PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron stand in front of the tomb of French Emperor Napoleon (1769-1821) during a ceremony marking the 200th anniversary of his death in the “Chapelle Saint-Jerome” at the Invalides. — AFP

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte 200 years after his death yesterday on an anniversary that has been dragged into a heated national debate about “cancel culture”. Macron called Napoleon “part of us” and said the relatively modest ceremonies organized in Paris to mark the occasion were an “enlightened commemoration”, not a celebration of his life. Speaking at the Institut de France, an academy set up by Napoleon to promote science and the arts, Macron listed some of the famed Corsican’s enduring contributions, while also mentioning the darker, blood-stained parts of his legacy.

“Few destinies have shaped so many lives beyond their own,” Macron said of the man who seized power in a coup in 1799 and died in exile on the island of Saint Helena in 1821 having briefly ruled over most of Europe. The president later laid a wreath at the marble crypt where Napoleon’s remains are buried at the Invalides monument, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris.

As well as being one of the best-known and instantly recognizable French figures, usually depicted in his frock coat and sideways hat, Napoleon is also one of the most divisive characters in the country’s history.

His huge contribution to the French state-the modern bureaucracy, school and legal systems bear his stamp-is usually set against his record as an autocrat and war-mongerer in Europe and the Middle East. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the emergence of a new generation of vocal anti-racism campaigners in France, Napoleon’s decision to re-establish slavery in 1802 has become the focus of renewed debate.

Some left-wing politicians and academics had urged Macron to avoid paying homage to him for this reason, as well as his role in crushing the first fledgling attempts at democracy following the 1789 revolution. Macron began his remarks by saying he would “concede nothing to those who want to erase the past on the basis that it does not correspond with their idea of the present.”

But he called the slavery decision an “error” and a “betrayal of the Enlightenment spirit” which had brought about the 1789 revolution. He also said Napoleon “was never concerned about the loss of lives.” Before the speech, an aide to the president had said Macron’s approach would be to “look at history in the face,” adding that the commemorations would be “neither denial, nor repentance”.

Tyrant, genius or both?
When Napoleon seized power, he overthrew France’s first republic that was established in the wake of the 1789 revolution that abolished the monarchy. Renowned for his military prowess, he clocked up a series of victories, including at the Battle of Austerlitz, which resulted in a French empire that encompassed most of continental Europe. While building and reforming at home at a furious pace, he also reversed gains for women and a ban on slavery introduced under the first republic.

Slavery was re-established in French colonies from 1802, a move seen by some as being motivated by a desire to dominate the Caribbean sugar trade in the face of competition from arch-enemy England. Mathilde Larrere, a French historian, believes there was a “racist dimension” to the decision, while France’s Equality Minister Elisabeth Moreno called him “one of the biggest misogynists” to walk the Earth. Writing in The New York Times recently, American scholar Marlene Daut called Napoleon “an icon of white supremacy” in a column that condemned the commemorations in France.

Political divisions
In the build-up to Wednesday’s anniversary, some 160 French institutions from schools to museums signed up for events grouped under the “Annee Napoleon 2021” label. For some, Napoleon is a reminder of French grandeur and strength. “Why shouldn’t we celebrate Napoleon?” far-right nationalist leader Marine Le Pen told France Inter radio on Tuesday.

“He did so much for the country, and he gave so much to the world,” she added Home left-wingers had, by contrast, urged Macron to downplay the anniversary. “The Republic should not pay an official homage to the person who buried the first republican experience of our history by installing an authoritarian regime,” left-winger Alexis Corbiere wrote in Le Figaro newspaper in March. – AFP