Circa 1848. Oil on canvas. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Napoleon Bonaparte: A PR nightmare

On the bicentenary of his death, Napoleon Bonaparte remains a curiously stubborn rampart of cultural history in France and beyond

Artillery Row

The French, Edith Wharton once said in French Ways and Their Meaning, have a complicated relationship with their past. Both charmed and arrested by their national myths, there is a perpetual fascination à l’Hexagone with the Old Regime, whose kings and queens regularly grace the covers of national magazines and are the subject of endlessly popular documentaries presented by that French national treasure, historian Stéphane Bern.

The Left dismiss Bonaparte as a blood-thirsty megalomaniac who betrayed the ideals of the Revolution

That this fascination with the monarchy should exist alongside the ideals and realities of the Republic troubles not the Gauls. Their stories, les histoires, are not obliged to be synonymous with l’Histoire with a capital H whose darkest corners are often edited out. Look no further for this affectation than their constant celebration of anniversaries. In recent times, France has marked the bicentennial of the Baccalaureat, the 150th anniversary of the 20 arrondissements of Paris, the centenary of the brassière and, perhaps most fittingly, the 60th anniversary of the bikini.

But when it comes to the bicentennial of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French are less effusive. Bikinis, it seems, are easier. Plus ça change; the French have always argued over Napoleon. The Left dismiss him as a blood-thirsty megalomaniac who betrayed the ideals of the Revolution by reversing the emancipation of women and slaves, the Right champion him as a military hero without whom the modern French state — and its freedoms of expression and religion — would simply not exist.

For modern heads of state, Bonaparte represents a peculiarly modern, and visual, public relations nightmare. In 2005, then-President Jacques Chirac boycotted the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz where Napoleon’s armies famously defeated those of Austria and Russia, choosing instead to appear in Bamako for a Franco-African summit. Even Chirac’s prime minister and Napoleon enthusiast and emulator, Dominique de Villepin, declined the invitation (his biography of the Emperor came after he had left office). For Francois Hollande in 2015, it was, “optically”, much easier to defend his decision not to attend the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. What Frenchman in his right mind, after all, would commemorate a defeat at the hands of the British?

Macron, however, does not get off as lightly as his predecessor. 5 May marks 200 years since Napoleon died on the South Atlantic Island of St Helena, six years after his defeat at Waterloo. Feverish speculation has ensued in the French press as to whether the President would recognise the occasion, with right-wing newspaper Le Figaro madly agitating on behalf of the Emperor. Activists on the Left have been rather more vigorous, toppling a statue of Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, in the French overseas territory of Martinique last year.

Macron, for his part, has kept his eye to the Right ahead of next year’s Presidential run-off. In a statement, the President is said to be keen to avoid “an anachronistic reading of history” and will duly honour Napoleon by laying a wreath on his grave at Les Invalides, reminding his opponents that Napoleon was concerned with “national sovereignty”. In doing so, Macron has shown his instinct for self-preservation prescient that a further inflammation of the Right after the gilets jaunes fiasco would be a one-way ticket to a Le Pen Presidency.

For modern heads of state, Bonaparte represents a peculiarly modern public relations nightmare

The task of making Napoleon palatable to the French has been underway ever since he escaped Elba and returned to Paris for the Hundred Days. Benjamin Constant, writer, philosopher and contemporary opponent of the Emperor, reconciled himself to a “liberalisation” of his erstwhile ideological enemy when he wrote Mémoires sur les Cent-Jours published in 1820. Portraying the Emperor as a tragic and vulnerable figure betrayed by those around him, Constant’s apologia sought to humanise the man behind the myth, offering the French public a tragic hero who was “better than the system” which bore his name.

Two years after his death, Emmanuel de Las Cases put his name to the Mémorial de St Hélène, a diarised version of Napoleon’s account of his captivity and final days on St Helena. A runaway success in French nineteenth-century letters, the Mémorial sawed apart the man from the system and created enough space for liberals and Bonapartists to exist side by side.

Two hundred years later, this gap seems to have closed once more. Journey to the South Atlantic and Napoleon divides far more than he unites, particularly across national borders. In these times of heightened Anglo-French tension amidst the pandemic, the fact that St Helena remains a British Overseas Territory (but Longwood House where Napoleon was housed belongs to the French, having been bequeathed by Queen Victoria) presents no small dilemma.

The French claim his memory, contested or otherwise, as their own; while Lord Ashcroft — billionaire and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party — has generously donated to restore Toby’s Cottage, a small outhouse where Napoleon was first housed amongst slaves when he arrived on the island. One can only imagine that Napoleon would be delighted to know that the spirit of Waterloo lives on.

Napoleon remains a curiously stubborn rampart of cultural history in France and beyond

In today’s Culture Wars where the unpalatable risks cancellation or worse, desecration, the figure of Napoleon remains a curiously stubborn rampart of cultural history in France and beyond. The answer to such discord, as Macron correctly senses, is to facilitate a shift away from Napoleon as specific concrete individual in his idiosyncratic historical moment, towards a more abstract and depersonalised tribute to a timeless symbol of French national glory.

In laying a wreath on Napoleon’s tomb, rather than unveiling a statue of him, Macron will tacitly acknowledge the need to separate the people from the Emperor in order to preserve him. Thus concealed, Napoleon may be celebrated and commemorated as befits their penchant for reinvention and rehabilitation of their shared past. From Bonaparte to bikinis, there may prove to be little in between.

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