France stands divided over Napoleon’s legacy

Reuters file photo
French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron stand in front of Napoleon’s tomb during a ceremony to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death, in Paris on May 5.

A landmark speech by French President Emmanuel Macron marking the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death drew much attention for addressing the positive and negative aspects of Napoleon’s rule.

Napoleon — who rose to become the emperor of France and greatly influenced later European society — is considered to be a hero and a tyrant, leaving a legacy that remains controversial today.

Macron’s words at the ceremony held in Paris in May illustrate how divided France is over its evaluation of Napoleon.

Macron praised Napoleon for his influence on current laws and education, saying, “Napoleon is a part of us,” but he called the restoration of slavery under Napoleon an “error.”

Napoleon, who studied artillery at the Paris Ecole Militaire military school, distinguished himself with his expedition to Italy, among other acts. At the end of the French Revolution, there was ongoing disorder even after the monarchy was abolished and the country became a republic.

When France was at war with countries including Britain and Austria, he carried out a coup d’etat, driven by calls for a breakthrough in the war, and became emperor in 1804.

The publication of the French civil code, known as the Napoleonic Code and enacted in 1804, is one of Napoleon’s notable achievements.

Yoshihiko Sugimoto, a professor emeritus of modern French history at Kyoto University, emphasizes the importance of the “inviolability of private property, freedom of economic activity and freedom of religion” cited in the civil code.

Napoleon also contributed to the widespread adoption of meritocracy and nationalism.

He recruited capable people to compete with Britain, which was vying for hegemony. His control over almost all of Europe also encouraged national unity in other countries and gave birth to the concept of the nation-state.

“We are still living within the framework of society established by Napoleon,” said Prof. Naoki Odanaka, who teaches French social and economic history at Tohoku University.

However, Napoleon is often criticized for his attempt to strengthen the rights of fathers and husbands, which greatly diminished the status of women, and for reviving slavery, which had been abolished under the French Revolution.

“Although the civil code states equality before the law, the scope of the application of the law was not intended for everyone,” Sugimoto said. “It cannot be denied that Napoleon applied the law arbitrarily.”

Slavery only recently came to the fore as a negative aspect of Napoleon’s legacy, around 2000, according to Prof. Chikako Hirano, a scholar of French colonial history at Musashi University.

The country celebrated the 150th anniversary of the final abolition of slavery in 1998, and a law was passed that officially declared slavery and the transatlantic slave trade to be “crimes against humanity” in 2001.

In 2002, the remains of French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), whose grandmother was a black slave, were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, the mausoleum where great French figures are interred.

Present-day movements and growing interest in reexamining colonial rule, including slavery, have also influenced the evaluation of Napoleon.

Nevertheless, heroic tales of Napoleon have remained popular. Napoleon left significant footprints on cultural history by ordering the construction of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to commemorate his victory in war and opening the Louvre to the public.

“We need to evaluate Napoleon comprehensively, taking into account the historical background of the time, even the negative aspects,” Hirano said.

Macron is said to be the first French president to deliver a speech on Napoleon since Georges Pompidou in 1969. There has been speculation about the political intentions of Macron, who is expected to run for reelection as president next year.

In France, top-down politicians like Napoleon tend to be favored in times of crisis, Odanaka said.

“This is a turbulent time with Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and the spread of the novel coronavirus,” Odanaka said. “It will be interesting to see whether Macron will strengthen the top-down tendency or whether a completely new politician will emerge.”

Life of Napoleon

Courtesy of Tokyo Fuji Art Museum
“Portrait of Napoleon I” from the collection of the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum
  • 1769: Born in Corsica
  • 1784: Entered the Paris Ecole Militaire military school
  • 1796: Expedition to Italy
  • 1799: Establishes new government after a coup d’etat
  • 1804: Promulgation of the French Civil Code (later called the Napoleonic Code). Enthroned as Emperor Napoleon I
  • 1812: Withdraws from Russian expedition due to negative developments in war effort
  • 1814: Abdicates the throne. Exiled to island of Elba
  • 1815: Escapes from Elba and returns to the throne for a 100-day reign. Defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to island of St. Helena
  • 1821: Dies at the age of 51