This year is being billed as the “Year of Napoleon” by the French government and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. Major museum exhibitions and commemorations are planned across France.
Professor Marlene L. Daut (University of Virginia) writes: “After a year in which statues of enslavers and colonizers were toppled, defaced or taken down across Europe and the United States, France has decided to move in the opposite direction. The year 2021 is being hailed by many museums and institutions in the country as the “Year of Napoleon” to commemorate France’s biggest tyrant, an icon of white supremacy, Napoleon Bonaparte, who died 200 years ago on the island of Saint-Helena on May 5, 1821.”
Professor Daut is right to criticize Napoleon Bonaparte’s record on slavery and human rights issues related to his restoration of slavery in Saint-Domingue. Other historians have condemned Napoleon’s anti-republican politics, authoritarian state-building, imperial propaganda, censorship policies, international law abuses, militarism, and war crimes.
Napoleon’s legacy is complex, but his image has been increasingly appropriated by far-right and nationalist politicians in France in recent decades. Marine Le Pen and other leaders of the Rassemblement National (RN), a far-right nationalist party formerly known as the Front National (FN), have associated themselves with Napoleon’s charismatic nationalist politics and militarism.
Daut emphasizes that “the ‘Year of Napoleon’ has arrived during a dangerous time. French academics who study race, gender, ethnicity and class are under attack. President Emmanuel Macron has derided the field of post-colonial studies by suggesting that it ‘has encouraged the ethnicization of the social question’ to the point that the Republic is in danger of ‘splitting’ apart. The minister of higher education, research and innovation outright called for an investigation, ‘so we can distinguish proper academic research from activism and opinion,’ and said that scholars studying critical race theory and decolonization, along with sexual identity and social class, were promoting ‘Islamo-leftist‘ ideology.”
The fate of the “Year of Napoleon” is certainly not assured in a politically divided France that faces a third wave of coronavirus infections. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and repeated lockdowns in France may disrupt many of the planned exhibitions and events.
The New York Times published an op-ed by Marlene L. Daut on “Napoleon Isn’t a Hero to Celebrate.”
For further context, see the report in Marianne on French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for commemorations of Napoleon in 2021. RTL reports on the political controversies surrounding commemorations of Napoleon this year. Le Monde reports on the politicization of historical memory in France relating to multiple significant historical anniversaries in 2021.