Wednesday, 12 June 2024

Insights from Across the Channel: Unpacking French Perspectives on Napoleon's Legacy

Insights from Across the Channel: Unpacking French Perspectives on Napoleon's Legacy
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 15:52

"The Complex Legacy of Napoleon: Ridley Scott's Cinematic Take Sparks Debate in France"

Napoleon Bonaparte once again graces both British and French screens, courtesy of Sir Ridley Scott's latest cinematic endeavor premiered on November 22. Featuring Joaquin Phoenix as the Corsican emperor, Scott's film, while not groundbreaking in subject matter, stands as an epic production with a reported cost of £160 million, marking it as the director's most expensive venture to date. The movie boasts six full battle scenes, delivering a panoramic view of Napoleon's tumultuous reign. However, unlike a hagiography, Scott openly acknowledges Napoleon's controversial legacy, drawing parallels with historical figures like Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, and Stalin. In an interview, Scott bluntly remarked, "Listen, he’s got a lot of bad s—t under his belt."

Unsurprisingly, the film has stirred controversy and criticism in France. The Stalin and Hitler references, along with alleged historical inaccuracies, have sparked debate among French critics. One such critique challenges the central theme of Napoleon's relationship with Josephine, characterizing it as a motivating force for his career. Le Figaro newspaper went as far as suggesting the film depicted "Barbie and Ken under the Empire." While Scott dismisses such charges, asserting critics should "get a life," the contention over the accuracy of Napoleon's romantic entanglements persists.

The French perspective on Napoleon is far from homogeneous. Acknowledging the negative aspects of his reign, including the toll of military campaigns that left an estimated 900,000 Frenchmen dead, many in France do not view Napoleon as an unambiguous national hero. His failure to embrace democracy and press freedom, coupled with his affinity for absolutism and ruthlessness, adds complexity to his legacy. Valérie from Avignon encapsulates this nuanced sentiment, expressing both admiration and discomfort: "We admire Napoleon but also are a bit shame-faced about doing so. We’re dismayed by his hots for colonialism and by the enormous armies which went off conquering everywhere and pillaging everything as they went. But we admire his self-confidence, his perseverance, his sense of mission and strategy – and his resistance to the English! We also like the adventurer and the romantic lover of Josephine."

As Ridley Scott's cinematic interpretation reignites discussions surrounding Napoleon's character, it becomes evident that evaluating the multifaceted legacy of this historical figure remains an ongoing and intricate endeavor in the eyes of the French audience.

In the intricate tapestry of French opinions on Napoleon, the ambivalence remains palpable, with perspectives reflecting a nuanced evaluation of his complex legacy. Benoît of St Omer encapsulates this sentiment, acknowledging Napoleon's dictatorial, imperialistic, and war-mongering tendencies—traits he typically doesn't admire. Yet, he concedes that Napoleon undeniably left an indelible mark on the history of France. Vanessa from Clermont-Ferrand anticipates that the ongoing debate surrounding Napoleon will persist, transcending the release of current and future films.

However, amidst the multifaceted discussion, one particular charge reverberates strongly in 21st-century French sensibilities: Napoleon's restoration of slavery in French colonies in 1802. This contentious aspect has led to nuanced viewpoints. Jacques Chirac's skepticism about Napoleon prompted him to abstain from the 2005 bicentenary commemorations of Austerlitz, the emperor's greatest victory. The restoration of slavery, a charged issue, is contextualized by the complex economic and diplomatic circumstances of the time. While acknowledging the severity of the repression of rebelling slaves, historians caution against characterizing it as genocide, emphasizing the need to view the matter within its historical context.

