This week, French President Emmanuel Macron became the focus of controversy after he laid a wreath on the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte on the 200th anniversary of the historical figure’s death. The debate raises questions about what history France and its leadership choose to honor — and what they choose to bury.
Against all odds, the bloodthirsty tyrant is still revered in France as an iconic figure — a “builder” who is “a part of us,” according to Macron’s speech before he laid the wreath. He was referring to a man whose actions caused the deaths of millions of people.
This year, France is celebrating 20 years of the Taubira law, which recognized that the slave trade and slavery constitute crimes against humanity. But Napoleon is deeply intertwined with this history: When he reestablished slavery in 1802 after its abolition in 1794, the emperor made France the first and only country to restore it.
Macron referred to Napoleon’s horrendous decision as a “mistake, a betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment.” But slavery was not a theoretical idea that Napoleon decided to challenge. It was the violent and often deadly subjugation of human beings to benefit Western economies. Napoleon was not a hero but a mass murderer who brutally suppressed challenges to the system and his rule.
When revolts erupted in the Caribbean colonies in the early 19th century, Napoleon’s repression was particularly bloody. The colonial wars in the West Indies cost the lives of 100,000 people, 70 percent of whom were Black, according to historian Thierry Lentz.
In Saint-Domingue, which would ultimately liberate itself to become Haiti, Napoleon organized a massacre using new techniques such as gassing, drowning and sending dogs to hunt people down. What is today praised by Macron as Napoleon’s “military genius” includes an early iteration of ignominious mass extermination.
According to historian Marlene L. Daut, Napoleon said in 1799: “I am for White people because I am White, I have no other reason and this one is the good one. How can we grant freedom to Africans, men that did not have any civilization?”
In addition, Napoleon established legislation that was even more racist than what existed before. He not only prohibited marriage between Black and White people, but also banned the entry of “any Black, mulatto or person of color” to France’s mainland. Napoleon also instituted discriminatory measures that put an end to the emancipation of the Jews.
Napoleon is credited for modernizing the law by creating the Civil Code. But was the code drafted to the benefit of all the citizens? Certainly not. In addition to the obvious exclusion of Black people, women lost what they had earned during the Revolution. The code enshrined in law the legal subjugation of married women, making them unable to study, travel or sign a contract. It gave husbands the right to control the correspondences of their wives and, worse, to abuse and rape them without legal consequences.
Macron did not have to celebrate Napoleon. But, as the campaign for his reelection begins, it is in his interests to push the narrative that he is a “the Bonapartist candidate,” which was initiated during his first campaign in 2017. So, when he says, “Napoleon’s life gives us a taste of the possible,” he is probably also thinking of himself, the young, unknown candidate no one had seen coming.
But when he states, “We love Napoleon,” he purposely erases the fact that Napoleon was a warlike, racist and misogynistic oppressor.
France cannot simultaneously be the first and only European country to recognize slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity and also consider Napoleon a hero. We need national storytelling that includes and respects all the inhabitants of our country. Napoleon will not be erased: No one denies the fact that he had a major impact on French history. But he belongs to the history books, not modern commemorations. There is a difference between teaching and glorifying.
In the post-Me Too and Black Lives Matter world, when we should be focused on commemorating those who stood up to tyranny and were victimized for it, France has chosen to celebrate one of its most odious perpetrators. It is an insult to anyone supporting human rights today.