Napoleon Isn’t a Hero to Celebrate

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Institutions in France should pay more attention to their country’s history of slavery instead of honoring an icon of white supremacy.

After a year in which statues of enslavers and colonizers were toppled, defaced or taken down across Europe and the United States, France has decided to move in the opposite direction. The year 2021 is being hailed by many museums and institutions in the country as the “Year of Napoleon” to commemorate France’s biggest tyrant, an icon of white supremacy, Napoleon Bonaparte, who died 200 years ago on the island of Saint-Helena on May 5, 1821.

Dozens of events are planned in his honor. The largest will happen this spring, when the Réunion des Musées Nationaux opens its Exposition Napoléon in Paris.

As a Black woman of Haitian descent and a scholar of French colonialism, I find it particularly galling to see that France plans to celebrate the man who restored slavery to the French Caribbean, an architect of modern genocide, whose troops created gas chambers to kill my ancestors.

First, some history: In 1794, in the wake of the revolution that transformed France from a monarchy into a republic — and after an enormous slave rebellion ended slavery on the French island of Saint-Domingue (today, Haiti) — France declared slavery’s abolition throughout its territory. But in 1802, Napoleon was in charge and reversed that decision, making France the only country to ever have brought back chattel slavery after abolishing it. The repercussions of Napoleon’s actions lasted long after he was finally removed from power in 1815: The French only definitively re-abolished slavery in 1848.

The French public ordinarily obfuscates, ignores or isn’t aware of this history. This is because the French education system, which I taught in from 2002 to 2003, encourages the belief that France is a colorblind country with an “emancipatory history.” When French schools do teach colonial history, they routinely tout that the country was the first of the European world powers to abolish slavery. They usually leave out or gloss over how and why slavery was re-established eight years later by Napoleon, who used the justification that if he did not reinstate it, sooner or later, the “scepter of the New World” would “fall into the hands of the Blacks.”

Although Napoleon also destroyed the very republic the French claim to revere when he made himself emperor in 1804, it is still common for the French to lionize him as a hero, even if an unlikable one, who not only stomped all over Europe at the Battle of Austerlitz, but also created the Bank of France, the modern legal code and the education system still in use. “To know Napoleon is to understand the world in which we live,” the exposition’s official landing page declares. He is a “fascinating character who fashioned today’s France.”

The implication that the Black lives Napoleon destroyed matter less than the French institutions he built has led to some controversy. In February, the ethnic minority staff members at La Villette, the site of the exhibition, threatened to strike over the homage to the man whom scholars of slavery rightfully regard as an irredeemable racist, sexist and despot.And although only a small concession, I was also invited by the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery to contribute to a short video explaining how the Haitian revolutionaries defeated Napoleon’s troops at the Battle of Vertières.

What needs more elaboration, however, is the role that the French people played in their country’s violent return to slavery. This did not result solely from the capricious whim of one terrible dictator. French legislators and the French Army, with broad support from the public, upheld Napoleon’s actions, demonstrating the enduring incoherence of French republicanism.

In addition to ending France’s war with Britain, in the March 1802 Treaty of Amiens, the British ceded Martinique and other territories where slavery had never been abolished back to the French. The government in Paris therefore needed to either admit these territories into the Republic as slave colonies or end slavery in them, too.