The Politics of Commemorating Napoleon

Commemorations of the Bicentennial of the death of Napoléon Bonaparte this year have become the latest battleground in France’s ongoing “culture wars.”

The figure of Napoléon remains powerful in French popular culture through television series, documentaries, films, and video games.

The historical memory of Napoléon is prominent in French political culture, since politicians and journalists often evoke his legacies in policy debates and electoral campaigns.

Napoléon’s image is especially popular in far-right politics in France, but with notable variations. Some monarchists celebrate Napoléon for his restoration of law and order following the chaos of the French Revolution (1789-1799), while others deplore his dictatorial rule and usurpation of royal political culture. Bonapartists, military supporters, and neo-imperialists celebrate Napoléon’s conquests and empire-building (1798-1814) as the beginning of France’s imperial project. Neo-fascists extol Napoléon’s authoritarian First Empire and its centralized approaches to policing and administration.

Politicians of center and left-wing parties tend to have more ambivalent or outright negative views of Napoléon as an authoritarian politician and military dictator who committed political crimes, human rights violations, and war crimes in France, Europe, and the Caribbean.

So, it is perplexing that French President Emmanuel Macron has chosen to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Napoléon’s death in a very public way.

President Emmanuel Macron views a bust of Napoléon I in Malta.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen observes that “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.”

Roger Cohen’s column on “France Battles Over Whether to Cancel or Celebrate Napoleon,” is in The New York Times.

A previous post on 2021: The Year of Napoleon on this blog earlier this spring discussed the growing political debate in France over Napoléon’s legacy.

Le Monde reports on the bicentennial of Napoléon’s death. France 24 has a series of articles and videos on the bicentennial. BBC News has published an article on “Napoleon’s Incendiary Legacy Divides France 200 Years On.”

This entry was posted in Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, Empires and Imperialism, European History, French History, French Revolution and Napoleon, History of Violence, Museums and Historical Memory, Strategy and International Politics, War and Society, War, Culture, and Society, Warfare in the Early Modern World. Bookmark the permalink.

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