On the fringes of this momentum, some people wonder or do not understand why so much energy and resources are being deployed around this bicentenary. Some are of this mind because they live only in the present and want to ignore the fact that a great people also fought around its past and common memories. Others because they judge, in the name of contemporary sensibilities, that Napoleon is too ‘controversial’ a figure to be remembered other than by vilifying him. We would like to respond to these two main categories of bicentenary critics with reasoning and history, without the excessive passions that distort the debate.
To the first, should we repeat here what the First Consul and then the Emperor brought to our country? Should we re-explain how, in a short time but with a fierce will, he made possible the achievements of the ‘societal’ Revolution of 1789? Will we be able to make them understand that beyond the institutions, codes and rules of life in society that have endured for two centuries, Napoleon is still ‘in us’ through the habits of life and the legal rules, in a word ‘the masses of granite’ (the institutions that Emperor Napoleon I founded as he tried to strengthen the State by establishing solid foundations) that he threw down, as he said, ‘on the soil of France’ and on that of most of the countries of Western Europe? Finally, would we be heard if we tried to explain that the ‘Napoleonic’ wars, as intense and murderous as they were, were part of an international life in which peace was the exception and in the line of a project of French preponderance built by the Ancien Régime and continued by the Revolution? If they are willing to attend colloquia or conferences, if they take the trouble to read the most recent research, we may be able, if not to convince them, at least to make them understand why we are so interested in Napoleonic history.
With the latter, we will have more difficulty. They are not driven by disinterest or indifference, but by deeper feelings, often sincere, but also, for a minority of them, by an agenda in which the rejection of Napoleon is only of tactical interest.
These latter, who esteem neither our national unity nor our social organisation, have no desire to discuss matters reasonably and, dare I say, ‘historically’ with us. They are constantly being told that we are incapable of criticism and that there are subjects that Napoleonists, whether historians or associations, would have put ‘under the carpet’: the re-establishment of slavery in 1802, the status of women in the Civil Code, the imperial pseudo ‘dictatorship’ and a few other aspects of Napoleon’s government that are less glowing than others.
We must encourage them to become more familiar with our work and that of our predecessors, to exchange ideas with us and, above all, to agree not to reduce Napoleon to his failures or his unfortunate decisions, which cannot be understood—which is not to excuse—without seriously immersing ourselves in the times and mentalities that were his. Only study, dialogue and the desire to work together will help us to get out of the intellectual impasse in which they would like to trap us.
Without going so far as to say that commemorating Napoleon, obviously with our eyes open, is a right and perhaps even a duty, we could also dream of the miracle that he himself achieved during his lifetime, with his magnificent—albeit firm—policy of national reconciliation: to grasp, turn around and turn over our history together, to recognise our points of agreement and disagreement without, dare I say, violent argument. It is a matter of citizenship.