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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.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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