On the occasion of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death this year, we in France are also witnessing the simultaneous official highlighting of two memorial subjects, the re-establishment of slavery and the place of women. Both subjects are certainly important but they are also all complex. Those who are pushing these counter-subjects seem deliberately to forget the context in which the events happened, all with the simple idea of getting a better run up to kick a certain emblematic character of French history in the pants. This deliberate prominence obscures other memories, notably European and religious. I am thinking here of the emancipation of the Jews in Europe who, thanks to Napoleon’s armies, could finally get out of their ghettos and abandon the distinctive yellow sign they were already wearing: the Rothschild family is an excellent example. Is this not also a very important legacy of this period that deserves to be put under the spotlight?
Very clearly, this is a sort of compensation paid to certain pressure groups in advance so as to excuse the commemoration of Napoleon. This is offensive to both sides: not only to those who are interested in the history of Napoleon I, who find themselves obliged to apologise constantly, but also to those who defend just causes. Both the history of slavery in the West Indies and the history of the status of women deserve better than a few crumbs poorly scattered here and there in the worst possible way with scant regard for historical context. The role of women in the wars of the Revolution and of the Empire is overestimated to such an extent that the role of the regimental washerwoman (though in some ways crucial) is placed on the same historical level as that of a marshal. It should be underlined that there is no need for such contortions to take an interest in the history of courageous women whose actions marked their time. This is illustrated in particular by a study of the fate of the female sovereigns who defied Napoleon, from Queen Louise of Prussia to Caroline Bonaparte, to be published in the autumn and written by the historian Florence de Baudus. We should set aside all forms of positive discrimination and instead relive the fascinating contrasts of the history as it is.
Pierre Branda is a historian and head of heritage at the Fondation Napoléon.