Saturday, September 8, 2012

History: What is Napoleon's legacy in France?


Is he remembered as a neurotic dictator?  Or as a pivotal social reformer?

Mark GraysonPhD, University of Life
8 votes by Anon User, Kyle YounkinCraig Montuori(more)
Let me begin by answering your first question, on Napoleon's legacy: 

On the one hand, Napoleon's policies created the foundation for much of France's legal and social system today. For instance, the Code Napoleon is the French civil code. It forbids privileges based on birth and allows freedom of religion among other things. The metric system was also promoted and spread by Napoleon. Napoleon's efforts to emancipate the Jews of France and allow them to leave the ghettos to which they were previously constrained also represents an important advance. Politically, those who view Napoleon in a favorable light would argue that he put an end to a period of lawlessness and chaos in France. 

Critics of Napoleon insist that his ultimate legacy was bankruptcy and territorial losses for France. France's colonial losses during the period of Napoleon's rule are viewed to have weakened it significantly vis-a-vis England. Napoleon also restored slavery in France's overseas colonies. Finally, his wars are estimated to have caused millions of military and civilian deaths in France and Europe. 

A counter-argument would be that Napoleon was not responsible for the wars in which he fought -- after the French Revolution, the monarchies of Europe were bent on restoring the Bourbons to the French throne and formed coalition after coalition against France to achieve this goal. 

In response to your second question, on the way in which Napoleon is remembered in France today: 

I would argue that Napoleon is generally viewed in a favorable light, if only because so many monuments and landmarks in France still bear his mark. To give a few examples, the boulevards surrounding Paris are named after Napoleon's marshals, the Arc de Triomphe is a tribute to his victories and the Place de la Concorde a tribute to his conquest of egypt. He is buried in the Invalides, one of the most recognizable and opulent buildings in Paris. Many prominent streets are named after his military victories (Rivoli, Castiglione, Iena bridge, Austerlitz, Friedland, Wagram...) If he were considered a "neurotic dictator," this would surely not be the case. There is no Gazala or Kharkov street in Germany for example. 

That said, there is some ambiguity with regard to commemorating Napoleon. The 200th anniversary of the great victory of Austerlitz was not officially celebrated in 2005 (the Brits, however, certainly celebrated the anniversary of Trafalgar a year before that). Napoleon certainly does not have the same iconic status as Charles de Gaulle in political circles. Some of his more controversial decisions may be the reason for this (his reinstatement of slavery makes him rather unpopular in France's overseas territories...). He does however have prominent admirers, such as de Villepin (former prime minister) and Valery Giscard d'Estaing (former president), both of whom have written books on him. 


Ultimately, though he is not celebrated as a national hero, I would argue that Napoleon is remembered in a fairly positive light in the minds of the French people, and that his imprint on modern France is unavoidable.

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