Thierry Lentz of the Napoleon Foundation contends that, unlike 20th-century tyrants depicted by Ridley Scott, Napoleon left a legacy that was subsequently celebrated, embraced, and expanded upon. Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon's enduring achievement wasn't solely on the battlefield. His profound impact was on civilian life, skillfully navigating the aftermath of the ancien regime, the 1789 revolution, and ensuing upheavals. The Napoleonic Code, a comprehensive body of law, served to unify the legal landscape, transcending feudal laws and applying universally. Napoleon's code not only remains the foundation of law in France, undergoing numerous amendments but also has influenced legal systems worldwide. In essence, while battles defined his era, it was Napoleon's transformative contributions to governance and law that cemented his enduring legacy, offering a perspective less explored in cinematic portrayals.

Revolutionizing the very fabric of French governance, Napoleon Bonaparte left an indelible mark that extends beyond epic battles and finds its roots in transformative civic initiatives. His extensive overhaul of national and local administration included groundbreaking innovations such as départements, creating a streamlined county network. Introducing the French central bank, a comprehensive national land registry, and championing religious freedom for Jews and Protestants showcased his commitment to a more inclusive society. Napoleon's imprint also touched education with the establishment of lycées for proper secondary education.

While these endeavors lack the cinematic allure of battles, they reflect Napoleon's profound impact on civic life. Urban planning, sewers, water supply, street numbering, and rubbish collection—mundane yet vital elements—bear Napoleon's influence. His legacy extends to the most basic aspects of daily life, illustrating a governance ethos that transcended military conquests.

Napoleon's enduring fame is undeniable. Despite the passage of time, his name remains synonymous with grandeur. This fascination translates into substantial economic value, as evidenced by the recent auction of one of his bicorn hats for £1.69 million. The Napoleon brand, estimated to be worth at least a billion euros, is freely accessible due to the absence of copyright restrictions. From beverages to shower curtains and even silk socks replicated in a stylish case, the market for Napoleon-themed products thrives, affirming his cultural and commercial significance.

Beyond tangible artifacts, Napoleon's intangible legacy resides in shaping the perception of France itself. His single greatest bequest wasn't just legal frameworks or material innovations but the enduring idea that France is a symbol of grandeur and glory. This concept, distinct from the reality of France's perennial challenges, persists as a powerful force. The rest of the world may find it irksome, yet it underscores the lasting impact of Napoleon's narrative.

The continued fascination with Napoleon is evident in contemporary culture, as portrayed in popular series like Succession. Connor Roy's obsession with the emperor, from naming his New Mexico farm after the Battle of Austerlitz to collecting memorabilia and expressing an interest in owning Napoleon's purported anatomy, highlights the enduring allure of Napoleon's persona.

As the cinematic exploration of Napoleon's life continues, it echoes the ongoing global fascination with a figure who, centuries later, still captivates hearts and minds. From the Corsican capital of Ajaccio, where he was born in 1769, to the global market for Napoleon-themed merchandise, the legacy of this historical giant persists, offering both a nuanced understanding of his contributions and a glimpse into the enduring allure of his larger-than-life persona.

Embarking on a journey through the historical echoes of Napoleon's legacy, the city of Ajaccio stands as a pivotal starting point. This Corsican capital, where the world's greatest general, as proclaimed by Wellington, was born, now hosts a museum narrating the Bonaparte family saga (£6). Across town, the opulent Palais Fesch unfolds the Napoleonic narrative and boasts an impressive collection of Italian art, curated by Cardinal Fesch, Bonaparte's uncle, who notably benefited from his nephew's art-plundering exploits (£7).

For those seeking an immersive experience, the Hotel Napoleon offers a fitting stay, with doubles starting from £61. Napoleon's imprint is interwoven into the fabric of Paris, although curiously, the capital lacks a Rue Napoleon. Les Invalides stands as an unmissable destination, housing the ex-emperor's sarcophagus beneath the grand dome, accompanied by the bombast and opulence befitting his stature. Adjacent to this landmark is the world's preeminent military museum (£13), delving into the multifaceted narrative of Napoleon and much more.

Venturing out to Rueil-Malmaison via the RER A, the Château de Malmaison (£5.50) beckons as the former marital home of Napoleon and Josephine. The splendid estate, resonating with Josephine's love for roses, provides a captivating glimpse into their shared history. A dedicated Napoleonic walking tour, whether guided or self-guided from, unveils additional imperial highlights.

