The Bonaparte legacy: The victory France forgot

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Austerlitz sealed his reputation as a military genius. Today, his country seems undecided as to whether he was a hero or a villain.

In period uniforms, and thermal underwear, military enthusiasts from all over the world will gather on Saturday to re-enact one of the greatest victories in French history. They will come from the United States, from Australia, from Canada, from Russia, from Britain, and even some from France. They will converge on an obscure village in the Czech Republic which was once called Austerlitz.

Two hundred years ago tomorrow, a valley and a plateau near the village were the scene of a bloody six-hour battle which, above all others, sealed the reputation of Napoleon Bonaparte as a military genius and brought the Emperor Napoleon to the apogee of his power. The part of the emperor in Saturday's re-enactment will be played by an American Napoleonophile, Mark Schneider from Virginia.

In Paris, tomorrow night, on the actual bicentenary of the battle, a discreet ceremony and son et lumiére will be organised by the French army in the Place de Vendôme. President Jacques Chirac will not be present. Neither will the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, (even though he has written poetically about Napoleon and, according to some of his colleagues, believes himself to be the direct, spiritual descendant of the Great Man).

As of yesterday, the French army could not say who would represent the French state at its Austerlitz party tomorrow. "We have been promised a minister but we don't yet know which one," a spokesman said, bravely.

Comparison is inevitable with the elaborate and joyful British commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which began last summer and are still going on. So far the French press has been slow to make this comparison but a cannonade of media protests is expected today and tomorrow.

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