Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Celebrating Napoleon Is Hardly PC at a Time When France Likes to Play the Good European

Boris Bachorz reports that
France celebrates the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's coronation this week with a mix of embarrassment and fascination for a legend that weighs heavy, especially with its European partners.

Unlike the pomp and ceremony that marked the 200th anniversary in 1989 of the French Revolution, France's approach to the bicentennial of Bonaparte's coronation on December 2 is more measured for this far less consensual chapter of its history.  

"The republic (of France) is still embarrassed by Napoleon. It owes him so much that it dares not speak about. It's too proud and too weak at the same time to do so," said Steven Englund, a US historian living in France. 

Indeed, events to mark the coronation of the diminutive emperor will barely leave the confines of the museums.  

… Historians point to a problem Napoleon poses for today's French institutions two centuries on: he may have conquered half of Europe, centralised and strengthened France and given it the civil code and the central bank, but he also led his country and others into bloody battles that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.  

For Englund, modern-day France, far removed from ideas of world grandeur, remains mostly indifferent and uncomprehending of this rich though contrasting period of history.  

He must be kidding! Better to read Jacques Myards' comments below…
After all, celebrating the Corsican who conquered half of Europe is hardly politically correct at a time when France likes to play the good European in the 25-nation bloc.

"Louis XIV, Napoleon, de Gaulle — all three display in their way French imperialism, synonym for arrogance and domination," according to historian Annie Jourdan, author of a book on myths and legends about Napoleon.  

In the countries he occupied, Napoleon provoked "a heightened love of the homeland, and above all a new mistrust towards France which reawakens today every time a French head of state acts without caring about European public opinion," Jourdan said.  

Yet far from the museums, institutes and auction rooms marking the 200th anniversary of the emperor's coronation, hundreds of French people still live in Napoleon's shadow.  

Napoleon expert Jean Tulard, author of about 40 historical works about the emperor, said he detected a degree of nostalgia.  

Nostalgia or not, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin chose Napoleon as the focus of a book he penned in 2002. But Nicolas Sarkozy, centre-right party leader and rival of de Villepin, would most like to resemble "Bonaparte without Napoleon", according to his wife Cecilia.  

Meanwhile Jacques Myard, the mayor of Maisons-Laffitte, an upmarket suburb west of Paris, commented: "This greatness, we are capable of having it again through movement and ideas that make the world act."  

Myard, who erected a Napoleon-inspired statue last month, referred to the diplomatic effort initiated by France against last year's US-led invasion of Iraq.  

On a perhaps more mundane level, antiques dealer Christian Fabre said that he saw signs of a rebirth in interest. "The Napoleon cult is coming back."  …

Related AFP story: Napoleon, a towering self-promoter — Experts believe that Napoleon, the diminutive emperor whose legacy still provokes unease and fascination in France, was probably the first person in history to use the tool of mass propaganda on such a scale…

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