Napoleon the Immigrant, 200 Years After Waterloo
By Robert Zaretsky - June 17, 2015
Where better to quaff a Belgian witbier than in hell? But unless you already bought tickets, you have missed your chance to do so this Thursday. On June 18, “Inferno,” a light and sound lollapalooza, will erupt in the small Belgian village of Waterloo. Marking the 200th anniversary of the world-transforming battle, the show, along with two days of reenactments, is sold out. The vast throngs of commoners will be joined by several European heads of state and royalty, all braving massive traffic jams predicted for the occasion.
Many suspect that bitterness explains the French government’s refusal to participate in a ceremony that marks this historic French defeat. But it isn’t so simple. In 1815, a quarter century of revolutionary energy, bursting into the world in 1789, came to an end, but not before it caused tremors strong enough to last another 200 years. In a section of Les Misérables that never made it to Broadway, Victor Hugo rightly observed that Waterloo, “by cutting short the demolition of European thrones by the sword, had no other effect than to cause the revolutionary work to be continued in another direction.”
The French Socialists are, in effect, the official inheritors of this “revolutionary work,” yet this won’t be the first time they will have snubbed the bicentennial celebration. In March, there was a brief scuffle when Brussels revealed a €2 coin designed to commemorate the battle. The news was not welcomed in Paris, which protested that the coin carried a “negative symbol,” one all the more distracting at a time of enormous political and economic challenges facing the European Union. The Belgian finance minister wondered why, then, France was wasting so much time over the matter, but his government nevertheless cancelled plans to put the coins into circulation. (Just last week, however, Belgium’s government, in a well-executed flanking action, announced that they would release a €2.50 coin for use exclusively in Belgium.)
According to British tabloids, undying resentment over the British victory explains the official French response. Yet, the Daily Mirror notwithstanding, the reasons for French diffidence have a different and more complex source, located in the man Hugo described as the “giant sleepwalker of a shattered dream”: Napoleon Bonaparte. Two hundred years after his final defeat, the “little corporal” continues to divide and preoccupy the French. Given Napoleon’s genius for timing, this particular anniversary unsurprisingly arrives at an ideal moment. Consumed by an increasingly polarizing debate over illegal immigrants, France might recall the example set by its most eminent — and illegal — immigrant: Napoleon.
In fact, no figure has so polarized the French as has the corporal from Corsica. Here, too, it is largely a question of timing. As one biographer, Laurent Joffrin, has suggested, if Napoleon had died in 1805, he’d have been France’s George Washington. He had laid the foundations of a secular state and fathered the Civil Code, the vast battery of laws that, above all, made all men (though women not so much), regardless of birth or wealth, equal before the law. And not in France alone: Many defeated European rulers could only agree with Napoleon’s claim: “I have sown liberty lavishly wherever I have implanted my Civil Code.”
But, of course, Napoleon also sowed war and ruled imperiously. This legacy, combining the universal ideals of the revolution with the despotic rule of an individual, explains absences other than Hollande’s at Waterloo. Consider the absence, for example, of a single boulevard in France named after the man whose huge stature, Hugo wrote, “overtopped mankind.” (It so happens that more boulevards are named after Hugo than anyone else. The novelist outdistances even Charles de Gaulle and Joan of Arc.) There is also an absence of national consensus on Napoleon. In 1981, when the magazine L’Histoire asked the French to rank their national heroes, Napoleon was the figure the public could least agree upon. While he was not lumped with the likes of Robespierre and Talleyrand (whom Napoleon famously described as “shit in a stocking”), the former emperor was a distant also-ran to Victor Hugo.
How does one mark an era — and an individual — that encompasses such contrasts? In the case of France, it appears by mostly ignoring both one and the other. While the Socialists have turned their backs to Waterloo, in 2005 the conservative government of Jacques Chirac studiously ignored the bicentennial celebration of the battle of Austerlitz, most everyone’s choice for the most spectacular of Napoleon’s victories. Neither Chirac nor his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, was present at the official ceremony at Place Vendôme, site of the only statue of Napoleon in Paris.
Villepin’s refusal to sacrifice an hour from his schedule to attend the ceremony was especially noteworthy. The former prime minister is also the author of a Napoleon hagiography titled The Hundred Days, or the Spirit of Sacrifice. In 2005, he worried that human rights organizations would denounce the government for celebrating the military victory at Austerlitz of the man who, in 1802, reinstituted slavery in the French colonies (abolished a decade earlier by the Revolution). No doubt Villepin also understood that for many French, the Napoleonic “spirit of sacrifice” cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on the altar of military glory, inaugurating France’s long decline as a world power. When asked if Napoleon’s ties to slavery dissuaded him from paying his respects at Place Vendôme, Villepin insisted he “willingly assumed all of France’s history.” Shrugging shoulders wide enough to bear such a burden, he added that there “are many Napoleons” — by which he seemed to mean France, and the world, had to acknowledge the many facets of the onetime emperor: liberator and enslaver, constitutionalist and emperor, man of peace and maker of war.
