Napoleon Bonaparte died 200 years ago on Wednesday, and, for the first time in the modern era, a sitting French president commemorated the occasion with a speech. Often, French politicians avoid the thorny subject of Napoleon due to his controversial legacy. However, as President Emmanuel Macron noted in his speech, it’s impossible to talk about the history of France, or even the history of Europe, without mentioning Napoleon.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769 in Corsica, which is between France and Italy. He attended a military academy in France, and by the age of 20, he was commanding troops during the French Revolution. By 24, Bonaparte became a general. He would later claim the title of First Consul of France, though he would eventually be crowned “Emperor,” solidifying his place as ruler of the country for life.
Historians have suggested that Napoleon felt that greatness awaited him. His decisive victories in lightning-fast military campaigns likely reinforced this belief in Napoleon, who swiftly grew a French Empire that began to spread across the European continent.
Napoleon’s rapid ascent to power is only matched in swiftness by his immediate ouster from France. After a series of defeats at the hands of allied European forces aligned against his growing empire, Napoleon was finally, decisively bested at the legendary Battle of Waterloo. This battle would directly lead to Bonaparte’s exile to the British island of Saint Helena, where he would spend the last few years of his life.
In Macron’s speech, he delicately avoided outright condemnation or effusive praise for Napoleon. Notably, he condemned the Emperor’s reinstatement of slavery in the Caribbean Isles in 1802, a move that made France the only country to abolish slavery and then reinstate it. France wouldn’t abolish slavery again until 1848, a troubling historical fact that has haunted the memory of Napoleon for historians.
Macron’s speech came during a moment of reckoning for Franc; the country grappled with its past as a colonial power. At Macron’s urging, the government is re-examining its role in the Colonial Era and how its actions have contributed to suffering and hardship worldwide, especially in the Global South.
People are often left with, looking back at Napoleon’s life, a man rife with contradictions. He espoused rhetoric that sought the freedom of all people from monarchy, even as he resumed slavery as an Emperor. He fought wars that toppled the status quo, even as he replicated the same patterns of his royal predecessors.