French President Emmanuel Macron is due to lay a wreath at Napoleon Bonaparte’s grave to mark the 200th anniversary of his death on Wednesday after months of debate over the legacy of the country’s most famous autocrat.
Macron waited until the last minute to announce his plans for the delicate bicentenary and seeks to walk the middle lane between those who wanted a party and those who called for a boycott.
The famous Corsican is one of the most controversial figures in the history of France, his enormous contribution to the creation of the modern state against its imperialism and its war.
But following the Black Lives Matter movement and the emergence of a new generation of vocal anti-racist activists in France, Napoleon’s decision to reestablish slavery in 1802 was the subject of debate.
“It will be a commemoration, not a celebration,” an aide to the French president told reporters on Monday, adding that the day’s ceremonies would include a wreath laying and a speech.
Macron criticized recent attempts to topple statues of French figures involved in slavery, and he condemned the so-called “culture of cancellation” as an attempt to “erase who we are.”
“Our approach is to face history,” the presidential aide said, adding that the approach meant “neither denial nor repentance.”
Macron believed it was wrong to judge the numbers of the past by today’s ethical standards, the aide added.
“Someone at the start of the 21st century doesn’t think like someone at the start of the 19th century,” he said. “Our story is our story and we accept it. “
But in a speech at the Institut de France, one of many Napoleonic institutions, the French president will condemn slavery as “an abomination, even in the context of the time,” the assistant said.
The 43-year-old president, elected the youngest leader in France since Napoleon, will also focus on his lasting impact on state bureaucracy, as well as on the school and legal systems.
– Tyrant, genie or both? –
Napoleon seized power in a coup d’état in 1799, overthrowing the first republic of France established following the revolution of 1789 which abolished the monarchy.
Renowned for his military prowess, he achieved a series of victories, most notably at the Battle of Austerlitz, which resulted in a French empire dominating most of continental Europe.
But in addition to crowning himself emperor and crushing nascent attempts at democracy at home, Napoleon also overturned gains for women and the ban on slavery introduced under the First Republic.
Slavery was reestablished in the French colonies, a movement seen by some as motivated by a desire to dominate the Caribbean sugar trade in the face of competition from the sworn enemy England.
Mathilde Larrere, French historian, believes, however, that there was a “racist dimension” to the decision.
Writing recently in the New York Times, American researcher Marlene Daut called Napoleon “France’s greatest tyrant” and “white supremacist” in a column condemning the commemorations planned in France.
– Political divisions –
With the prospect of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death on the island of Saint Helena, some 160 French institutions, from schools to museums, have registered for events grouped under the label “Annee Napoléon 2021”.
Although many of these events were affected by the coronavirus pandemic, French television programs have been saturated with new documentaries and libraries are teeming with new books on all aspects of his life.
“Why shouldn’t we celebrate Napoleon? Far-right nationalist leader Marine Le Pen told France Inter radio on Tuesday. “He’s a huge historical figure. I regret that the President hastily commemorates it.
“He has done so much for the country, and he has given so much to the world. “
The left urged Macron to avoid the opportunity.
“The Republic should not pay an official tribute to the one who buried the first Republican experience in our history by establishing an authoritarian regime,” wrote the left-winger Alexis Corbière in the newspaper Le Figaro in March.
Other French leaders must also have wondered how to remember the man known as the “little corporal”, famous for his frock coat and “cocked hat” which he wore aside on the battlefield.
In 2005, the late President Jacques Chirac refused to attend the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz, which saw Napoleon defeat the greatest Russian and Austrian forces.
© 2021 AFP