Yet this brilliant general who fought to free Europe from the feudal chains of monarchy also re-established slavery by decree in the French Caribbean in 1802, following its post-revolutionary abolition in 1794.
The revolts in Guadeloupe and in the French colony of Santo Domingo, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, have been ruthlessly suppressed. Haiti prevailed, declared independence in 1804, and abolished slavery. France, the only country to have put an end to slavery and then re-established, did not re-abolish slavery until 1848.
This story has tended to be overshadowed by the magnetism of the Bonapartist saga. Now, as with Jefferson’s possession of slaves in the United States, or the criticism in Britain last year of Churchill for his comments on racial hierarchies, a new era has a new purpose.
Claude Ribbe, whose book “The Crimes of Napoleon” caused an uproar when it was published in 2005 because of his descriptions of French brutality in the Caribbean, said: “We can commemorate it, but never celebrate it, at because of the shadow of its racism, still felt in France today.
This view gained ground as France embarked on a stocktaking, encouraged by Mr Macron, of its colonial past, particularly in Algeria, and a heated debate began on whether the model the country’s allegedly colorblind universalist masks widespread racism.
Josette Borel-Lincertin, the socialist president of the departmental council of Guadeloupe, told Le Monde that her community would not participate in the tributes to Napoleon, whom all Guadeloupeans know, reestablishes slavery. “We can only send this side of the ocean the echo of our pain,” she said.