Tyrant or visionary? The French view of Napoleon

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Tyrant or visionary? The French view of Napoleon
An actor playing the part of Napoleon at a reenactment of one of his famous battles. Photo: AFP

Thursday marks the 200th anniversary since Napoleon's final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. But even two centuries on French opinion is still divided over the former Emperor the English called "Boney".


Under the glittering dome of the Invalides military hospital in Paris, where Napoleon lies buried, France's great general
continues to divide opinion, 200 years after his historic defeat at Waterloo.

The few French tourists who come to pay their respects bicker among themselves: for Jean-Marie, Napoleon was a "dictator" but his wife Claudine reminds him that he "accomplished great things, including France's legal system".

And while another French tourist, Mika, criticises Napoleon's "excesses of power", his girlfriend retorts that he "exported the values of the French revolution".

Napoleon generally has his fans around the world -- even in the "enemy" Britain. In South Korea, a self-made chicken mogul recently bought a hat worn by the emperor for $2.2 million (€2.0 million).

But in his homeland, public opinion is more nuanced, although the emperor continues to fascinate.

"For me, Napoleon represents good and evil all at once," said history student Alaume Houdry, showing off the tomb to a visiting Palestinian friend.

"Napoleon carried out some very important reforms. He gave glory back to France. But many lives were sacrificed for his desire for glory," he added.

David Chanteranne, editor of a magazine devoted to Napoleon, said France was split between "fascination and repulsion" but stressed there was "huge popular interest in his character, profile and stature as a self-made man".

People remain fascinated by several aspects of his life -- his rise from obscurity to conqueror of Europe, his death in exile, his women (especially Josephine, his unfaithful empress).

Throughout France, fans stage reconstructions of famous Napoleonic battles, collect manuscripts and Napoleon paraphernalia -- even down to a chamber pot bearing the great man's image.

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His influence on popular culture in France is also enormous, said historian Jean Tulard, who held the Napoleon chair at the Sorbonne University in Paris from 1967 to 2002.

"Since his death, a book or article has been written about him every year," said Tulard.

In addition, Napoleon has appeared in more than 1,000 films and there are currently four exhibitions devoted to him running in France on the 200th anniversary of his most famous defeat.

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The division of opinion in France is perhaps best reflected in the fact that, in a city not shy of naming squares and streets after historical figures, there is not a single "Boulevard Napoleon" or "Place Napoleon" in Paris.

A small Rue Bonaparte in the capital's Latin Quarter is the city's only nod to the man who commissioned some of its most famous monuments, including the Arc de Triomphe and the Pont des Arts over the River Seine.

Chanteranne says the "turning point" for public opinion of Napoleon was World War II.

Before the war, Napoleon was considered a hero of the French Revolution and of the people, he said.

"Afterwards, people incorrectly began to think of him as the precursor of the great dictators of the 20th century, comparing him to Hitler or Stalin."

France began to focus less on the positive aspects of his legacy and more on the "re-establishment of slavery in 1802, the 600-700,000 deaths in the Napoleonic Wars and his expansionist foreign policy."

And the split in French opinion is mirrored in political circles.

On the left-wing of French politics, former prime minister Lionel Jospin has penned a book entitled "the Napoleonic Evil" in which he accuses the emperor of "perverting the ideas of the Revolution" and imposing "a form of extreme domination", "despotism" and "a police state" on the French people.

At the other end of the spectrum is former right-wing prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a passionate collector of Napoleonic memorabilia and author of several works on the subject.

But even in the realm of politics, there is no clear-cut dividing line.

Greens senator Jean-Vincent Place denies being a "fan of Napoleon", but can hold court for hours about this "extraordinary man."

"At the moment, I'm making plans to be on the battlefield at Waterloo on June 18," he says.


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