True or false - 6 myths about French emperor Napoleon

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True or false - 6 myths about French emperor Napoleon
A performer plays Napoleon Bonaparte in a reenactment. Photo: AFP

The new film about French emperor Napoleon from Hollywood director Ridley Scott is already causing controversy over its historical inaccuracies - but in fact the life of the Corsican soldier has been wrapped in myths, fake news and lies for centuries.


The new film has been met with a mixed reception in France, not least because it glosses over less savoury aspects of Napoleon's reign, such as the reintroduction of slavery. 

Director Ridley Scott says that people querying historical inaccuracies (such as Napoleon's presence at the execution of Marie Antoinette) should "get a life" - and in fairness the film is a Hollywood blockbuster and never claimed to be a documentary.

But it's hardly the first time that fact and fiction have collided when we're talking about Napoleon - the myth-making (both good and bad) began during his lifetime and has continued ever since.

You can hear the team from The Local chatting about Napoleon on the latest episode of the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen on the link below


Here's a look at some of the myths


Napoleon was short


He has given his name to a famous phrase in English - Napoleon complex, meaning a person (usually a man) who compensates for being physically short with aggressive or angry behaviour.

But it’s not true that he was particularly small - Napoleon was 5ft 7 (170cm) which was entirely average for a man of his time.

The short myth actually comes from Britain - specifically British cartoonists who drew Napoleon as a petulant child or baby, which progressed into making him unusually short. This was wartime propaganda and aimed at making the French leader a figure of fun. 

His nickname in French ‘le petit caporal’ or little corporal was originally bestowed by his soldiers as an affectionate name - although in modern French if you call someone a petit caporal it means they’re a workplace tyrant.

He was a failure with the ladies, possibly impotent and his wife cheated on him 

True and false

It's true that Napoleon's wife Josephine cheated on him, and the reason we know this is again down to the British, who intercepted a letter from Napoleon to Josephine complaining about her infidelity and published it in order to embarrass him - more wartime propaganda.

But it seems that in fact both of them had affairs and Napoleon fathered at least one illegitimate child.

He later divorced the childless Josephine and married the Austrian archduchess Marie Louise in order to get himself an heir - so you could certainly say he wasn't a perfect husband.


Incidentally, she is known to history as Josephine, but that wasn't actually her name - she was christened Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie and was known by friends and family as Rose. Napoleon decided he didn’t like the name and rechristened her Josephine before their wedding.

It is probably true that he was generally awkward with ladies, however - there survive several letters from Paris' high society remarking on the young soldier's awkward manners and intense style with women.

He reintroduced slavery 


Often glossed over by Napoleon supporters, this one is true and big part of why he is a complicated figure in France. 

Hero or villain: Why France is divided over Napoleon

France had abolished slavery at the time of the Revolution, but in 1802 Napoleon decided to reintroduce it in France’s overseas territories, especially in the Caribbean where the slaves were forced to work on sugar plantations in horrific conditions. 

Slavery was finally abolished for the second and final time in 1848, long after Napoleon had been deposed. 


This isn't the only reason, but these days he is regarded as controversial in France - the 200th anniversary of his death in 2021 saw prolonged arguments over whether the day should be marked at all.

He was the greatest general who ever lived 


These days perhaps his defeats are better known - he remains the only military figure who has inspired a Eurovision song about losing a battle (Abba and Waterloo in 1974).

But the early years of his military and political career are marked with several stunning success and the vast expansion of France to cover much of modern-day Europe. 

But he also gave his reputation as a great general a bit of a helping hand by publishing his own propaganda right from the beginning of his career. During his Egyptian campaign in 1798 he set up and funded Le Courier de l'Égypte newspaper, which basically existed to tell readers back in France how brilliant he was. 

He reduced the French holiday calendar 


While his military career ended in defeat, exile and death, what's often less appreciated - especially by international audiences - is just how much of an impact Napoleon had on modern France.

Many of the country's current laws can be traced back to the Code Napoléon and he had a busy programme of reform for domestic institutions - many of which still exist today. He established the lycée (high school) system, reformed the army and the civil service and established the principle of promotion exams.

He also reformed the French public holiday calendar, abolishing many of the public holidays that marked Catholic saints days, including Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) which remains to this day a normal working day in France, unlike most other European countries.

The holiday calendar he created is broadly the same as the one used today, with a few later additions such as holidays to mark the end of World War I and II. 

He banned people naming pigs after him


This is a curiously enduring myth - that at one time it was illegal to name a pig Napoleon in France, because of the perceived insult to the head of state. In fact there is no record of any law existing covering the naming of pigs, or of anyone being prosecuted over the name of their pig.

There was a law published in 1881 - long after the death of Napoleon - that made it illegal to be rude about the president in France (and only the president, insulting other politicians was always fine).

This was only finally abolished in 2013 after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a man could not be prosecuted for telling Nicolas Sarkozy to ‘casse-toi, pauvre con’ (get lost, dickhead). 

If you like sorting fact from fiction in history - check out our series on the 22 biggest myths from French history.


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John Adams 2023/11/17 18:52
"Casse-toi, pauvre con" was said by Sarkozy, to a farmer at the Salon d'Agriculture who refused to shake hands with him as he didn't want to get his hands dirty

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