PARIS – “Napoleon is part of us,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday in a historic speech marking the 200th anniversary of the emperor’s death.
Whether for better or for worse has been the subject of a bitter national debate that has mirrored and fueled the more modern cultural wars that divide French society and challenge its notions of national identity.
Napoleon Bonaparte was regarded by some – largely on the political right – as a military genius, a modernizer and a national hero who evokes a more glorious era. For others, he is an imperialist, a warmonger and an assailant who should be vilified and not revered.
While most current French leaders have avoided paying tribute to the general who divides, Macron broke with convention and urged the country to face its history.
He also laid a wreath at the foot of Napoleon’s grandiose tomb at Les Invalides, a monument with the golden dome, as France anxiously commemorated the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death in 1821 while preparing for the presidential elections of the next year.
“If his splendor resists the erosion of time, it is because his life has an intimate echo in each of us,” Macron said in a speech at the Institut de France – established by Napoleon on the banks of the Seine here.
“Napoleon’s life is an ode to political will. The journey of a child from Ajaccio who became master of Europe clearly shows that a man can change the course of history, ”said Macron, the country’s youngest leader since Napoleon and sought to position himself as a figure of similar definition.
The anniversary was a time for “enlightened commemoration,” but not a celebration, Macron added.
Napoleon’s legacy, particularly around slavery, has come under renewed scrutiny amid the global race account that followed the death of George Floyd, which sparked protests on French streets and in several European capitals.
In 1802, Napoleon reestablished slavery by decree in the French Caribbean, reversing its abolition in 1794. Revolts were violently suppressed as white landowners and the expanding French empire grew richer.
Black historians and commentators say this aspect of its heritage remains unanswered in France, which still grapples with its colonial past and accusations of deep-rooted inequality and racism towards its minority and immigrant populations. The heated debate comes a few days before the country’s commemoration of the abolition of slavery in France, celebrated each year on May 10.
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Macron described Napoleon’s decision to reestablish slavery as a betrayal, but critics were still dismayed at his tributes to the man who helped shape modern France.
“This commemoration is a national disgrace,” said Louis-Georges Tin, activist and honorary president of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France. “When the president of a country pays homage to a man who has committed so many crimes and a crime against humanity, it says a lot about the moral standards of the country.”
Tin, who was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, said Macron’s actions had “offended” not only blacks in France and abroad, but also anyone who considered themselves “humanists”.
In July, protesters in Martinique, a French territory, demolished a statue of Napoleon’s empress, Josephine, who was born into a wealthy colonial family on the island.
“Napoleon was instrumental in creating the roots of racism and discrimination in France, he was unmistakably a racist,” Claude Ribbe, author of “Napoleon’s Crimes,” told NBC News. “And as with slavery, other countries also had slavery, but France under Napoleon is the only country to reinstate it. “
But for Peter Hicks, head of international affairs at the Fondation Napoléon, a Paris-based research organization, the emperor was a man of his time and must be placed in historical context.
“The thing about the slavery episode in the Napoleonic epic is that it’s so tangential,” Hicks told NBC News.
Napoleon was not racist, he added, and had “no real interest in the idea of color.” Rather, he thought primarily in terms of power, politics and order, Hicks said.
“The story is complex, difficult and strange, and Napoleon is part of it, for better or for worse,” Hicks said, citing the general’s inordinate influence on world affairs from Chile to Russia.
“It is so essential to the creation of France, you might not like it but you cannot not watch it in front, ” he added.
Napoleon seized power in a 1799 coup, overthrowing the nascent democracy that had deposed the French monarchy. Victories on the battlefield spread his power across Europe before his defeat to the British at Waterloo.
Master administrator, Napoleon created the penal code of France, as well as the administrative system of regions and schools that still exist today. But he also reversed advances in women’s rights and brutally fought for supremacy in the Caribbean sugar trade.
He died in exile on Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean at the age of 51.
The 200th anniversary of his death comes at a politically sensitive time, with France one year away from a presidential election.
The far right leader Marine Le Pen, Macron’s main challenger, criticized the president for not having celebrated the legacy of an “eternal French hero”.
Polls suggest Le Pen is gaining ground.
“President Macron tried to reconcile the different points of view currently in France on Napoleon,” said François Héran, sociologist and scholar at the Collège de France in Paris.
“Every act of Emmanuel Macron has, of course, an electoral orientation, there is no doubt about it, but he could have maintained the traditional view of the cult of Napoleon to which we are accustomed, and he did not … which is rather brave, ”he said.
But Heran disagreed with the idea that Napoleon was simply a man of his time. He added that young people and social media were driving “an evolution” and pushing for a re-examination of French identity, which included a new scrutiny of Napoleon’s legacy.
“We have to face all aspects of our French history. Let’s be able to watch without denial, ”Héran said. “It’s not self-hatred. This is the only way to be an adult. “