For a stay near Les Invalides, the Maison Saint Charles offers a unique experience. This renovated convent, now hosting chambres-d’hôtes alongside studios and apartments, combines practicality with contemporary charm. Priced at £84 for a B&B double, this accommodation not only provides exceptional value in central Paris but also contributes to supporting positive initiatives.

Further afield, Compiègne beckons with its neo-classical château, cherished by both Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew, the future Napoleon III (£6.50). The triangular architectural marvel houses memories of the Bonapartes and their wives, making it a compelling visit. Compiègne's significance extends to a notable statue of Joan of Arc, a historical railway carriage site of crucial surrenders in 1918 and 1940, and the Memorial de l’Internement et de la Déportation, now a poignant contemporary museum (£4). The city's multifaceted history unfolds, inviting exploration into the intertwined legacies of Napoleon and the broader historical tapestry.

Choosing the perfect retreat in the vicinity of Braine-l'Alleud and the historic battlefield of Waterloo leads us to the charming Auberge A La Bonne Idée in nearby Saint-Jean aux Bois. This delightful establishment offers not only comfortable accommodation but also an exceptional dining experience (doubles from £139).

Delving into a pivotal chapter of Napoleon's life, his first exile in 1814, brings us to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Far from a traditional exile, Elba saw Napoleon assume the role of sovereign over the island. His residence, the lemon-yellow mansion Palazzina dei Mulini, overlooked the sea from above the island capital Portoferraio. Four miles inland, the San Martino Villa served as his country retreat, providing a glimpse into his exile with lovely parkland, intriguing artifacts, and an Egyptian room. Visitors even have the rare opportunity to acquire Napoleonic tea-towels.

For those contemplating a visit to Elba from Pisa, Florence, or Milan starting in February 2024, the five-star Hotel Hermitage outside Portoferraio offers a luxurious option with a minimum stay requirement of five nights (from £1,177). Alternatively, for a more budget-friendly choice, provides various options.

Napoleon's famed encounter with his Waterloo unfolded not at the site bearing the same name but in the neighboring Belgian commune of Braine-l'Alleud. The inn where Wellington wrote his battle report has been transformed into a stellar battle museum (£13), showcasing artifacts like the prosthetic leg crafted for Lord Uxbridge after losing his own in the battle. A visit to the new Memorial (£4) on the battle site, featuring contemporary and interactive museography, adds depth to the experience. Whether exploring the Lion’s Mound or indulging in the panoramic view of the 1912 battle, every corner exudes historical resonance. Hougoumont farm, witness to some of the battle's toughest encounters, stands as a testament to British troops' resilience. The scars of battle on the farm, coupled with exhibits and films, narrate a poignant story, commemorated by Vivien Mallock’s six-foot high sculpture (pass for memorial, mound, panorama, and farm, £17).

For a comfortable and convenient stay in Waterloo, Hotel Van Der Valk stands as an excellent choice. With doubles starting from £77, this accommodation option provides a welcoming retreat for visitors exploring the historic surroundings and commemorating the events of the Battle of Waterloo.

In conclusion, the journey through Napoleon's historical footprint takes us from the Corsican capital of Ajaccio to the Mediterranean island of Elba and the battlegrounds of Waterloo. Along the way, we explore museums, estates, and landmarks that offer a nuanced understanding of Napoleon's life, exile, and the enduring impact of his legacy. The diverse accommodations, ranging from charming inns to luxurious hotels, provide travelers with comfortable stays amidst the rich tapestry of history. Whether delving into the intricacies of Napoleon's governance, enjoying the scenic landscapes of Elba, or contemplating the solemnity of Waterloo, each destination contributes to a comprehensive exploration of one of history's most captivating figures. Napoleon's imprint on these locations is not merely historical; it is a living narrative that continues to captivate and inspire those who embark on this immersive journey.