The legend of Napoleon is alive and as divisive as ever

Fidel Castro said once more people know Napoleon Bonaparte because of the brandy that bears his name than at Austerlitz, the most famous victory of the French emperor on the battlefield. On the 200th anniversary of his death, Napoleon’s legacy lives on in a more lasting way than Castro attributed to it.

Two weeks ago, 20 retired French generals called on the armed forces to save the nation of what they called the dangers of radical Islam and civil war. Their call received the enthusiastic support of Marine Le Pen, the far-right politician.

From a historical point of view, this incident recalled the rich tradition of military intervention in French politics. It began with Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1799. It continued with the coup d’état of his nephew Napoleon III in 1851, Boulangism in the 1880s, Philippe Pétain’s Vichy regime 1940s and the army revolts of 1958 and 1961.

A military coup is a far-fetched idea in modern France. But among layers of the population, the impulse to find a larger than life savior capable of transcending the divisions of France and revitalizing the national spirit has persisted since the time of Napoleon.

Charles de Gaulle embodied this impulse. For some of his supporters, the president Emmanuel Macron when he defeated traditional French political parties in 2017 and became the country’s youngest head of state since Napoleon. The pen, who will challenge Macron for the presidency next year, fulfills the same role for the far right.

Yet just as Napoleon was rarely a unifying figure in life, his heritage divides the French today. Opinion polls constantly note it as one of the two or three greatest historical figures in France. But Jacques Chirac, who hated him, avoided the 2005 Bicentenary of Austerlitz commemorations as president. Alexis Corbière, politician of the left, said France should not mark the bicentenary of his death because “it is not for the republic to celebrate its gravedigger”.

The arguments about Napoleon serve as a proxy for the cultural wars that hit France. Élisabeth Moreno, Minister for Gender Equality and Diversity in Macron’s government, condemned him as “one of the greatest misogynists”.

Moreno probably had in mind Napoleon’s Civil Code of 1804, which specified that wives were to obey husbands. Or she could have thought of Germaine de Staël, the 19th century author who asked Napoleon to describe the best type of woman. He replied, “The one who has the most children.”

On the whole, de Staël was not impressed with Napoleon. Comparing him to the austere Jacobin who led the Terror of 1793-1794, she ridiculed him as “Robespierre on horseback”.

More recently, racial justice activists have taken hold of Napoleon’s decree of 1802, which aimed to reintroduce slavery in the French colonies after its partial abolition eight years earlier.

Napoleon’s admirers prefer to see him as the administrative reformer who created the national central bank, the high school school system and the prefects who supervise the departments. In this sense, he laid the foundations for the centralized and technocratic state that defines France to this day.

Critics point to the dark side of Napoleonic rule. This included police repression, manipulated plebiscites and endless wars of conquest that worsened, leaving France’s national territory smaller in 1815 than it was before he took power.

In parts of continental Europe, Africa and Latin America, Napoleon was the inspiration for the national liberation movements. But in Russia and Spain he is remembered as an invader, and for the British it sums up the danger of a tyrant controlling Europe. Two hundred years later, the Napoleonic legend is alive and well and contested.

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