The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death, his legacy divides France

Reenactors dressed as soldiers of the Imperial Army leave a ceremony May 5 at Les Invalides in Paris honoring Napoleon Bonaparte on the bicentenary of his death. Napoleon’s tomb is within the former military hospital. (Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

PARIS — France marked a divisive 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte on Wednesday, amid a widening debate over his legacy, including his role in the restoration of slavery.

“Napoleon Bonaparte is a part of us,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, before laying a wreath at the emperor and former military leader’s tomb in central Paris. He suggested that the country has managed to shed the worst aspects of Napoleon’s empire while improving upon the best of his contributions.

The commemoration was a balancing act for Macron, whose contemporary predecessors largely stayed away from such occasions.

Macron has emphasized a need to reexamine painful chapters of France’s past. But ahead of the presidential election next year, he is also being accused of trying to woo right-wing voters at the expense of the liberal supporters who helped him win office in 2017.

Napoleon continues to be revered among many in the country — especially conservatives — as a military genius. He is celebrated for having shaped France in ways still recognizable today, including in the country’s penal code and education system. Some French towns have commemoration events scheduled throughout this year.

But Napoleon’s legacy — and whether or how to commemorate it — also has been the subject of hundreds of op-eds, panels and TV debates in France over the past weeks.

Researchers have long emphasized the merciless wars Napoleon waged across Europe and the misogynist opinions he expressed. Less attention had been paid to his decision to restore slavery.

In 1802, three years after gaining power in a coup, Napoleon reversed a decree from 1794 that had banned slavery. The move restored slavery in some places, including Guadeloupe, and maintained it in others, where the abolishment had never taken effect.

France is the only country that ever abolished and then reinstated slavery, and it took until 1848 for it to be banned permanently.

On the French Caribbean island of Martinique, birthplace of Napoleon’s first wife, the statue of Joséphine de Beauharnais was beheaded in 1991 and ritually splashed with red paint each year. But during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and the global debate about symbols of discrimination and suppression, demonstrators tore the statue down altogether.

Activists and politicians in France’s formerly colonized overseas territories objected to celebrations of the bicentenary.

“The community that I govern will not join in these tributes, except to send the only echo that is possible on this side of the ocean: the echo of our pain,” Guadeloupe’s departmental council president, Josette Borel-Lincertin, told the French newspaper Le Monde.

But with far-right leader Marine Le Pen among the highest-polling candidates for the 2022 election, the presence of Macron during the ceremonies on Wednesday was as much about the past as about the country’s future.

In a speech, Macron called the restoration of slavery a “betrayal of the spirit of Enlightenment,” but he also cited Napoleon’s quest for “the greatness of the country.”

For Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, a political scientist who has focused on racism and colonialism, Macron’s participation was by itself a gesture to far-right, right-wing and centrist voters who think Napoleon “contributed to the greatness and construction of the French state.”

“The issue of slavery, which has long been downplayed, must now be placed at the center of reflection,” Le Cour Grandmaison said.

He warned that Macron’s attendance at Wednesday’s ceremonies risked deepening divisions and alienating descendants of enslaved people and others who consider the commemorations a political insult.

The French government rejected such criticism.

“To commemorate means to have our eyes wide open on our history and to look it in the face, including in its moments that may have been more difficult, including choices that today appear questionable,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said before the event.

Some historians have defended Napoleon’s legacy as too complex to allow definite conclusions.

Restoring slavery “was a profound mistake,” Pierre Branda, a historian with the Napoleon Foundation, said Wednesday on French radio. But Branda said it was important to note that, unlike the American Founders who have come under renewed opprobrium, Napoleon “never owned a slave or argued in favor of slavery.”

Branda and others have cited Napoleon’s late regrets, after the British banished him to the island of Saint Helena, about his decision to restore slavery.

But researchers who have voiced harsher criticism of Napoleon’s legacy said Wednesday’s event ran counter to the ideals of the French republic.

“It is quite unique to see a president of the republic honoring someone who was the craftsman of a crime against humanity,” Le Cour Grandmaison said.