Why is Waterloo still a taboo for the French? File photo of a Waterloo reenactment. Photo: AFP
Does France really still have a problem with the Battle of Waterloo, a full 200 years on since its “glorious defeat” at the hands of Britain’s Duke of Wellington and his allies?
Just months after Paris objected to the creation of a commemorative €2 coin to commemorate the anniversary of the battle, France has been accused of snubbing the bicentenary celebration of the battle that changed the course of European history.
While Prince Charles visited the battlefield on the eve of the anniversary and other European dignitaries are expected at the site, President Francois Hollande will be leading a different service in France to remember Charles de Gaulles' famous appeal to the nation on June 18th 1940.
“History is behind us” was how France's Defense Minster Jean-Yves Le Drian, explained the lack of a French presence at Waterloo on Thursday.
Nevertheless the right-wing British press have had a field day with headlines accusing the French of “sulking” and being “bitter” about the defeat.
But a French expert tells The Local the rebuff is more to do with France’s complicated relationship towards Napoleon and President François Hollande’s own troubles than anything to do with the being sore losers.
Jacques-Olivier Boudon, president of the Napoleon Institute said the fact Waterloo was a defeat plays a part, but the French government rarely commemorate any Napoleon battle, even the ones they won.
In 2005 former President Jacques Chirac came under fire for refusing to attend a ceremony commemorating Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, which is in the modern day Czech Republic.
“Many people in France still see Napoleon as a conqueror and as a tyrant whose actions resulted in the deaths of so many.
“They see him as depriving the French of their liberty and starting wars in Russia and Spain and so on,” he said.
“On the other hand others see him as modernising the country. We have a complicated history with Napoleon. The whole episode causes problems for the French,” he added.
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.
But the head of the Napoleon Institute believe France should take part in the event that will see some 240,000 spectators attending a massive sound and light show and a battle re-enactment featuring some 5,000 actors.
“We are talking about a battle that transformed Europe,” he said. “I regret that there will be no representative from France because other countries will be there.”
Boudon also argues that Hollande himself, being so unpopular in the polls, does not want to be associated with any kind of defeat right now, even one that happened 200-years ago.
'They don't want to acknowledge defeat'
In an article titled “Waterloo – the French taboo” France’s Le Figaro newspaper put France’s averseness to joining in the commemorations down to “a rekindled bitterness at this invitation to the world to watch the agony of the fall of the Emperor…and even worse, the end of a conquering France.”
Comparisons have been drawn with Germany’s willingness to join in the last year’s 70th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings in Normandy but Boudon says the cases are very different.
“The French don’t have the same regrets about Hitler. The end of the war meant the fall of Nazism, which is why the Germans don’t have a problem commemorating it,” he said.
Some historians claim that Hitler was the reason why French opinion towards Napoleon began to change.
Before the war, Napoleon was considered a hero of the French Revolution and of the people but after people considered him as a precursor to the Nazi dictator.
For its part the French foreign ministry has shrugged off the furore, simply saying any questions over attendance at Waterloo were a “non-subject” and that it couldn’t attend because of all the other commemorations.
Many though will point to France’s attitude over the €2 commemorative coin that it blocked earlier this year because “it would send out a negative image”.
In a letter to the Council of Europe President François Hollande said the project would be a “symbol that is negative” and “risk… engendering unfavourable reactions in France”.
British author Stephen Clarke, whose new book “Why the French won Waterloo (or think they did)” is clear about why he thinks the French are not ready to commemorate Waterloo.
“They are still very much in denial about it. There’s a whole school of historians in France who claim that Napoleon won,” he told The Local.
“They don’t want to acknowledge defeat. They are quite happy to commemorate the end of the two World Wars, which they see as victories but not Waterloo.
“It’s still a very painful subject for them. For the French Napoleon will always be their greatest ever champion.”