Things about France that surprised me: not necessarily a fan of Napoleon

He’s one of the world’s most famous Frenchmen, but France is divided over whether the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte tomorrow should be marked in any way. Here’s why.

Tomorrow 5 May 2021 marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death on the Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he had been exiled by the British after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.But while he is undoubtedly famous, Napoleon is far from un-controversial in France.

Napoleon’s account of his victory during the Battle of Austerlitz (Image by Thomas COEX / AFP)

Why celebrate it?

Napoleon is best known for his military prowess, he fought over 70 battles and was only defeated in eight, making France the greatest military power in Europe during his reign.

The ruler also famously created the Napoleonic Code, which remains the basis of French civil law today.

A reformist, Napoleon also introduced several features into French life that are still in use. These include the metric system, the lycée secondary school system and the system of meritocracy in the government and army (where you are promoted on ability, not background. Theoretically, anyway).

Asked to name the greatest general on earth, his British rival the Duke of Wellington said:

In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.

Why not celebrate it?

But there are plenty of aspects to Napoleon, often glossed over, that call into question why you would want to celebrate him in any way, shape or form.

Foremost, he overturned the French republic and crowned himself Emperor, giving his family lavish privileges and important jobs – nepotism running riot.

His wars inevitably killed plenty, estimated to be between 3.5 to 6 million people. Cities were destroyed and victims left without roofs over their heads as he often favoured conflict over peace.

But undoubtedly the most problematic part of his reign was the reintroduction of slavery in 1802, less than a decade after it was abolished following the Revolution. This probably reflects Napoleon‘s heartless pragmatism, rather than outright racism, as he sought to dominate the Caribbean and its sugar trade.

Monument leading to the crypt where Napoleon I rests, with an inscription reading:
“I want my ashes to rest on the banks of the river Seine among the French people that I loved so much”, under the dome of the Hotel des Invalides, Paris.
(Image THOMAS COEX / AFP)

Not a new controversy

And if this sounds like the rewriting of history with a 21st century slant, it’s not really – Napoleon has long been a controversial figure in his homeland.

While it is hard to open Google Maps anywhere in France without seeing the names of Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur or Charles De Gaulle running down a major street, there are but a handful of side streets dedicated to L’Empereur.

For many, he was a war-monger who left millions dead across Europe, and a despot who turned the ideals of the revolution into a vehicle for his personal ambitions, ultimately leaving France bankrupt and occupied.

Former President Jacques Chirac refused to involve himself with any commemoration festivities of the Battle of Austerlitz in 2005 and François Hollande did the same two years later on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Ex-prime minister Lionel Jospin, meanwhile, published a book titled The Napoleonic Evil.

So what will happen?

The 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death was meant to be celebrated in France by a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin bringing with him the remains of a Napoleonic marshal identified thanks to DNA in 2019 who had been recovered from the Battle of Valutino. However, Covid-19 put paid to those plans.

There have been several exhibitions dedicated to his place in history however the closure of museums and tourist sites at least until 19 May means that few have seen them. A major exhibition in the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris aims, once visitors are allowed back, to tackle the problematic aspects of the Emperor’s life as well as his legacy – putting on show for the first time his order reinstating slavery.

Emmanuel Macron, known for his “en même temps” (at the same time) approach to thorny questions, has typically indicated he will wisely take a nuanced approach. Facing election next year, it is a delicate balancing act. Macron’s office says he will address “this major figure in our history… with open eyes”. The president will be attending an event at Les Invalides on the anniversary itself.

Meanwhile, tomorrow, I’ll be looking at one of Napoleon’s legacies on the French Riviera.

19 Comments on “Things about France that surprised me: not necessarily a fan of Napoleon

  1. There is also a responsibility on people and the general public to ponder the choices made by leaders . Thankfully , now people are becoming more aware and conscious to choose the leaders they find are better …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I never realized that there was such a controversy about Napoleon, but I can see why. I don’t know about celebrating him, but I think we can learn from history.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I suppose there is less controversy over Jeanne d’Arc. I remember FN used to make a big celebration of her once a year. I can’t remember whether it was he birthday or death anniversary they celebrated.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Napoleon Bonaparte on the French Riviera – View from the Back

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