Macron strides into cultural battle over Napoleon’s memory – POLITICO
PARIS — In an age of culture wars and Manichean Twitter debates, French President Emmanuel Macron is once again bucking the trend.
By commemorating the bicentennial of Napoleon’s death on Wednesday evening, Macron fully embraced the emperor’s vast legacy in building most of the modern French state’s institutions, from the penal and civil codes to the appellate court and high schools.
But he also recognized that his restoration of slavery in French colonies in 1802 was a “treason” that the Second Republic “rectified.”
“Napoleon [was both] ogre and eagle, Alexandre and Nero … the soul of the world and the demon of Europe,” Macron announced solemnly.
Never one to embrace what’s become known as “cancel culture” — rejecting people for beliefs, statements or actions that are perceived as offensive — Macron has taken the same broad approach to confronting France’s colonial past in Algeria, its role in the Rwandan genocide and in refusing to tear down statues of historical figures who were also racists or slave-traders.
“It is an enlightened commemoration, to look our history in the face and as a bloc and say as a nation what Napoleon says about us and what we have done with him,” Macron said in a lyrical but short speech — by his standards, clocking in at less than 20 minutes.
Yet Macron’s decision to commemorate Napoleon still represents to some extent an “uncancelling” of one of the top three most well-known French figures internationally, alongside Joan of Arc and Charles de Gaulle. Previous presidents have largely shied away from marking anniversaries associated with the emperor.
“Commemorating this bicentenary is saying simply, serenely, without giving in to the temptation of the anachronistic trial that would judge the past with the laws of the present, but rather retracing what we are as French people,” said Macron. speaking softly.
Macron’s commemoration is at heart a political move ahead of the 2022 presidential election. It allows him to indulge conservative voters he is wooing with the nostalgia many have for what they perceive as a more glorious time for France, while also winning over some on the left through recognizing Napoleon’s crimes and misogyny, and it gives Macron a new opportunity to cast himself among the great leaders of France’s history.
These undercurrents have not gone unnoticed by his main opponents. He’s already drawn sharp criticism for his approach from both far-right leader Marine Le Pen and current lead conservative presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand who both took issue, separately, with Macron’s stated desire to “deconstruct” French history. Le Pen and Bertrand accuse Macron of giving in to those who “weaponize” the issues of colonialism and slavery to attack France and the West.
But instead of responding to these criticisms, Macron simply said he “owns up to every [part of French history]” and peppered his speech with thinly veiled references drawing parallels between himself and Napoleon’s qualities.
“The life of Napoleon is firstly an ode to political will, to those who believe destinies are frozen, lives are written in advance, the journey of the child from Ajaccio who became the master of Europe clearly demonstrated that one man can change the course of history,” Macron said.
Macron, like Bonaparte, did not grow up in Paris and like him came out of nowhere to storm the political world and conquer power in record time.
“We love Napoleon because his life carries in it the promise of what is possible, an invitation to take risks,” Macron added, using his trademark expression for how he wagers big on bold initiatives.
Macron’s approach is not without risk. His own political camp is divided over the figure of Napoleon.
“[Napoleon] is one of the biggest misogynists,” said the Minister of Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunity, the French-Cape Verdean Elisabeth Moreno, who also criticized the emperor for restoring slavery. Under Napoleon’s rule, the inferior status of women versus men was codified into law.
Also, there was an internal debate in Macron’s office over how to commemorate Napoleon, as officials sought to strike the right balance between doing enough but not too much.
“The decision to commemorate Napoleon was taken a while ago, what moved around a lot is the granularity, the form it would take,” a second adviser to Macron said. “[Some] advocated for as big a ceremony as possible, others were in favor of a minimalistic approach given the context with the pandemic and issues around memory.”
The decision to commemorate Napoleon’s death has caused anger in particular in France’s overseas territories that were especially brutalized under the emperor’s rule. Protests are planned in Guadeloupe while Macron is delivering his commemoration speech.
“How can we celebrate a man who was the enemy of the French Republic, of a number of European peoples and also the enemy of humanity in that he was an enslaver?” asked Martinique-born activist and author Louis-Georges Tin and political sciences professor Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison last month in Le Monde.
Without excusing slavery, some historians underline the economic context at the time.
“As a historian, I can only plead for the contextualization of events. It is undeniable that Napoleon reintroduced slavery in 1802, but he did it in a context in which all European countries and the United States had slavery,” argued Sorbonne University history professor Jacques-Olivier Boudon claiming that Bonaparte had no choice if he wanted France to compete with other pro-slavery countries.
Objections to Napoleon are neither new nor exclusive to the left. In 2005, right-wing President Jacques Chirac avoided commemorating the bicentennial of Napoleon’s victory over Russian and Austrian forces at Austerlitz.
But Macron explicitly laid out why it was especially important for the youth to at least learn this history instead of be shielded from it.
“You are high school students, as French people you are part of this history, you can love it, or criticize it but you have to learn it and know it, it is here, and it helps raise you, you have to carry it on,” Macron said, addressing a group of high school students in the audience, alongside former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and other political leaders. Former President François Hollande, who plucked Macron out of obscurity, was not in attendance.
Over the next week, Macron’s schedule appears designed to disarm critics from across the political spectrum. After commemorating Napoleon, he will mark Europe Day on Saturday, and two days later the National Day for the Memories of Slavery and the fortieth anniversary of the election of Francois Mitterrand, the legendary first socialist president of the French Fifth Republic.
Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting.
Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting.