PARIS – President Emmanuel Macron, in an unusual gesture on Wednesday, marked the bicentenary of the death of Napoleon, the warrior-emperor who famously bequeathed France its civil code, among other major reforms, but whose legacy remains tarnished in the eyes of many.
Macron said Napoleon Bonaparte's reinstatement of slavery was a “betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment.” But in his speech under the dome of the Institute of France, he said that “Napoleon is part of us” and France “must look our history straight in the eyes.”
With such distinctions, Macron refused to cede to those who would refuse any honor to Napoleon, who is among the most important figures of French history and adored by some members of the right. The timing works for Macron, who is expected to try to renew his presidential mandate in elections next year.
Macron later laid a wreath at the foot of Napoleon's grandiose tomb at Les Invalides, a gold-domed monument and site of a military hospital. He was greeted by Prince Jean-Christophe Napoleon, pretender to the long-abolished throne of the emperor.
The president's speech was meant to commemorate — not celebrate — the larger-than-life figure who died in exile on the remote volcanic island of St. Helena exactly 200 years ago, on May 5, 1821.
Napoleon gave France its civil code and penal code, established the system of prefects, representatives of the state in each French territory, and lycees, or high schools, among other things. But even the Institut of France refers to Napoleon “a major figure of history since always contested.”
“From the empire, we have renounced the worst and from the emperor we have embellished the best," Macron said. "Commemorating this bicentenary, it’s saying just that, simply, serenely," without “judging the past with laws of the present.”
For Macron, commemorating Napoleon was following through with his optics of facing the past and moving forward with lessons learned and offering “neither denial nor repentance.”
Macron voiced his opposition last year to bringing down statues of figures linked to slavery in former French colonies, on the grounds that history can't be erased and the past must be acknowledged.
Napoleon, a celebrated military genius, became an integral part of France’s legacy. But in today’s era, his image is tarnished by a decision to reestablish slavery in French colonies in 1802, after it was abolished in 1784. He was also responsible for years of carnage and destruction in wars fought across much of the European continent and as far away as Egypt.
Ruler from 1799, he became emperor in 1804 for a decade, then again for three months in 1815. He was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, escaped and miraculously raised a new army, only to meet defeat on June 18, 2015, at the hands of a British-led military coalition in the crucial battle of Waterloo. He was sent in 1815 to the British outpost of St. Helena, where he died after falling ill.
Napoleon's body was later exhumed and entombed at Les Invalides in Paris.