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World

Macron negotiates politically charged Napoleon commemoration

  • "Someone at the start of the 21st century does not think like someone at the start of the 19th century," he said. "Our history is our history and we accept it."
05 May 2021

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron is to lay a wreath at the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte to mark the 200th anniversary of his death on Wednesday after months of debate about the legacy of the country's most famous autocrat.

Macron waited until the last minute to announce his plans for the tricky bicentenary and is seeking to walk a middle path between those who wanted a celebration, and others who called for a boycott.

The famed Corsican is one of the most divisive figures in French history, his huge contribution to the creation of the modern state set against his imperialism and war-mongering.

But in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the emergence of a new generation of vocal anti-racism campaigners in France, Napoleon's decision to re-establish slavery in 1802 has become the focus of debate.

"It will be a commemoration, not a celebration," an aide to the French president told reporters on Monday, adding that the day's ceremonies would include a wreath-laying and a speech.

Macron has criticised recent attempts to topple statues of French figures involved in slavery, and he has condemned so-called "cancel culture" as an attempt to "erase what we are".

"Our approach is to look at history in the face," the presidential aide said, adding that the approach meant "neither denial, nor repentance".

Macron believed it was wrong to judge figures of the past by today's ethical standards, the aide added.

"Someone at the start of the 21st century does not think like someone at the start of the 19th century," he said. "Our history is our history and we accept it."

But in a speech at the Institut de France, one of many Napoleonic institutions, the French president will condemn slavery as "an abomination, including in the context of the era," the aide said.

The 43-year-old president, elected as France's youngest leader since Napoleon, will also dwell on his lasting impact on the state bureaucracy, as well as the school and legal systems.