Napoleon Bonaparte won the PR war. Photo by: Giuseppe Masci/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

February 26, 2021   7 mins

Paris may have avenues, boulevards, bridges and a railway station named after their most famous military leader’s armies, battles and treaties. But nowhere will you find an Avenue or Place or Boulevard named after Napoleon Bonaparte himself — apart from a narrow Rue Bonaparte on the Left Bank.

In 21st century France, Bonaparte is everywhere. And nowhere.

The Napoleonic Code of 1804 remains the basis of French law (and that of several other European and Latin American countries). He created the baccaulaureat, the dĂ©partements, the prefects, investigating magistrates, lycĂ©es, the Banque de France, the lĂ©gion d’honneur.

And, yet, there are no public buildings or institutions named after him. His body lies in Les Invalides, but there is no statue of him anywhere on the streets of Paris or any other large French city except, for some reason, Rouen.

So, as the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death approaches, President Macron (whose own brusque rise to power before the age of 40 has been described as Napoleonic) is faced with something of a dilemma. Should France commemorate the Emperor on 5 May? And if so, how? The President has already delayed making an announcement several times.

Napoleon is a problematic figure. Currently, there is a strong campaign running to deny him a bicentenary celebration because he re-instated slavery in the French West Indies in 1802 (quite apart from his various other acts of racial discrimination).

It is a valid criticism and is one of the greatest stains on a pretty disreputable record. But France’s ambivalence about Napoleon goes back much further than these voguish protests might suggest.

True, the Emperor inevitably tops French historical polls of the “Greatest Frenchman or woman”, and popular media dwells on the glorious or visionary parts of the Napoleonic story. But “official France” and French politicians of all stripes have long questioned the legacy and legend of this man whose insatiable ambition killed millions of people. Former president Jacques Chirac detested him, and in 2005 refused any state celebration of the 200th anniversary of Austerlitz, the emperor’s greatest military victory.

So how should we remember Napoleone di Buonaparte?

Was the obscure Corsican of Italian extraction who became emperor of France and briefly master of Europe the father of modern times? Or was he an old-fashioned despot? Was he a genius, a charlatan, a monster and a butcher? Or a man of peace and a pan-European idealist?

Did he, by accident or design, shape the world we live in? Or was he the man who buried two centuries of French dominance at Waterloo while “modern times” were forged in the factories of the English Midlands and spun in the mills of Lancashire?

Scores of private initiatives — exhibitions and books and documentary films — to mark the bicentenary are already under way. The most spectacular (Covid restrictions permitting) will be a €5 million Napoleonic grand spectacle or “living biopic” at an exhibition hall near Charles de Gaulle airport from 14 April. To prevent the hall’s many staff of French West Indian origin from boycotting the event, the organisers guaranteed that the spectacle would include Bonaparte’s decision to rescind the Revolution’s emancipation of slaves.

Meanwhile, Macron’s decision on the scope of French state observance of the bicentenary has been affected by the coronavirus epidemic. There are obviously limits as to what is possible, but Macron does not share Chirac’s distaste for Napoleon, and is convinced that he, and the French state, must “do something”.

ElysĂ©e officials hint that the President is leaning towards a speech or colloquy which will attempt to re-examine Napoleon’s legacy without celebrating or denigrating him. “Classic Macron”, some say: “Centrist history.” Not so, retort ElysĂ©e officials. The President is no statue-toppler; nor is he a flag-waver. “He likes to face up to history and he is not afraid of complexity.”

A state-sponsored opportunity to look afresh at Napoleonic facts and myths might be an excellent thing and not just for the French. The Brexiting British, also, might learn a great deal from revisiting the received wisdoms of 1799-1815. Napoleon was said to have been obsessed by Britain, and two centuries later, Britain remains obsessed by Napoleon. The British Library catalogue lists 13,000 works on the Emperor — from the laudatory to the slanderous.

So with that in mind, here is a modest proposal for Macron — some briefing notes for his “complex” Napoleonic speech. I can’t imagine the President will let the occasion pass without taking the podium himself.

In one respect at least, Napoleon was a very modern figure — rather chillingly modern. He was one of the first great figures in world history to understand the importance of spin.

A man without wealth, or even a nationality, he reinvented himself several times before he became Emperor at the age of 35. He was obsessed with the way others saw him and how history would portray him.

As early as 1796, when he was an obscure 27-year-old general, Napoleon created two newspapers that glorified and exaggerated his exploits in Italy. (“Bonaparte flies like lightning and strikes like thunder
He knows that he is one of those men whose capacity is limited only by his own willpower… an immense genius.”)

He employed teams of writers and historians to laud his military and political expertise after seizing power by coup in 1799. Later, exiled in Saint Helena, he dictated a sprawling memoir of his life to the Comte de Las Cases, which remains to this day the principal source for the view that Napoleon was a misunderstood man of vision and peace — and a great “European”.

