PARIS — Jacques Chirac couldn’t stand him. Nicolas Sarkozy kept his distance. François Hollande shunned him. But on the 200th anniversary this week of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death, Emmanuel Macron has chosen to do what most recent presidents of France have avoided: honor the man who in 1799 destroyed the nascent French Republic in a putsch.
By choosing to lay a wreath Wednesday at Napoleon’s tomb under the golden dome of Les Invalides, Mr. Macron is stepping into the heart of France’s culture wars. Napoleon, always a contested figure, has become a Rorschach test for the French at a moment of tense cultural confrontation.
Was Napoleon a modernizing reformer whose legal code, lycée school system, central bank, and centralized administrative framework laid the basis for post-revolutionary France? Or was he a retrograde racist, imperialist, and misogynist?
By paying his respects to Napoleon, Mr. Macron will please a restive French right dreaming of lost glory and of a moment when, under its turbulent emperor, France stood at the center of the world. The French obsession with the romantic epic of Napoleon’s rise and fall is undying, as countless magazine covers and talk shows have underscored in recent weeks.
Mr. Macron is taking a risk. Officials close to him have portrayed his planned speech as an attempt to look Napoleon “in the face,” light and shadow. Others, however, insist Napoleon should be condemned rather than commemorated.
“How can we celebrate a man who was the enemy of the French Republic, of a number of European peoples, and also the enemy of humanity in that he was an enslaver?” Louis-Georges Tin, an author and activist, and Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, a political scientist, wrote last month in Le Monde.
particularly in Algeria, and a vigorous debate has begun on whether the country’s purportedly colorblind universalist model masks widespread racism.
Josette Borel-Lincertin, the Socialist president of the departmental council in Guadeloupe, told Le Monde that her community would not participate in tributes to Napoleon, whom every Guadeloupian knows reestablished slavery. “We can only send from this side of the ocean the echo of our pain,” she said.