Macron’s Halfhearted Criticism of Napoleon Rooted in Election Math

Emmanuel Macron stepped gingerly into the legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte on Wednesday’s 200th anniversary of his death, both praising and condemning the emperor as he attempts to bridge France’s polarized politics with an eye on next year’s presidential election.

Before placing a wreath on Napoleon’s tomb, Macron delivered a speech that was streamed live on social media. He criticized Napoleon for re-establishing slavery in the French Caribbean colonies about a decade after the First Republic abolished the practice, calling that “a betrayal of the Enlightenment spirit.” He also acknowledged the disdain for human lives during the Napoleonic wars. 

But, the president said, it was right to honor the emperor’s achievements, which include laying the foundations of the country’s penal code as well as its centralized administrative and education systems.

Macron hesitated before confirming his plans for the day, weighing calls for a boycott by those demanding a reckoning with past injustices and louder appeals for a celebration by others who cherish France’s imperial past. With polls showing the gap between Macron and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen narrowing, he decided to go ahead with the event. The speech is an attempt to appease both sides.

Macron’s comments will be analyzed especially closely in the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe, where the economy once thrived on sugar cane and coffee plantations, and the slaves who worked on them.

Last year, during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept the globe, anti-racism protesters on the island tore down a statue of Napoleon’s wife. Macron’s response was swift. Rather than removing such memorials from public view, he said, the state should be promoting the study of history.

Macron’s Halfhearted Criticism of Napoleon Rooted in Election Math

Across the channel, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has gone for a similar approach with his own equally controversial hero — Winston Churchill. What’s different, though, is that Macron campaigned as an liberal centrist, shrugging off fears of a culture war and promoting tolerance, even calling colonization a crime against humanity.

But since Macron took office in 2017, polls show the electorate has shifted to the right, and so has he. That tack has become more apparent recently as the president attempts to erode support for Le Pen.

She has already been on local radio to discuss Napoleon, who died in captivity on the British island of Saint Helena at the age of 51. “Why wouldn’t we celebrate Napoleon? He’s among the great historic characters,” Le Pen said. “He did so much for the country, he gave so much to the world.”

Macron has never hid his admiration for Napoleon.

According to a book by his friend Philippe Besson, Macron even compared himself to the emperor during his 2017 election campaign, pointing out that Napoleon governed with a group young male hawks and establishment figures, just like him.

Napoleon’s decision to re-establish slavery led to brutal fighting in the Caribbean colonies in which thousands died. His racial laws led to the internment of Black people and the forced break-up of inter-racial marriages.

Macron’s Halfhearted Criticism of Napoleon Rooted in Election Math

In 1808, Napoleon’s “infamous decree” put curbs on the rights of Jews in eastern France, limiting their travel and closing down some of their businesses. Macron’s hardline Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, was recently accused of ignoring all that when he said the state should impose on Muslims what Napoleon imposed on Jews: a centralized and hierarchical structure.

Such is the tension around Napoleon that in 2005, Macron’s right-wing predecessor Jacques Chirac refused to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his military victory in Austerlitz against Austria and Russia.

In the speech, Macron said it was unfair to assess Napoleon by modern standards, calling on the French “not give way to the temptation of anachronistic judgement, which would judge the past with the laws of today.”

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