Jacques Chirac couldn’t stand him. Nicolas Sarkozy kept his distance. François Hollande shunned him. But on the 200th anniversary this week of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death, Emmanuel Macron has chosen to do what most recent presidents of France have avoided: honor the man who in 1799 destroyed the nascent French Republic in a putsch.
By choosing to lay a wreath Wednesday at Napoleon’s tomb under the golden dome of Les Invalides, Mr. Macron is stepping into the heart of France’s culture wars. Napoleon, always a contested figure, has become a Rorschach test for the French at a moment of tense cultural confrontation.
Was Napoleon a modernizing reformer whose legal code, lycée school system, central bank and centralized administrative framework laid the basis for post-revolutionary France? Or was he a retrograde racist, imperialist and misogynist?
By paying his respects to Napoleon, Mr. Macron will please a restive French right dreaming of lost glory and of a moment when, under its turbulent emperor, France stood at the center of the world. The French obsession with the romantic epic of Napoleon’s rise and fall is undying, as countless magazine covers and talk shows have underscored in recent weeks.
But in the current zeitgeist, Napoleon’s decisive role as founder of the modern French state tends to pale beside his record as colonizer, warmonger and enslaver. Mr. Macron is taking a risk. Officials close to him have portrayed his planned speech as an attempt to look Napoleon “in the face,” light and shadow. Others, however, insist Napoleon should be condemned rather than commemorated.
“How can we celebrate a man who was the enemy of the French Republic, of a number of European peoples and also the enemy of humanity in that he was an enslaver?” Louis-Georges Tin, an author and activist, and Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, a political scientist, wrote last month in Le Monde.
They argued that Les Invalides should be turned into a museum of France’s five republics and that Napoleon’s remains, like Franco’s in Spain, be returned to his family. The remains have already journeyed a long way. It took 19 years for them to reach France in 1840, after Napoleon’s lonely death at the age of 51 in British-imposed exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena.
“Yes, the head of state, the commander in chief, must bow down at the tomb of the victor of Austerlitz,” Jean d’Orléans, a descendant of the French monarchy, wrote in Le Figaro, referring to one of Napoleon’s greatest military triumphs. Honoring Napoleon amounts to “honoring the French people, honoring ourselves.”