France is still divided over Napoleon as it marks the bicentenary of death

France is still divided over Napoleon as it marks the bicentenary of death

On May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died in a surprisingly small bed surrounded by his French coterie in exile in a damp, rat-infested house on the British island of Saint Helena.

His last words, uttered shortly before his expiration at around 5:59 p.m. local time, were relayed: “France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine …»(France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine). He was 51 years old.

Two hundred years later, the cause of his death remains an unsolved mystery and his career and life continue to be bitterly divided. For some, the emperor of Corsican origin was a brilliant military and political strategist, for others he was hardly a belligerent despot. On the right, he is a national hero whose leadership and legacy put France on the map, while the left points out that he was autocratic and supported the restoration of slavery.

Élisabeth Moreno, Minister for Equality, admitted that Napoleon was “a great figure in the history of France”, but added that he was also “one of the great misogynists”.

The tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Invalides in Paris, where Emmanuel Macron will lay a wreath on Wednesday. Photograph: Christophe Petit-Tesson / EPA

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron will try to cross a fine line in this political minefield when he marks the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death at the Institut de France with a group of academics and high school students. He will speak after a presentation by French historian Jean Tulard, one of the country’s leading experts on Bonaparte, and will lay a wreath at the foot of his tomb at the Invalides in Paris in what the Élysée insists as a ” commemoration and not a celebration ”.

The Elysee said Macron broke with the cautious approach of his predecessors and “will not shy away” from the controversy surrounding Napoleon, who exercised power between 1799 and 1815, but added that his speech would be “neither hagiographic, neither deny nor repent. And that he would not give a “retrospective judgment 10 generations later.”

The Élysée declared that Emmanuel Macron’s speech marking this anniversary would be “neither hagiographic, neither a denial nor a repentance”. At least one historian has drawn parallels between the two men. Photograph: Getty Images

It is a position in which the centrist Macron is an expert with his famous mantra ” at the same time(At the same time), but for the historian Tulard, it is a question of remembering.

“It’s not about whether he was a genius or a monster, it’s about remembering what he did, which led France to dominate Europe at one point. ”Tulard said.

“This is our history and a nation that forgets or erases its history is doomed to failure.”

After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon had hoped to be banished to America. Instead, after 10 weeks at sea aboard HMS Northumberland, he found himself on a volcanic rock 10 miles long by six miles wide in the middle of the South Atlantic.

On seeing Saint Helena from the sea on her arrival in October 1815, his first comment was: “It will not be a pleasant abode.”

The governor of St Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, was not impressed by his unwelcome guest. Not only was his duty to ensure that “Old Boney” did not escape, but he was also obligated to provide him and his retinue with weekly supplies including brandy and wine. For Napoleon, Lowe was his jailer. And he started to irritate her at every opportunity. For Lowe, Napoleon was an irritable individual, prone to temper tantrums and the inability to recognize and accept his situation.

In his will, Napoleon asked to be buried on the banks of the Seine in Paris, but Lowe insisted that he be buried in the Sane Valley in St. Helena, later known as the Tomb Valley. Even after his death, Lowe was impassive to compromise with his French guests. French General Charles Tristan de Montholon requested that the tomb be engraved with the single word “Napoleon”; Lowe insisted that “Bonaparte” be added. The two could not get along and the grave was not marked.

Longwood House on Saint Helena, Napoleon's last residence.
Longwood House on Saint Helena, Napoleon’s last residence. Photography: Gianluigi Guercia / AFP via Getty Images

In October 1840, his body was exhumed, repatriated to France and later re-buried at the Invalides in Paris. In 1854, the French government purchased the Tomb Valley and Longwood House, which remain in French possession to this day.

When the city of Arras, in northern France, organized an exhibition to persuade the French to take a new look at Napoleon and his 20 years as the most feared and respected man in Europe, Frédéric Lacaille, the curator, lamented that he risked being forgotten in France.

“It’s worse than being hated, it’s ignored, and yet Bonaparte had a mind-blowing history,” Lacaille said at the time. “Many French people see him as representing a hawkish and authoritarian regime and forget the many things we have inherited from him, including his great administrative reorganization.

His Napoleonic code defined civil law in large parts of the world, introduced higher education, taxes, roads and sewers and he created the Banque de France.

In his 2014 biography of Napoleon the Great, British historian Andrew Roberts pointed out a certain similarity between Macron and Napoleon: both young, literate and very intelligent who came to power by defeating right-wing opponents, both with the ambition to reform France and place it at the heart of a unified Europe… and both with an eye on Britain, with its constant demands for free trade with the continent and seen with growing irritation.

Tulard is kinder to the British: “The French said, ‘Oh, treacherous Albion sentenced Napoleon to exile on Saint Helena,’ but in reality the British were very lenient. Just before Waterloo, the Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw. In other circumstances, he would have been shot by a firing squad. Saint Helena was difficult, but it wasn’t the worst that could have happened to her.


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