Tyrant or visionary? The French view of Napoleon

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".

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

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.

SEE ALSO: Ten things you need to know about Napoleon

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.

Napoleon … creator of Hitler?

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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Hero or villain: Why France is divided over Napoleon

He's one of the world's most famous Frenchmen, but France is divided over whether the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte should be marked in any way. Here's why.

Hero or villain: Why France is divided over Napoleon
The deposed emperor may not be getting much of a celebration on the 200th anniversary of his death. Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP

Wednesday, May 5 marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death on the Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he had been exiled by the British after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. 

But while he is undoubtedly famous, Napoleon is far from un-controversial in France.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s account on his victory during the Battle of Austerlitz and a map of the battle.  Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP

Why mark it?

Napoleon is best known for his military prowess, he fought over 70 battles and was only defeated in eight, making France the greatest military power in Europe during his reign. 

The ruler also famously created the Napoleonic Code, which remains the basis of French civil law today. 

A reformist, Napoleon also introduced several features into French life that are still used. 

These include the metric system, the lycée secondary school system and the system of meritocracy in the government and army (where you are promoted on ability, not background. Theoretically, anyway). 

Asked to name the greatest general on Earth, his British rival the Duke of Wellington said: “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon“.

“Part of French society has always been impressed by the glory,” Peter Hicks, of the Napoleon Foundation, told AFP.

“That was the currency of the Napoleonic Empire: la grandeur. He was grandeur writ large.”

Why not mark it?

But there are plenty of aspects to Napoleon that make him not the kind of guy you would want to celebrate.

He overturned the French republic and crowned himself Emperor, giving his family lavish privileges and important jobs.

His wars also inevitably brought about a lot of death, estimated to be between 3.5 to 6 million people. Cities were destroyed, victims left without a roof over their heads and women raped as he often favoured conflict over peace. Napoleon was also behind the brutal Siege of Jaffa in 1799.

But undoubtedly the most problematic part of his reign was the reintroduction of slavery in 1802, less than a decade after it was abolished following the Revolution.

For historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, who has written a book on the slave trade, this reflects Napoleon‘s heartless pragmatism, rather than outright racism, as he sought to dominate the Caribbean and its sugar trade.

“He gave into the pressures of colonial plantation owners in the Assembly. The fate of the slaves themselves no doubt bothered him very little,” she told AFP.

Ex-prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Foundation for the Abolition of Slavery, agrees: “Napoleon acted as he did in all things: without emotion or morals,” he told AFP.

Napoleon was a cynic.”

The monument leading to the crypt where the body of late French Emperor Napoleon I rests, with an inscription reading “I want my ashes to rest on the banks of the river Seine among the French people that I loved so much”, under the dome of the Hotel des Invalides, in Paris. Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP

Not a new controversy

And if this sounds like the rewriting of history with a 21st-century slant, it’s not really – Napoleon has long been a controversial figure in his homeland.

While it is hard to open Google Maps anywhere in France without seeing the names of Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur or Charles De Gaulle running down a major street, there are but a handful of side streets dedicated to L’Empereur.

For many, he was a war-monger who left millions dead across Europe, and a despot who turned the ideals of the revolution into a vehicle for his personal ambitions, ultimately leaving France bankrupt and occupied.

Former President Jacques Chirac refused to involve himself with any commemoration festivities of the Battle of Austerlitz in 2005 and François Hollande did the same two years later on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Ex-prime minister Lionel Jospin, meanwhile, published a book titled The Napoleonic Evil.

So what will happen?

The 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death was meant to be celebrated in France by a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Putin would have brought the remains of a Napoleonic marshal identified thanks to DNA in 2019 who had been recovered from the Battle of Valutino. However, Covid-19 curtailed those plans.

There have been several exhibitions dedicated to his place in history – from his private boudoir at the Chateau de Fontainebleau to the Army Museum’s gathering of Christ-like portraits that proliferated after his exile – but the closure of museums and tourist sites until at least May 19th means that few have seen them.

A major exhibition in the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris aims, once visitors are allowed back, to tackle the problematic aspects of the Emperor’s life as well as his legacy – putting on show for the first time his order reinstating slavery.

Emmanuel Macron, known for his “en même temps” (at the same time) approach to thorny questions, has typically indicated he will take a nuanced approach.

Facing election next year, it is a delicate balancing act. Macron’s office says he will address “this major figure in our history… with open eyes”.

The president will be attending an event at Les Invalides on the anniversary itself and will lay a wreath.