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Macron enters a cultural battle for Napoleon’s memory – POLITICO



PARIS – In times of culture wars and Manichaean Twitter debates, French President Emmanuel Macron is again bucking the trend.

In commemorating Napoleon’s bicentennial on Wednesday evening, Macron took full account of the emperor’s great legacy in building most modern French state institutions, from the criminal and civil codes to the court of appeal and high schools.

But he too accepted that his restoration of slavery in French colonies in 1802 was a “betrayal” which the Second Republic “corrected”.

“Napoleon [was both] Ogres and eagles, Alexandre and Nero … the soul of the world and the demon of Europe ”, Macron announced solemnly.

Macron has taken the same comprehensive approach to confront France’s colonial past in Algeria, its role in the genocide in Rwanda, and China’s refusal to demolish statues of historical figures who were also racists or slave traders.

“It is an enlightened commemoration to look our history in the face and as a block and to say as a nation what Napoleon says about us and what we did to him,” said Macron in a lyrical but short speech – according to his standards. clock in less than 20 minutes.

Nonetheless, Macron’s decision to commemorate Napoleon is, to some extent, a “suppression” of one of the three internationally best known French figures alongside Joan of Arc and Charles de Gaulle. Former presidents have largely shied away from marking anniversaries associated with the emperor.

“To commemorate this bicentenary, it is simply a matter of calmly relinquishing who we are as French, without the temptation of the anachronistic process that would judge the past according to the laws of the present,” said Macron. speak quiet.

Macron’s commemoration is essentially a political step ahead of the 2022 presidential election. It allows him to indulge conservative voters whom he woos with the nostalgia that many feel for a more glorious time for France, while also winning some on the left by he acknowledges Napoleon’s crimes and misogyny, and it gives Macron a fresh opportunity to throw himself among the great leaders of French history.

These undercurrents have not gone unnoticed by his main opponents. He has already sharply criticized his approach by both far-right leader Marine Le Pen and the current Conservative President, hopeful President Xavier Bertrand, who separately challenged Macron’s avowed desire to “deconstruct” French history. Le Pen and Bertrand accuse Macron of giving in to those who “arm” the issues of colonialism and slavery in order to attack France and the West.

But instead of responding to that criticism, Macron simply said that he “belongs to everyone [part of French history]And peppered his speech with thinly veiled references that draw parallels between himself and Napoleon’s qualities.

“The life of Napoleon is, on the one hand, an ode to political will, to those who believe that fate is frozen, that life was written in advance. The journey of the child from Ajaccio who became the champion of Europe clearly demonstrated that a man can change course in history, ”Macron said.

Macron, like Bonaparte, did not grow up in Paris and, like him, came out of nowhere to storm the political world and seize power in record time.

“We love Napoleon because his life includes the promise of what is possible, an invitation to take risks,” added Macron, using his trademarked phrase to refer to bold initiatives.

Macron’s approach is not without risk. His own political camp is divided over the figure of Napoleon.

“[Napoleon] is one of the greatest misogynists, ”said the Minister for Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities, the French-Cape Verdean Elisabeth Moreno, who also criticized the emperor for restoring slavery. Under Napoleon’s rule, the inferior status of women over men was codified by law.

There was also an internal debate in Macron’s office over the memory of Napoleon as officials tried to strike the right balance between enough and not too much.

“The decision to commemorate Napoleon was made some time ago. What has changed a lot is the granularity, the form it would take,” said a second Macron advisor. “[Some] Others advocated the largest possible ceremony and advocated a minimalist approach given the context with the pandemic and the problems surrounding memory. “

The decision to commemorate Napoleon’s death sparked trouble, particularly in France’s overseas territories, which were particularly brutalized under the emperor’s reign. Protests are planned in Guadeloupe while Macron is delivering his memorial address.

“How can we celebrate a man who was the enemy of the French Republic, a number of European peoples and also the enemy of humanity by being a slave?” asked Martinique-born activist and author Louis-Georges Tin and political science professor Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison in Le Monde last month.

Without apologizing for slavery, some historians underline the economic context of the time.

“As a historian, I can only work to contextualize events. There is no denying that Napoleon reintroduced slavery in 1802, but he did so in a context where all European countries and the United States had slavery, ”argued Sorbonne University history professor Jacques-Olivier Boudon Bonaparte claimed he had no choice if he wanted France to compete with other slave-friendly countries.

Objections to Napoleon are neither new nor exclusive to the left. In 2005 the right-wing President Jacques Chirac avoided commemorating the bicentenary of Napoleon’s existence over the Russian and Austrian armed forces in Austerlitz.

However, Macron explicitly stated why it was particularly important for young people to at least learn this story instead of protecting themselves from it.

“You’re high school, as a French you are part of this story, you can love it or criticize it, but you have to learn it and know it, it is here and it helps you educate it, you have to wear it on,” Macron said before a group of students in the audience, along with former Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and other political leaders. Former President François Hollande, who had pulled Macron out of the darkness, was absent.

For the next week, Macron’s schedule seems designed to disarm critics from across the political spectrum. After the memory of Napoleon, he will celebrate Europe Day on Saturday and two days later the National Day for the Memories of Slavery and the fortieth anniversary of the election of Francois Mitterrand, the legendary first socialist president of the French Fifth Republic.

Pauline de Saint Remy contributed to the coverage.

Pauline de Saint Remy contributed to the coverage.



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