Bonaparte, 200 years on

The consequences of Britain’s departure from the European Union continue to play out, with a naval stand-off of sorts this week between Britain and France in the Channel Islands. French fishers are protesting against new rules imposed on their trade by the island of Jersey, which the French government says are in breach of the withdrawal agreement.

It may only be coincidence, but if so it is a neat one, that it came in the same week as the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, the last French leader to have seriously taken on the British militarily. He ultimately came off second best in the exercise, and died in exile in remote St Helena on 5 May 1821.

Napoleon inspires fascination and controversy to this day. A Corsican adventurer who showed himself to be a military genius, he went on to crown himself emperor of France and to conquer most of Europe, before his pride and over-reach united his enemies against him and brought him down to catastrophic defeat.

In most of the world, this is the stuff of story book and historical or psychological treatise, but not of current politics: national leaders do not feel called upon to take sides on Napoleon’s legacy. In France, however, things are different. The questions posed by Napoleon’s career have never fully gone away; too much of France’s identity is bound up with it. As president Emmanuel Macron said simply on Wednesday, “Napoleon Bonaparte is part of us.”

Macron’s predecessors have generally chosen to be absent for key dates marking the Napoleonic legacy. Not so Macron – the youngest French leader since Napoleon, and in whom his opponents are always keen to spot imperial pretensions. He chose to lay a wreath on Napoleon’s tomb, and immediately beforehand he addressed the Institute of France to deliver his own view of the emperor.

You can read the speech here (I can’t find a translation, but Google Translate will give you a usable English version). I think it’s rather too generous to Napoleon; certainly it mentions some of his flaws – the re-establishment of slavery, the disdain for human life on the battlefield – but it passes over them quickly. More seriously, and perhaps revealingly, he fails to really criticise the lust for power itself.

But Macron makes many valid points, and makes them eloquently. And he is right, in my view, to say that history needs to be confronted and not just brushed aside: “without ever giving in to the temptation of the anachronistic process that would consist of judging the past by the laws of the present.”

One wonders, irresistibly, whether a German leader, even in another 125 years time, would dare say that Adolf Hitler was “part of us”, or that “saying his name continues to make a thousand strings of the imagination vibrate.” But of course the comparison is unfair; in the words of Pieter Geyl, who wrote a famous book Napoleon: For and Against, “even when as in my case one had hated the dictator in Napoleon long before the evil presence of Hitler began darkening our lives, one almost feels as if one should ask the pardon of his shade for mentioning his name in one breath with that of the other.”

And yet (and this is ultimately Geyl’s point), power corrupts; dictatorship and lust for conquest are evil things even if the dictator possesses admirable qualities. And the subsequent worship in France of the Napoleonic legend has unquestionably been one of the forces that have distorted the country’s politics.

Hence Macron’s delicate balancing act. A year away from his re-election bid, his chief concern is to not stray too far from the centre. In honoring Napoleon he is gesturing in the direction of the Bonapartists, whose natural home is on the far right, but in standing up for historical honesty he is staking a claim to the loyalty of the centre-left intelligentsia – as reflected in the favorable editorial that he attracted from Le Monde, the organ of that class.

And with the continent now united, more or less, by consent rather than by force of arms, the president may also hope that he is better placed to confront the British than his controversial predecessor.

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