Wednesday (5 May) marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death. In his country, France, there is a big debate about whether this should be an occasion to honour him or not at all.
Maybe because the author of these lines is not French, only Francophile, it seems less risky to suggest that we should pay tribute to such an outstanding figure in the history of Europe – and of the world.
But don’t tell that to the French.
The debate in France takes place against the backdrop of the campaign for the 2022 presidential election, which has unofficially started.
For the electorate on the left, as well as for the Greens, and for all those who sympathise with the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Napoleon is the man who re-introduced slavery. (In 1794, during the French Revolution, France became the first country to abolish slavery but Napoleon restored it in 1802). Celebrating him is a no-go.
For a more conservative electorate, however, Napoleon is a great leader who has consolidated the Revolution with its modern and egalitarian principles, the author of the Civil Code, and the architect of modern urbanism that has shaped Paris more than any other period of history.
His military record is also controversial. Napoleon tried to build an empire and was successful for many years, but when he died, French-administered territory was smaller than it had been before he arrived on the mainland from his native Corsica.
Unsurprisingly, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who commentators say has a good chance of winning next year’s presidential election, is also in favour of paying national tribute to Napoleon. President Emmanuel Macron, who is likely to face off against her at the second round, is keeping the commemoration to the strict minimum.
In an effort not to alienate the centrists, Macron decided to lay a wreath at the tomb of Napoleon, but he waited until the last minute to announce his plans for the tricky bicentenary.
The Napoleon controversy comes days ahead of Sunday’s launch of the Future of Europe Conference. This is important. If Europe wants to have a future, it should feel more at ease with its past.
Was Charlemagne an important figure in the history of Europe? Our guess is that the vast majority of readers would answer that question with a resounding yes. Is Napoleon a similarly important figure? Here, a clearer answer is needed, and hopefully not only from the French.
The entire world admires Europe’s history. Millions of tourists from around the world, Russian, Chinese, American, queue to get a glimpse of Napoleon’s tomb in the Invalides. Yes, Napoleon tried to conquer Russia, but Russians still have a soft spot for him.
Napoleon may be controversial, but he is also fascinating.
And this is the key. European history is fascinating. Europe is fascinating. People from other continents know it. We should know it too.
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Josie Le Blond]