President Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb on Wednesday, commemorating the bicentenary of the death of an emperor who overthrew the nascent Republic before expanding France’s empire in bloody battles across Europe.
Numerous past presidents have shunned paying tribute to one of France’s most divisive leaders, but in a speech at the Institut de France, established by Napoleon on the banks of the river Seine, Macron said history should be confronted.
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Napoleon was to some a military genius, a moderniser and national hero. To others, he was an imperialist, warmonger and enslaver.
The anniversary was a time for “enlightened commemoration” though not celebration, Macron said. He described Napoleon’s decision to restore slavery as a betrayal but praised a man who helped shape modern-day France.
“Few destinies have shaped so many lives beyond their own,” Macron said of the man who seized power in a coup in 1799 and died in exile on the island of Saint Helena in 1821 having briefly ruled over most of Europe.
“If his splendour resists the erosion of time, it is because his life carries in each of us an intimate echo,” Macron said. “Napoleon is a part of us.”
When Napoleon seized power, he overthrew France’s first republic that was established in the wake of the 1789 revolution that abolished the monarchy.
Renowned for his military prowess, he clocked up a series of victories, including at the Battle of Austerlitz, which resulted in a French empire that encompassed most of continental Europe.
While building and reforming at home at a furious pace – including France’s penal code and its administrative system of prefets and Lycee high schools that exist to this day – he also reversed gains for women and a ban on slavery introduced under the first republic.
Slavery was re-established in French colonies from 1802, a move seen by some as being motivated by a desire to dominate the Caribbean sugar trade in the face of competition from arch-enemy England.
Mathilde Larrere, a French historian, believes there was a “racist dimension” to the decision, while France’s Equality Minister Elisabeth Moreno called him “one of the biggest misogynists” to walk the Earth.
Writing in The New York Times recently, American scholar Marlene Daut called Napoleon “an icon of white supremacy” in a column that condemned the commemorations in France.
Outside Les Invalides where Napoleon’s tomb lies, several dozen pro-Napoleon supporters chanted “Long live France, long live the emperor”.
“The life of Napoleon is an ode to political will. The path of a child from Ajaccio who became the master of Europe shows clearly that a man can change the course of history,” said Macron, France’s youngest leader since Napoleon.
The anniversary had become deeply politicised in a country that is one year out from a presidential election.
In the build-up to Wednesday’s anniversary, some 160 French institutions from schools to museums signed up for events grouped under the “Annee Napoleon 2021” label.
For some, Napoleon is a reminder of French grandeur and strength.
“Why shouldn’t we celebrate Napoleon?” far-right nationalist leader Marine Le Pen told France Inter radio on Tuesday.
“He did so much for the country, and he gave so much to the world,” she added
Others by contrast urged Macron to downplay the anniversary, saying it constituted a black stain in the country’s history.
“The Republic should not pay an official homage to the person who buried the first republican experience of our history by installing an authoritarian regime,” left-winger Alexis Corbiere wrote in Le Figaro newspaper in March.
Thomas Guenole, a French political scientist, told Al Jazeera it was necessary to take into consideration the entirety of his legacy.
“You have to take all the main things into account and not say he was the one to re-establish slavery or he was a great military genius,” Guenole told Al Jazeera. “Otherwise it’s intellectually dishonest.”
“[But] I do think that it is an absolute waste of time, I mean we are wasting a worldwide recession and a gigantic pandemic and we are wasting time [to discuss] whether Napoleon Bonaparte was or was not a bad guy.”