Paris – French President Emmanuel Macron will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte on Wednesday despite calls to boycott the late emperor over his record on slavery.
The landmark posed a dilemma for Macron caught between calls from nationalists to celebrate one of the most significant figures in French history and a campaign from anti-racism activists against the fabled Corsican.
“It will be a commemoration, not a celebration,” an aide told reporters on Monday on condition of anonymity.
The head of state will lay a wreath at Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalides monument in Paris and deliver a speech on the legacy of the man who overthrew the first republic and crowned himself emperor.
The aide made clear that Macron would not bow to pressure to ignore or “cancel” Napoleon.
“Our approach is to look at history in the face,” the aide said, adding that the approach meant “neither denial, nor repentance”.
France owes many things to Napoleon, who seized power in a coup in 1799, including many of the political, cultural and educational institutions that exist to this day, the aide explained.
These include the civil code, the basis of the French legal system, the school system, the central bank and the country’s highest civilian award, the Legion d’Honneur.
The aide said Macron would deliver a clear denunciation of slavery, which was re-established by Napoleon in French colonies in 1802 after being abolished under the first French republic.
“The president will say that it was an abomination, including in the context of the era,” the aide said.
Before and after he rose to power, Napoleon clocked up a series of historic military victories, most notably the Battle of Austerlitz against the larger Russian and Austrian armies.
Considered a military genius and one of the best-known characters in French history, he is still studied in military academies around the world.
Yet his war-mongering in Europe and the Middle East, his record on slavery, and sexist laws that discriminated against women have led to a re-evaluation of his place in the French historical pantheon.
Late president Jacques Chirac refused to attend the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz in 2005, while ex-prime minister Lionel Jospin published a book titled “The Napoleonic Evil”.
Over previous months, politicians on both sides of the left-right divide have weighed in, while historians have argued whether it is fair to judge Napoleon by today’s ethical standards.