While he was a great opportunist, his motives were not purely selfish — not at the beginning at least. He convinced himself that he was the only man capable of rescuing the legacy of the Revolution from the murderous chaos of the 1790s. He believed in egality and democracy, as principles to be fought for, even though he imposed himself as consul, then emperor, and installed his feckless relations on the thrones of Italy, Spain, Germany and Holland.

The administrative structure created in Napoleon’s first four or five years in power has survived for more than two centuries (and counting). Though many of his institutions or texts had already been discussed or half-completed, he had the vision and the willpower (and simply the power) to apply them.

As Thierry Lentz, prolific Napoleonic historian, says: “He pulled together a great synthesis, by merging old institutions with the national ideals born from the Revolution
 In that respect, Napoleon could have died in 1804 [after the Code was published] and his legacy was already assured.”

The American historian Robert B. Holtman describes the Napoleonic Code as one of a handful of documents which changed the world. It stands, according to Holtman, alongside Magna Carta and the founding texts of the United States, as a step-change towards the rule of law and respect for property and individual rights. It still provides the basis for the law of many European and Latin American countries.

Wherever he went — Italy, Germany, the Low Countries, less so in Spain — he brought his code and hastened the end of feudalism. By doing so, he laid the foundations for modern economics and politics.

“It is no accident that the bourgeoisie was most attached and the nobility most hostile to his regime,” Holtman wrote.

Hence the frequent view, expressed not just by French historians, that Napoleon may have been a brute but he was the brute who helped to found Modern Times. Other stubborn historians, not all of them British, suggest that Modernity was born not at Austerlitz but in industrial Bolton and Birmingham. In truth, the two interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive.

Then there is the suggestion — first suggested by Napoleon himself over a glass of wine, and possibly arsenic, at the end of his life in Saint Helena — that the emperor was the first “European”; that his intention, all along, had been to create a Europe without borders and without “civil wars”. To do that, he had to defeat Perfidious Albion by imposing a single European market — “the continental system” – from which the incorrigible and un-European British would be excluded.

This theory may be attractive to French romantics, and British eurosceptics, but it makes little sense. Indeed, Napoleon was, at various points, hopeful that he could do a deal with “les Anglais”. The European dream was a justification, invented later, in the long, boring hours of imprisonment in Longwood House on Saint Helena.

He did have a chance to create a loose European political system but botched it. After Austerlitz, Napoleon was advised by his foreign minister, Talleyrand, to treat the Austrians magnanimously, encouraging a kind of exhausted peace in Europe in which France would be the dominant but not the overwhelming, imperial power.

The British, without a serious army, would be powerless to intervene. Instead, Napoleon imposed humiliating conditions on Austria, consolidated his control of Italy and broke up what remained of the Holy Roman Empire. In doing so he awakened national hatreds which brought about his downfall, nine — and again 10 — years later. He also, accidentally, helped to create the antagonistic, European nation-states which dominated the next 150 years and generated two world wars.

Napoleon lost his final battle, in June 1815, to a European army, led by an Irish-born general, with troops from Britain, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and what later became Belgium. Britain fought Napoleon partly as the logical continuation of a 200 years war to prevent domination by France, the greatest continental power. But Britain also fought to maintain untrammelled access for British goods to the continental market.

After 1815, the restored French royalty and the British government copied Napoleon’s strategy in one respect. They employed pamphleteers and historians — sometimes the same historians previously paid by Napoleon — to reverse the imperial propaganda.

L’EmpĂ©reur was ferociously belittled as the upstart “Bonaparte”: cowardly, superstitious, irreligious, sadistic, sexually depraved, incestuous, impotent, a man who cheated at chess, insane and small (even though he was in fact around five feet seven inches tall, which was above average for the period).

It was precisely because he was a man without pedigree who achieved extraordinary things, that the degenerate royalties who ran the Continent, and the arrogant aristocracy and squierarchy who ran Britain, were determined to deflate him.

To them, meritocracy was the most terrifying of all the ideas thrown up by the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. Napoleon must not only be beaten; he must be exorcised (or in modern jargon “cancelled”). No Napoleonic myth must be allowed to survive and thrive.

Two centuries, 80,000 books and 100 movies later, it is clear who won that battle.

It is, therefore, much too late to cancel or de-platform Napoleon. It has been tried before.

What will Macron do? It remains to be seen. The President is right, though, to contemplate “something complex”. Napoleon did many wicked things; they should be remembered in May. He also achieved many things. These should also be remembered. History is rarely as clear-cut as the present might like to paint it. This bicentenary could be an opportunity to contemplate the tangled roots of our common European past. And an attempt to understand our present.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.