These events were a great popular success. It is what the historian Jean-Philippe Rey has called a “bicentenary from the bottom up”. Accompanied by a strong popular mobilisation comparable in volume to what took place in 1969 for the two-hundredth anniversary of Napoleon’s birth, with the difference that this time the impetus came not from the top but “from below”. French people of all ages, all classes and all origins attached enough importance to it to devote more than a moment to it: buying books and magazines, visiting numerous and varied exhibitions, attending and participating in re-enactments, etc.
It was undoubtedly this mobilisation that inspired the French President Emmanuel Macron also to intervene. He thus presided over two ceremonies on 5 May, one at the Institut de France, the other at Les Invalides, with a unifying speech, beginning with the black legend and ending with a positive judgement of the Napoleonic reign.
Some people, however, went to great lengths to ruin this bicentenary, sometimes even demanding that nothing be commemorated. It was proposed that Napoleon’s remains be removed from the Invalides and that the few streets bearing his name be renamed. In Rouen, a minority considered removing the statue of Napoleon permanently from his pedestal. On the other hand, the town of Montauban has erected a new statue in memory of the founder of the modern state. and of the department of Tarn-et-Garonne in 1808.
Indeed, as was to be expected, the bicentenary was marked by the usual anachronistic polemics and “accusations” aimed at the Napoleonic government, polemics inspired by the re-establishment of slavery in 1802 and the status of wives as per the Civil Code of 1804, topped off with preconceived ideas about the outcome of the wars or the “tyranny” of the regime, right up to the absurd accusation of anti-Semitism launched by a member of an extreme left-wing party in the French parliament (La France Insoumise), immediately countered by the Chief Rabbi of France.
On all these issues, to fill the staggering void of official reactions, historians agreed to leave their comfort zone to ‘go to the coalface’, not to defend Napoleon, but to explain (which is not to justify or excuse – why do we keep having to say this?) and contextualise these issues, which are not historically minor and deserve our full attention. For once too, they did not evade – in the name of the (alleged) neutrality of their profession – the contemporary aspects of these criticisms. For no one doubts that their favourite subject was obviously not the contemporary political reality of these real and false debates. Taking this essential figure in our history who has become “a part of us” (E. Macron) over the past two centuries as a pretext, it was, again and again, national identity, the authority of the state, top down politics, equality under the law, and meritocracy (without manipulation) that were the subjects launched, against a backdrop of “cancel culture”, racialism, hyper-feminism, and other new totalitarianisms.
Let’s not be afraid to say that, on all these grounds and thanks to a quiet mobilisation, reason for once prevailed. The subject was too hot to handle for those contemptuous commentators, convinced that once again the cleverness of their slogans and the general cowardice of the state would compensate for the vacuity of their arguments and their lack of historical research. Nor let us doubt that this battle that has been won will have to be refought on other fronts, notably in France with the approach of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Algerian war. The fight for the meaning of history continues.
Thierry Lentz, director of the Fondation Napoléon