In the Grande Halle de la Villette on the outskirts of Paris, the trappings of an emperor are gathered, including magnificent outfits, weapons, medals, porcelain and a monumental wedding carriage.
The question, as the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death approaches on Wednesday next week, is when anyone is to 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, were put on hold.
While the French government hopes to reopen cultural sites by the middle of next month, epidemiologists have said that such a move might be premature.
However, it is not just COVID-19 creating awkward timing for the bicentennial.
The increasing focus on France’s racial policies and colonial past have 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, a 5 million euro (US$6 million) grand spectacle at La Villette, set to display the 1802 orders — rediscovered in 2007 — for the first time.
Historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, who has written a book on the slave trade, says 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 National Assembly. The fate of the slaves themselves no doubt bothered him very little,” she said.
Former French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Foundation for the Abolition of Slavery, agreed.
“Napoleon acted as he did in all things: without emotion or morals,” he said. “Napoleon was a cynic.”
Napoleon has always divided opinion. While it is difficult to travel anywhere in France without seeing streets named after Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur or Charles de Gaulle, there are only a handful of side streets dedicated to L’Empereur.
For many, he was a warmonger who left millions dead across Europe and a despot who turned the ideals of the revolution into a vehicle for his personal ambitions.
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 on the island of Elba and a 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 in the world, English rival the Duke of Wellington said: “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.”
While the exhibitions might 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.
France’s own leaders have often despised Napoleon.
Then-French president Jacques Chirac pointedly refused to attend the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz in 2005, while former French prime minister Lionel Jospin celebrated that of his exile by publishing a book titled The Napoleonic Evil.
French President Emmanuel Macron, known for his en meme temps (“at the same time”) approach to thorny questions, has typically indicated that he would take a nuanced approach.
Facing election next year, it is a delicate balancing act. Macron’s office said that he would address “this major figure in our history ... with open eyes.”
With the pandemic still sucking up political attention, it is unclear what this would mean.
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