All nations have figures and events in their past about which they are divided. For the British, of course, it is the Empire.
In the case of the French, the most divisive issue is not their own imperial project, but the character and legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte.
For some, he was a soldier and ruler, a brilliant visionary who made France great, while others say he was a tyrant and autocrat, and France should be ashamed of a man like Hitler or Little better than Putin.
Napoleon is the subject of another big-budget biopic recently released. Directed by Radley Scott, Joaquin Phoenix plays the role of Big Man, but if the stories of Napoleon’s short stature are to be believed, not so big a man.
And Vanessa Kirby plays his Empress Josephine. The film depicts the couple’s relationship against the tumultuous backdrop of Napoleon’s rise to power.
Although the film was well received by Anglophone (British) critics, some French were not happy with Scott’s story.
French viewers saw it as a reflection of historical blunders. Among them is Emilie Ruby, curator of the military museum at Les Invalides, who pointed out that Napoleon was not present at Marie Antoinette’s ceremony, nor did he accompany his men, nor did he fire on the Egyptian pyramids. .
Other French critics criticized the film for being ‘anti-French and pro-British’ and for focusing too much on Napoleon’s relationship with his wife.
Le Figaro said that the figure that emerges is ‘simple-minded, average and ridiculous’, and nothing more than a Corsican devil, a sadist and mean to his wife’.
Scott did not take such criticism well, and when asked if Phoenix, 49, was too old to play someone half his age? So he said he didn’t care and the interviewer should ‘tell your historians.’
When it was pointed out that the film was historically inaccurate, Scott even resorted to excuses like, ‘My answer is how do you know? Were you there?’
Such a response is, of course, antithetical to historical effort, and as absurd as a detective in a murder telling that he does not know the truth. (It’s called Evidence) But just as the film proved divisive, so did the character of Napoleon himself, a figure that still divides France today.
As with the British Empire, it is a fairly easy task for opponents to build a case. Among those who don’t have much time for Napoleon is former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who once told Newsweek that he was ‘struck by the difference between Napoleon’s greatness and the real results in France and Europe. are surprised.’
Jospin’s talk has tail. Although Napoleon certainly achieved great military success, when he failed, he failed many times.
Director Ridley Scott and actor Joaquin Phoenix attend a screening of their film Napoleon in Madrid on November 20, 2023 (AFP/Oscar del Pozo)
The Battle of Trafalgar did not go so well for Napoleon and neither did Waterloo. An estimated 500,000 French died in the Peninsular War alone.
These are the figures that were to be repeated in 1812 during Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Russia.
Such figures would have been considered enormous even in the two world wars a century or so later, but when the total population of France was only three million, a million dead was clearly catastrophic.
No wonder people like Jospin saw Napoleon as ‘an obvious failure’, who ultimately left France isolated and weak.
Napoleon’s critics also claim that by making himself king and creating a new aristocracy from members of his family, he undermined the principles of the French Revolution, which ultimately led to an illegitimate monarchy. was overturned.
Moreover, Napoleon and Josephine’s spending on the mundane things in life – such as some 40 palaces and 54,000 precious stones – made Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette positively thrifty.
Then there is the bitter truth that Napoleon died in exile, a defeated man imprisoned thousands of miles from home in the South Atlantic.
He was kept in a house on the island of St. Helena, described by one of his companions as ‘a few feet square, a smelly little place’, and of which his servants ‘ Cold, heat, damp floors and poor management’ were complained about.
No wonder the exile, including the plague of rats, drove the once mighty Napoleon almost mad.
At one point, Napoleon rebelled against the constant surveillance of his British captors by closing all the windows in his house with shutters, with pipe holes dug so that they could see out, but no one could see in. .
Death was his only release, but even that, at just 51, was the worst, as he suffered from severe stomach pains for months, either from accidental arsenic poisoning or stomach cancer.
When one thinks of British national heroes like Wellington, Nelson, and Churchill, very few died in desperation and isolation, held hostage on remote islands by our enemies.
So much for the critics. There are still many in France who revere the frail old man and say that he saved the republic.
One of the achievements he points to is the Napoleonic Code, which replaced many oppressive feudal laws, and which is the basis for many laws today in many countries.
His admirers also emphasize that Bonaparte was an extremely good administrator, with the most amazing eye for detail.
So much so that he once wrote the rules for a girls’ boarding school on the eve of a war.
In addition, he established the Bank of France, a national audit office, a system of schooling, and even the matriculation system.
It was certainly this war that Napoleon really excelled, and out of the 60 battles he fought, he lost only eight.
He also won some spectacular victories, the best of which was at Austerlitz in December 1805, in which he defeated both the Russian and Austrian empires, and after which many streets in contemporary France were named.
But of all these achievements, whether military or administrative, the greatest achievement was Napoleon himself.
He was a man who rose from a small noble family in Corsica to become the king of one of the most powerful nations in the world.
This portrait shows Napoleon in his private library at the Tuileries (Public Domain/WikiCommons)
In Britain someone like him would be born into an obscure but prosperous family on an island like Jersey and end up a mixture of both Queen Victoria and Prime Minister.
His ambitions were unparalleled. His brother once said: ‘He seems to me fit to be a tyrant, and I think that if he were a king, and his name would be a terror to those who came.’
Don’t forget, he was a man who crowned himself king. As he was only 5 feet 7 inches tall, such a style can be attributed to classic small man syndrome, but it should be emphasized that Napoleon was not particularly tall for his time.
In fact, they were of average height, and the reason they were short is because British cartoonists made them that way.
His reported height of 5 feet 2 inches, based on the inch system, was 2.7 centimeters instead of 2.54 centimeters.
As with the issue of the British Empire, the French view of Napoleon is more or less divided along party lines.
People on the right wing of the political scene see Napoleon as a hero, who built strong institutions and made France great for a long time.
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Leftists see him as a tyrant, a man who enslaved the people, ruled by dictatorship and ultimately weakened France, and, like Hitler, used the country only as a vehicle for his own ambitions. used on
While the two sides may never agree on Napoleon’s legacy, there is probably one thing all of France can agree on—Bonaparte was very, very French.
He certainly conformed to the stereotype of a typical Frenchman, not least in his intellectual pride, his disdain for the English – whom he called ‘a nation of merchants’ – and his flexible attitude to marital fidelity. .
His relationship with his queen Josephine was an example of how a French politician should treat his wife.
Napoleon was passionate about Josephine, as his letters show: ‘I hope to take you in my arms very soon,’ while in others, he showed how much he longed for Josephine.
‘I live alone and far, far away. But you’re coming, aren’t you?’
All this passion did not stop Napoleon from having women, one of whom was the wife of a fellow officer. He is said to be the father of at least two illegitimate children.
However, the infidelity in Napoleon’s marriage was not one-sided as Josephine also had many lovers. It seems that their marriage was very French.
What matters, of course, is whether being French in general is a good thing or a bad thing. This is a debate that will surely never be resolved.
‘Napoleon’ hits theaters on November 22 and will also be available to stream on Apple TV Plus.