Statue of Napoleon in Rouen: “it is a question of respecting our history”

Author(s) : LENTZ Thierry
Share it

For nearly 150 years, the people of Rouen have been accustomed to seeing a statue of Napoleon I on horseback in front of their Town Hall in the square now known as Place Charles-de-Gaulle. But since July 2020, the plinth from which this work towered over the square has been vacant. The statue by the sculptor Gabriel Vital-Dubray (1813-1892) was removed and entrusted to specialists at the Coubertin foundry in Saint-Rémy-les-Chevreuse for restoration.

Statue of Napoleon in Rouen: “it is a question of respecting our history”
The Statue of Napoleon in Rouen town square by Gabriel Vital-Dubray (1813-1892), vintage postard, circa 1900, collection R. Young

Fifteen months later, the statue is now ready to be put back where it belongs. However, the Socialist mayor of Rouen, Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, wants to replace it with the effigy of another figure, preferably a female one. He proposed Gisèle Halimi [the French-Tunisian lawyer, writer and feminist who died in 2020]. As for that of the Emperor, the mayor would like to see it relocated to the Ile Lacroix [Lacroix island], at the foot of the Pont Corneille [which links the island to the mainland] whose original construction was decided by Napoleon on the occasion of his visit in 1810.

When this project was first revealed the controversy was intense ( So much so that the mayor was forced to backtrack: he claimed that his words had been misunderstood, that his proposition was only a suggestion, as well as his choice of Gisèle Halimi. He went on to mention Simone Veil, Simone de Beauvoir, Olympe de Gouges and even Joan of Arc, who is already well represented in Rouen’s public space. Now he is calling for a “nuanced debate”, a suggestion which had not occurred to him even a few months ago.

As a paradoxical expression of this “nuance”, the municipality turned a blind eye to a clandestine “happening” by the artist Mieszko Bavencoffe which took place on the weekend of 19 September. The artist who calls himself a “specialist of the Emperor” has already represented the Emperor in an installation at the tactfully named “CACA” [“Centre d’art Contemporain d’Angoulème”, the Contemporary Art Center of Angoulème]. This time, the artist managed to install on the vacant plinth in Rouen a representation of the great man as a delivery man doing a “wheelie” on his bike, a “funny” (sic) parody of David’s painting of Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard pass on a rearing horse.

This inopportune but certainly not innocent provocation has thrown oil on the fire and forced the mayor to clarify his intentions. He has promised that “the people” will decide after they have been consulted sometime later this year. Apart from the fact that it will take place via the Internet, we know neither the details concerning the consultation nor indeed the solutions to be proposed.

In response to the many letters he has received, Mr Mayer-Rossignol declares that it is not a question of cancelling or expunging “any part of history” but rather one of “finally” attributing more public spaces to women.

These vague statements coming as they do rather late in the day are fooling no one. The matter would purely and simply appear to be yet another case of “cancel culture”, though here in a part of the local history of Rouen that is least contested. We are not saying that the mayor is unfamiliar with the local history of Rouen, but we can imagine him held hostage by a determination to mark his mandate with an act he believes to be “strong” and please those who elected him, including a few radical activists for whom the election in Rouen in the spring of 2020 was the start of the story (67% of the votes cast were for the “left-wing union” list, though overall there was a 70% abstention rate).

This statue of Napoleon, however, did not arrive in Rouen and in this particular place by chance. It reflects the efforts made by the Emperor’s  government to modernise the town and revitalise its manufacturies. Each of the three visits to Rouen by the First Consul and then the Emperor (two in 1802, one in 1810) was followed up by decisions on town-planning and the economy that left their mark on the town. Mr Mayer-Rossignol’s distant predecessor, Henri Barbet [mayor from 1830 to 1847 and an important local industrialist], emphasised this in the style of his time during the speech inaugurating the statue of Napoleon on 15 August 1865: “With his reign a new era began, and our industry is one of the products of his genius”.

Given this situation, one is left wondering quite what Gisèle Halimi, Simone de Beauvoir or Olympe de Gouges did for Rouen or for Normandy to merit an effigy (which is unlikely to be equestrian) to replace that of such a benefactor of the town.

But, as you can see, it is not simply a question of moving a statue, whose presence has never been contested by the people of Rouen. Whatever the local authorities may say, there is an ideological agenda behind this project, situated somewhere between a rejection of national history and the attractions of a “cancel culture” imported from an English-speaking world which they in fact in many respects despise.

The municipal majority must surely have noticed, from the many reactions the issue has provoked, that its project is contested by a significant part of the community. The idea of the “public” consultation then is merely an attempt to give an air of democratic participation to a decision that will not be questioned without the mobilisation of the silent majority. Otherwise, a handful of militants will decide the matter for everyone. It is always by relying on the general feeling of “what’s the point?” and the laziness of their opponents that the red-pink-greens, the “zadists”[*] and decolonialists of all kinds impose their solutions. It is therefore to be feared that Napoleon, once again, will be relegated to an island and that a little more public money will be spent on designing a new statue with no real connection to Rouen’s history.

Feminising public space or place names is not in itself open to criticism, and it is on this cliché that the mayor and his team are depending. They can swear all they like that they are working for “parity” (here the perfect alibi), whether in Rouen and elsewhere, but what we have here is really “cancel culture”, and let us not believe for a second that the affair of the Rouen statue is an unfortunate coincidence.

Thierry Lentz, historian and director of the Fondation Napoléon (English translation RY with PH)

This text was first published on Monday 27 September 2021 in French in the daily newspaper Le Figaro, which we thank for allowing us to publish it on our website

*Zadist: recent French term meaning a “militant occupying a ZAD [ie. a Zone to be Defended] to oppose a proposed development that would damage the environment”

Share it