And in Napoleon’s literary, political, strategic, military and intellectual range, he finds inspiration.” So also in the fact that France was then “the center of the world, for better or worse.”
Mr Macron took former President Donald Trump to Napoleon’s crypt in 2017 – French presidents usually avoid accompanying foreign leaders there because Hitler paid tribute to Napoleon at Les Invalides in 1940. If this was a history lesson, there were mixed results. “Napoleon ended up a little bad,” was Mr. Trump’s summary.
The president, born after the trauma of the Algerian war of independence, Mr Macron wants to confront a difficult story because he believes openness will heal. This determination has sparked much-needed debate, even within his own government.
Elizabeth Moreno, France’s minister of equality, called Napoleon “one of the great misogynists.” The long-amended Napoleonic Code states that “a woman owes obedience to her husband,” which was not uncommon at the time.
Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, a 19th-century French writer and diplomat, remarked of Napoleon: “While living, he failed the world. Dead, he defeated him. “Something in its extraordinary orbit from imperial glory to the ventilated island of his death will not allow the French imagination. The reason may be Napoleon’s hard-won realism, as St. Helena told his secretary, Emanuel de Las Case.
“Revolution is one of the greatest calamities that can affect the heavens,” Napoleon told his aide. “The scourge of a generation does it; any gain it acquires cannot compensate for the suffering that spreads throughout life. It enriches the poor who are dissatisfied; impoverishes the rich who will never forget it. It turns everything upside down, makes everyone unhappy and brings no happiness to anyone. “
For Napoleon, as for all human beings, it proved impossible to escape the time in which he lived.