Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Under the shadow of Napoleon

An event which this Blog – with its acknowledged love of all things French – simply cannot let pass, occurs tomorrow: the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's crowning as emperor
This is the man who plundered Europe, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, and stripped his own country of riches and resources – and the French still revere him.

Says Associated Press, "the French aren't pining for the return of their 19th-century empire… but is a reminder of their country's former glory." And the timing of the bicentennial could not have been more telling for a country facing an identity crisis and searching for its role in a 25-member EU and a wider world led by the United States.

Cited by AP, Steven Englund, an American award-winning biographer of Napoleon, says: "History has been a little hard on the French lately, and I think they're looking for reasons to celebrate their own history."

The Napoleon nostalgia, it seems, underscores France's obsession with retaining its influence as a self-appointed EU leader and creating a "multipolar" world - its buzzword for a counterweight to US hegemony.

The trouble is Chirac ain't no Napoleon, and the world has moved on in any case. So, according to some critics, all France can do is live off faded glory, dreaming of the days when it ruled a continental empire, and hating Britain for breaking it up.

But such is their rosy-tinted view of the past that some cannot see beyond that. Says Charles Napoleon, a descendant of one of Napoleon's brothers, writing in Le Monde this week, Bonaparte was "a giant on the road to democracy and Europe."

At least others can see history more clearly. This week's cover of Marianne magazine featured "The Napoleon Scandal", and blasted his coronation as a "military putsch" that gave way to "the first modern totalitarian regime."

It is that legacy from which France has never really recovered, and it casts a shadow over its dealings with its neighbours, and with the EU. Until it emerges from that it, many of us think it will never properly recover. Maybe recognising him for the bloody dictator, that he was, is a start.

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