In Brief

Napoleon’s contested legacy

Two hundred years after the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, a bitter debate is still raging in France over his place in its history

Why is this anniversary significant?

On 5 May 1821, Napoleon died in exile, in a damp house on the bleak South Atlantic island of St Helena. Even in death, he was considered too dangerous to return to France: his desire to be buried in Paris was not granted by the British government until 1840, when his body was disinterred, shipped back and entombed in glory in the Dôme des Invalides church. Last week saw the last in a series of Napoleonic bicentenaries, which France has marked somewhat gingerly. In 2005, the then-president Jacques Chirac thought it best to sidestep the celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Austerlitz, regarded as Napoleon’s greatest victory. Many museums have designated 2021 the “Year of Napoleon”; but the emperor’s reputation has become, as so often in French history, a cultural battlefield.

So this isn’t a new argument?

Ever since Napoleon’s reign, there have been two perceptions of his quest for supremacy. On the one hand, he has been seen as a national hero, a founder of modern France, the greatest soldier of his age; on the other, as a tyrant, a betrayer of the Revolution, a warmonger. “Born largely to destroy, Bonaparte carries evil in his breast just as naturally as a mother bears her offspring, with joy and a sort of pride,” wrote Chateaubriand in 1814. Yet even after Waterloo and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Napoleon remained very popular. An alternative cult emerged: of an egalitarian who saved the Revolution, a glorious military leader, a great statesman, a romantic hero. This ambivalence is visible in the very fabric of France. Modern Paris, which Napoleon did so much to create, is littered with streets, landmarks and railway stations commemorating his generals, armies and victories; but only the narrow Rue Bonaparte bears his name. There are just two public statues of him in the city.

What were Napoleon’s greatest achievements?

His victories ensured that Revolutionary France, besieged by the monarchies of Europe, not only survived – ending a decade of chaos and civil strife – but conquered much of the continent. Yet in France today his reputation is perhaps greatest as an administrative reformer, during the period he served as first consul, from 1799 to 1804. Napoleon established the Conseil d’État, which still advises the French government today, along with the Bank of France, the regional prefectures, the lycées (high schools) and the baccalauréat exam system. Towering above all these, though, is the Napoleonic Code of 1804, created to sweep away the confusing, contradictory feudal laws and entrench modern legal rights. “My real glory isn’t that I won 40 battles; Waterloo will erase most of them – but nothing will erase my Civil Code,” he said. The code is credited with hastening the end of feudalism across Europe: it was first imposed through Napoleon’s conquests, then voluntarily adopted not just in Europe, but in nations around the world.

And what’s on the charge sheet?

It is long. Napoleon took power in the coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) which ended the democratic experiment of the Revolution. He then established a dictatorship, complete with secret police and intolerance for dissent. Having established French supremacy in Europe, he launched immensely costly wars of aggression that ultimately he could not win, by invading first Spain and then Russia. The Napoleonic Wars cost between three and 6.5 million lives, including those of around a million French people – bringing more bloodshed to modern Europe than anyone before Hitler. “A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men,” Napoleon memorably declared after the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812.

How is he seen today in modern France?

In the current climate, his attitudes towards race and women have come into the spotlight. He was an enthusiastic imperialist who conquered Egypt, and after the siege of Ottoman Jaffa had 3,000 enemy soldiers taken to the beach and shot. In 1794, Revolutionary France had declared the abolition of slavery in all of its territories, but Napoleon reinstated it in the French West Indies in 1802. Faced with rebellions in the colonies, he later despatched an army of 60,000 to Haiti, to crush the rebels. He also made laws forbidding “people of colour” to enter France, and forcing the break-up of interracial marriages. The Napoleonic Code, meanwhile, was a setback for nascent female equality. It confirmed the legal right of men to control women, who were forbidden from selling and buying property.

How did President Macron mark the anniversary?

Last Wednesday, President Macron – widely regarded as a rather Napoleonic figure – laid a wreath at his tomb in Les Invalides. It was a delicate balancing act for Macron, who insisted he was “commemorating not celebrating” the emperor’s legacy. “Napoleon could be both the soul of the world and the devil of Europe,” he said. Macron described the reintroduction of slavery as “a fault, a betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment”, but listed many of his achievements such as his support for meritocracy, and the arts and sciences. “We love Napoleon because his life gives us a taste of what is possible if we accept the invitation to take risks,” he declared.

How do the French people feel?

The feting of Napoleon is anathema to many activists. Generally, though, he has remained popular as an icon of French glory, particularly on the Right. “Will France be the only country in the world in 2021 not to admire Napoleon?” asked the conservative MP Julien Aubert recently. Frédéric Dabi, of the pollster Ifop, said most French people would support marking the anniversary because “they have a passion for French history”. The critics, he said, “are in reality very much a minority. Social networks aren’t France.”

The emperor’s last battle: St Helena

After Waterloo, Napoleon optimistically contemplated exile in the US or England. The British had other ideas and packed him off to St Helena, a rocky, windswept island six miles by ten miles, 1,200 miles from the African coast. Upon sighting it from HMS Northumberland, he remarked: “It seems no charming place to live in.” He was accompanied by a small coterie of loyal aides and servants, and was given lodgings appropriate to a captive general, but the deposed emperor chafed against the restrictions imposed: he had to be guarded by a British soldier if he left his garden, and had a 9pm curfew.

On St Helena, Napoleon reminisced in detail over his victories and defeats, railing against the subordinates that he held responsible. He read profusely, ate and drank a great deal, and developed a brief passion for gardening. But from 1817, he became withdrawn and depressed, and was often bed-bound. There are many theories about the causes of his death on 5 May 1821: doctors diagnosed stomach cancer and ulcers post-mortem, but some claim he was poisoned with arsenic or even by his own cologne. His last words were: “La France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine” (“France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine”).

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