There is one Napoleon in particular we should recall while France’s government turns its back not just on Waterloo, but also on thousands of asylum seekers: Napoleone di Buonaparte, the Corsican immigrant and political refugee.
Last month, the European Union proposed to distribute some 20,000 Eritrean and Syrian refugees among its member states, asking Germany and France to assume the largest numbers. Upon learning that they were expected to welcome 6,750 refugees, the French government’s response was immediate: We’ve already done our part. Pointing to the hundreds of refugees recently settled in France, the government’s minister of European affairs, Harlem Désir, announced that France opposed the use of “quotas.”
While the government might think it is politically impossible to accept these refugees, Napoleon would remind them that the word “impossible” isn’t French. And who would know better than a man who did not speak a word of the language before the age of 9? It was then that his family, a branch of minor Corsican nobility, sent him to the “continent” for his education. Enrolled as Monsieur Neapoleonne de Bonnaparte, the young student was mocked by his schoolmates for his thick Corsican accent, as well as for hailing from a country France had recently defeated and occupied. Though he quickly mastered French, Napoleon lost neither his accent nor his attachment to his native Corsica. In 1793, as the island’s clans divided over the revolution in France, Napoleon’s own family was caught up in the intrigue and insurrections. By then a young artillery officer in the French army, Napoleon had returned to the island a few months earlier to join the Corsican National Guard. When the faction seeking the island’s independence gained the upper hand, Napoleon fled the island with his entire family, temporarily settling in Toulon where, for all intents and purposes, they were political refugees.
This background helped inspire what came to be known as the “Black Legend” — the casting of Napoleon, by both reactionaries and liberals, as a foreigner who had usurped power in France. After Waterloo, the celebrated novelist and political observer Madame de Stael, who had previously sung his praises, cursed Napoleon as the “fatal foreigner,” while the political theorist and statesman Benjamin Constant, who had jumped at Napoleon’s commission to write a new constitution in 1815, also dissed him, describing him as a “Corsican condottieri,” or bandit. Not to be outdone, the Romantic poet François-René de Chateaubriand devoted an entire pamphlet to Napoleon’s foreignness, in which he claimed that Buonaparte (Chateaubriand, in the kind of xenophobic dog whistle that should be familiar today, used the original spelling of the family name) was “neither French in his manners or character.… The language he learned in the cradle was not our own, and his accent reveals his true nationality.” He also insisted that Napoleon had predated his birth certificate so that it would show he was born after, not before, France annexed Corsica: “Strictly speaking, Buonaparte is a foreigner in France,” Chateaubriand wrote.
In short, “les birthers” existed in Restoration France two centuries before the United States sprouted its own, less gifted, more toxic variety. More shocking is that today’s France has lost sight of an actual and simple truth: Immigrants, including the “Corsican condottieri,” have played a vast role in the nation’s history. But such truths have no place in what now passes for politics in France. The government clearly fears that should it accept the 6,750 refugees that the EU has allotted for it, it would be yet another gust of wind into the sails of the xenophobic National Front. As one European parliamentarian complained, France quickly agreed to reinforce the military means to interdict Libyan migrant smugglers, but the moment it came to welcoming a few refugees, the government panicked.
This panic has also informed the government’s recent efforts to “dislodge” undocumented immigrants from public places. Last week, the police arrived in force at an encampment of Eritrean and Somali refugees in an immigrant neighborhood of northeastern Paris. When the refugees, along with French solidarity activists, refused to leave, the police used tear gas and forcibly carried about 80 demonstrators into police buses. With their party already mined by dissension, many Socialists were appalled by the police action. The leader of the Green Party, Cécile Duflot, who had resigned from the government last year, took note of the upcoming bicentenary in Belgium. In an op-ed published in Le Monde, she warned that if the Socialists did not adopt a more humane immigration policy, they were bound to meet their own “moral Waterloo.”
President Hollande could do worse than take a lesson from the man to whom he has often been compared thanks to their similar pear-shaped profiles: King Louis-Philippe. Upon assuming the throne in 1830, the Orléanist king understood he had no choice but to come to terms with Napoleon’s ghost. The miseries of endless war and economic distress during the last years of the Empire had by then been forgotten, giving way to nostalgia for the glories of empire. As the poet Lamartine famously sighed, “France was bored.”
In a brilliant coup de théâtre, King Louis-Philippe negotiated with Great Britain the return to Paris of Napoleon’s remains from Saint Helena, thus placing his own rule under the glorious aegis of Napoleon. When Napoleon’s coffin reached its final resting place under the dome of the Invalides in 1840, King Louis-Philippe announced: “I receive him in the name of France.” What if Hollande directed the very same words to the many thousand refugees now crowded in Europe’s reception camps — or at least to the 6,750 the EU is asking him to accept? Rather than running away from the shadow cast by the National Front, he would instead run into the arms of all that is best in the revolutionary — and Napoleonic — heritage of France.