Le mal napoléonien (Essay, in French)

Author(s) : JOSPIN Lionel
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Le mal napoléonien, Lionel Jospin © Seuil, 2014

“I have long been pondering on, and turning over in my mind, the place taken by Napoleon Bonaparte in our national consciousness, the glory attached to his name. I have long been struck by the mark he has left on our history.
I wrote this book as a politician, as a man with an inside view of how power works and driven by a certain idea of what, over time, my country's interests are. I wanted to share with my readers this journey which took me from a crucial period in French history to the present day, with the aim of shedding light on certain aspects of the present.” Lionel Jospin

Review by Pierre Branda, historian, Head of the Department of Heritage at the Fondation Napoléon

Former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's book, published by the Editions du Seuil, is an essay on what he calls the “Napoleonic evil.” From the outset the author proclaims it will be subjective. His pen is politically orientated; indeed Lionel Jospin readily imagines that he would have been an opponent of the Emperor had he lived at that time. This remark sets the tone. And yet, despite this initial statement, Lionel Jospin attempts to write history by tracing the main transformations of French society and of the European order desired by Napoleon. His conclusion is however clear: the Napoleonic balance sheet in the end came out negative. The order needed after the revolutionary years, for instance, evolved into a “despotic regime and a police state”, the religious compromise was “spoiled” and the Industrial Revolution incomplete. At the European level, Lionel Jospin considers that the Emperor was wrong not to support “the forces of transformation” which were, according to him, already present. Evolving from being progressive, or at least being presented as such when he took power, Napoleon thus became in Lionel Jospin's eyes a dangerous reactionary. Accordingly, the author considers Napoleon's failure inevitable. Therefore, it is not clear why this historical figure has haunted French national consciousness for so long, from Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte to Nicolas Sarkozy.
The charge against the Emperor lacks subtlety. By seeing this “Napoleonic evil” everywhere, the book becomes paradoxical. You could even wonder whether Lionel Jospin might in fact, be a Bonapartist unbeknownst to himself. Indeed, he implies that Napoleon alone could do anything and that the failure of France in 1814 and 1815 was due to him alone. A remarkable tribute! Lionel Jospin therefore ultimately agrees with the philosopher Hegel who saw Napoleon as the “soul of the world on horseback”. But focusing on one man only, Lionel Jospin forgets the historical and European context too easily. For instance he describes the Emperor's anti-British “obsession”. For sure, Napoleon never ceased fighting the British on land and on sea, but wasn't there the same “obsession” across the Channel against France? This is obvious. Lionel Jospin also criticizes the Emperor for not spreading revolutionary ideals in Europe. But what of the attitude of the revolutionary armies for nearly seven years beyond our borders? Was it a paragon of civilisation? It is doubtful, considering the arbitrary “requisitions” imposed in Germany or in Italy with the aim of rescuing a ruined France. Opponents oppressed by the imperial police? Of course they were, but they probably preferred distancing measures taken by Fouché's police to the guillotine of the Terror. Napoleonic Order was admittedly imperfect but on the positive side it existed without atrocities or the denial of the individual. The memory of Napoleon endures because the structures he created endured not just in France but also in Europe. As an astute politician, Louis XVIII made no mistake in retaining almost all the Napoleonic institutions and laws. Which regime can boast of having left a legacy hardly modified by his successors? Not many. Food for thought, in spite of what our former Prime Minister may say… 

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Paris: Seuil
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