Mr. Macron’s choice is both political and personal. With the left in tatters, his main challenge is from the right, so laying a wreath at Napoleon’s tomb is also a way to counter Ms. Le Pen. But his own fascination with Napoleon — like him, a young provincial upstart who came to power from nowhere with a mission to remake France and change Europe — has long been evident in his recurrent musings on France’s need for “renewed ambition and audacity.”

“Macron is Rastignac,” said Nicole Bacharan, a political scientist, alluding to the hero of a Balzac novel who conquers Paris with his charm and guile. “And in the literary, political, strategic, military and intellectual range of Napoleon he finds a source of inspiration.” So, too, in the fact that France was then “the center of the world, for better or worse.”

Mr. Macron took former President Donald Trump to Napoleon’s crypt in 2017 — French presidents have tended to avoid accompanying foreign leaders there because Hitler paid homage to Napoleon at Les Invalides in 1940. If this was a history lesson, it had mixed results. “Napoleon finished a little bad,” was Mr. Trump’s summation.

A president born after the trauma of the Algerian war of independence, Mr. Macron wants to confront difficult history because he believes that openness will heal. This determination has prompted much-needed debate, even within his own government.

Elisabeth Moreno, the minister of equalities in France, has called Napoleon “one of the great misogynists.” The Napoleonic Code, long since amended, said “a woman owes obedience to her husband,” not an uncommon view at the time.

François-René de Chateaubriand, the 19th-century French writer and diplomat, observed of Napoleon that, “Living, he failed the world. Dead, he conquered it.” Something in his extraordinary orbit from imperial glory to the windswept island of his death will not let the French imagination be. The reason may be Napoleon’s hard-earned realism, as expressed on St. Helena to his secretary, Emmanuel de Las Cases.

“Revolution is one of the greatest ills with which the heavens can afflict the earth,” Napoleon told his aide. “It is the scourge of the generation that makes it; any gains it procures cannot offset the distress it spreads through life. It enriches the poor, who are not satisfied; it impoverishes the rich, who will never forget it. It overturns everything, makes everyone unhappy, and procures happiness for nobody.”

For Napoleon, as for all human beings, it proved impossible to escape the times he lived in.

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