Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, died 200 years ago Wednesday on the island of Saint Helena, more than 7,000 km from Paris.
President Emmanuel Macron has ignored the controversy surrounding the bicentenary and will commemorate France’s favorite historical figure with a speech at the French Academy and a wreath laying at Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides.
Napoleon’s critics say he was a megalomaniac dictator who left up to 2½ million people dead across Europe. Its defenders say that Napoleon simply fought wars started by enemies of the revolution and then defended France against coalitions of European enemies led by the English. By reconciling French royalists and revolutionaries and establishing the country’s education, justice and government systems, he laid the foundations for modern France.
Napoleon seems to represent the French national character, his rebellion but also his aspiration to authority. He made his compatriots believe that France was destined to make history and transmit civilization to others.
His rise of modest origins to the head of continental Europe also confirmed the French belief in meritocracy. If a disjointed Corsican boy who spoke barely French could become an emperor at the age of 35, then any Frenchman could become anything.
Above all, Napoleon gave French glory. Notoriously courageous in battle, he said: “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and without glory is to die every day.” He won 77 of 86 military battles, a 90% success rate.
He was a genius at self-promotion, even turning defeats into stories of daring. He commissioned fashionable artists to portray him as a dashing general.
As a prisoner of the British in Saint Helena, he built his own legend through the memoirs he dictated to Count Emmanuel de Las Cases. “The martyrdom that I experienced in Saint Helena took on the image of a tyrant from me,” Napoleon declared to his companion, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand. On his death, Horace Vernet painted the Emperor rising from his tomb, like a Christ, surrounded by light. Replicas of Napoleon’s death mask have long been found in homes across France.
In The Man Who Thought Himself For Napoleon, author Laure Murat writes that Napoleon is the most common subject of delusional disorders, more than Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc or Louis XIV. In 1840, the year of repatriation of the ashes of Napoleon from Saint Helena, 14 future emperors were hospitalized in a single Parisian asylum.
Napoleon’s mania is not specific to France. In 1997, American billionaire Bill Gates bought a love letter from Napoleon to Josephine for the equivalent of over a million euros. In 2014, a Korean paid 1.8 million euros for one of Napoleon’s two hats. A plate of his service in porcelain from Saint Helena can bring hundreds of thousands of people at auction.
Wellington’s troops captured Napoleon’s favorite horse – named after the battle he won at Marengo – at Waterloo and brought it back to England. The skeleton of Marengo has been preserved in the National Army Museum in London. For the bicentenary, French artist Pascal Convert built a replica. “Bringing the horse of the last defeat to its rider’s grave is a ritual,” Convert said. He hung the skeleton above Napoleon’s tomb, in the manner of Pegasus.
Napoleon fans are launching a petition entitled “No to the desecration of the tomb of Emperor Napoleon 1st”.
“To rehumanize Napoleon by hanging the skeleton of a plastic horse above his grave?” Are you kidding! tweeted Thierry Lentz, director of the Fondation Napoléon.
Controversy over slavery
The most serious controversy surrounding the commemoration is the fact that Napoleon reestablished slavery in France, eight years after its abolition by the Revolution. Ethnic minority staff at La Villette, site of one of the bicentennial’s many exhibitions, threatened to strike.
Louis-Georges Tin of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France, and the academic Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, published an opinion piece in Liberation denouncing Wednesday’s commemoration as “a scandal and an outrage inflicted on millions of black victims. who were deported and enslaved in horrible conditions ”.
Marlene Daut, a professor at the University of Virginia who describes herself as “a black woman of Haitian descent and a scholar of French colonialism,” denounced the French commemoration in the New York Times, calling Napoleon “the greatest tyrant of France, an icon of white supremacy… a racist, sexist and irremediable despot. Napoleon’s defenders say he was a man of his time.
Macron, like Napoleon, came to power in his thirties. The wife of the first, Brigitte, is, like Josephine, an older woman who has introduced her husband into society. Macron also wants to unify Europe, but not to the point of saber.