Napoleon: A sexist, slaving autocrat or army genius?

Paris, France: The Jury on Napoleon Bonaparte is still on. He modernized France and won some of history's most prominent wars, but he also enshrined women's subordination in law and re-established slavery.

Ahead of the bicentennial of his death in exile on the remote island of St. Helena on May 5, we wonder if the man who ruled Europe and proclaimed himself Emperor was a hero or a villain...

Military strategist


Both before and after he rose to power in 1799 in a military coup, Napoleon clocked up a series of historic victories, most notably the Battle of Austerlitz.

He was regarded as a strategic genius, controlling every detail of the battlefield with an attack-based formula that exploited the enemy's vulnerabilities.

His techniques are also studied in military academies around the world.

Built modern state 

Napoleon's main legacy after coming to power was the creation and development of a modern, powerful, centralized state with a set of rules applied across national territory that became a template for today's government.

Some of the institutions he created are still present in France today.

Civil code 

Another undeniable achievement of Napoleon's was the civil code, which served as the foundation for many legal systems.

It was enacted in 1804, and it made all citizens equal before the law. In doing so, he crowned one of the French Revolution's greatest accomplishments, the abolition of feudalism.

Equality... except for women 

Now for the less glorious sides of his legacy...

Napoleon was "one of the biggest misogynists" to walk the Earth, according to France's Equality Minister Elisabeth Moreno.

The civil code enshrines the power of the man of the house over his wife and children and lays down that the wife must obey her husband.

And under an 1810 Napoleonic law, a man could not be punished for murdering his adulterous wife if she was caught in the act at home.

Re-established slavery 

The revolution abolished slavery in the French colonies in 1794 but Napoleon re-established it in 1802 when Britain handed back the Caribbean island of Martinique where the practice remained in place while it was in English hands.

It is the heaviest stain "against Napoleon's memory", writes historian Jean Tulard, while arguing that slavery was still rampant everywhere else and that Napoleon acted for economic reasons.

Buried the republic 

Opponents of Napoleon also question whether modern-day France should be celebrating the man who sounded the death knell for the country's first attempt at republicanism after the revolution.

The military coup that brought Napoleon to power led to the proclamation of the French Empire in 1804.

But supporters argue the coup safeguarded the achievements of the revolution, and that while Napoleon's style was authoritarian, he was backed by popular votes.

Inspired dictators

Historians also debate whether Napoleon was a model for 20th-century dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Mussolini.

"His authoritarianism... his sense of a strong state, his contempt for the parliamentary system, his imperialism and also his genius for propaganda all lead us to believe this," Tulard writes.

But, the historian adds, Napoleon "did not have the same murderous ideology nor the racist fervor of (some of) those touted as his successors."

Napoleon's bicentennial under the shadow of Covid and controversy

In the Grand Hall de la Villette on the outskirts of Paris, the trappings of an emperor are gathered: magnificent outfits, weapons, medals, porcelains, a monumental wedding carriage...

The question, as the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's death approaches on May 5, is when anyone will get to see them.

The English are once again involved in scuppering his celebrations, after "la variante anglaise" of Covid-19 triggered a fresh wave of the pandemic and sent France back into lockdown.

A multitude of exhibitions, featuring everything from his private boudoir at the Chateau de Fontainebleau to the Army Museum's gathering of Christ-like portraits that proliferated after his exile, was put on hold.

While the government hopes to reopen cultural sites in mid-May, epidemiologists say that may be premature.

It is not just Covid creating awkward timing for the bicentennial, however.

The increasing focus on France's racial policies and colonial past has put new emphasis on Napoleon's legacy, not least his decision to reinstate slavery in 1802, less than a decade after it was abolished under the revolution.

Organizers tackled this head-on, with the biggest exhibition, the 5 million-euro "grand spectacle" at La Villette, due to display the 1802 orders (re-discovered in 2007) for the first time.

For historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, who has written a book on the slave trade, they reflect Napoleon's heartless pragmatism, rather than outright racism, as he sought to dominate the Caribbean and its sugar trade.

"He gave into the pressures of colonial plantation owners in the Assembly. The fate of the slaves themselves no doubt bothered him very little," she told AFP.

Ex-prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Foundation for the Abolition of Slavery, agrees: "Napoleon acted as he did in all things: without emotion or morals," he told AFP. "Napoleon was a cynic."

La grandeur 

Lest this debate sounds like "cancel culture" trying to inflict a 21st century Waterloo on Napoleon, it's worth noting that he has always divided opinion.

While it is hard to open Google Maps anywhere in France without seeing the names of Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, or Charles De Gaulle running down the main drag, there are but a handful of side streets dedicated to L'Empereur.

For many, he was a war-monger who left millions dead across Europe, and a despot who turned the ideals of the revolution into a vehicle for his personal ambitions, ultimately leaving France bankrupt and occupied.

Yet, the near-incomprehensible scale of his achievements cannot be ignored: conquering Egypt and taking control of France by 30, emperor in charge of most of continental Europe by 40.

Even his failures were the stuff of legend: the hubris that led him to disaster in Russia, the astonishing escape from exile in the island of Elba and 22-day march to Paris to retake his throne, only to face a final defeat at Waterloo and sad, last days on St Helena.

Asked to name the greatest general on Earth, English rival the Duke of Wellington said: "In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon".

"Part of French society has always been impressed by the glory," Peter Hicks, of the Napoleon Foundation, told AFP. "That was the currency of the Napoleonic Empire: la grandeur. He was grandeur writ large."

France's ambivalence about Napoleon is often overstated, Hicks added. It suited later French regimes to run him down.

It has not stopped some 160 institutions, from schools to museums, from signing up for the foundation's "Annee Napoleon 2021" label.

"They are the state and they aren't fighting shy of celebrating him," Hicks said.

All this makes for rich debate, of course.

While the exhibitions may be closed, TV schedules are saturated with new documentaries, and a forest-worth of new books cover everything from Napoleon's relationship to God, favorite gardens, bouts of depression, and love letters to Josephine.

'Open eyes' 

Napoleon also holds mythical status internationally, with the foundation receiving more than a million visitors to its website every year from around the world.

In a fabulous townhouse in central Paris, collector Bruno Ledoux shows off hundreds of treasures he has fought to keep in France, and out of the hands of buyers in the US, China, and Russia, including a military camp bed and one of his five thrones, resplendent in red and gold.

He was the archetype for the modern, self-made man, said Ledoux: "Napoleon represents social mobility, that's why he is valued everywhere."

Not quite everywhere

France's own leaders have often despised Napoleon. Then-president Jacques Chirac pointedly refused to attend the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz in 2005, while ex-prime minister Lionel Jospin celebrated that of his exile by publishing a book titled "The Napoleonic Evil".

Current president Emmanuel Macron, known for his "en meme temps" ("at the same time") approach to thorny questions, has typically indicated he will take a nuanced approach.

Facing election next year is a delicate balancing act. Macron's office says he will address "this major figure in our history... with open eyes".

With the pandemic still sucking up to political attention, it is unclear what this will mean.

Share this story