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Paul Taylor, Contributing Editor of POLITICS, writes the column Europe At Large.
PARIS – France is suffering from an acute dose of commemoration.
The French spend an enormous amount of time and public money commemorating their history, building museums and, of course, arguing. Presidents love to speak at grandiose ceremonies in which they project themselves as the embodiment of the nation and the heirs of its great leaders.
None more than Emmanuel Macron, the youngest president of France and the first to be born after the end of his colonial wars, whose declared objective is to “pacify memories”.
Macron never misses an opportunity to shape the national story (“national history”), from a 100-year-long, one-week tour of World War I monuments in 2018, even as Yellow Jacket protesters barricaded presses across the country, at Simone’s burial ceremony Veil, the Auschwitz survivor who, as Minister of Health, legalized abortion, at the Pantheon – a secular temple in Paris whose facade is inscribed “A grateful nation honors its great men.”
But as next year’s presidential election draws near, arguments over who, what and how to commemorate turn into a political minefield.
Two anniversaries, in particular, illustrate these sensitivities: the 200th anniversary of the death of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on May 5 and the 150th anniversary this spring of the Paris Commune, a short-lived leftist / utopian uprising in the aftermath of the defeat. and the fall. of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian war. Politicians and public intellectuals are crossing swords as to which of these non-events is worth commemorating.
These debates are a proxy war over issues of race, class and identity. There are echoes of cultural wars in the United States over the removal of monuments to Confederate generals, in Great Britain over the overthrow of statues linked to the slave trade, and in Spain over the exhumation of dictator Francisco Franco from the tomb of his hero.
Should the revolutionary general become emperor be celebrated as the man who modernized state institutions and the legal code and, in the French narrative, spread the values ââof the Enlightenment and the egalitarianism of the French Revolution through the ‘Europe by the sword? Or should Napoleon be shunned as a dictator who restored slavery and subjugated much of Europe through war, only to lose everything?
Likewise, much ink is being spilled on the advisability of glorifying the egalitarian and anticlerical anarchy of the Municipality of 1871, pioneer of compulsory free education, women’s rights and the ownership of businesses by workers – or of repel a chaotic revolt that lasted barely two months and ended in a bloodbath, famine and the burning of national monuments including the Tuileries Palace.
Tell me what you commemorate and I’ll tell you who you are. Or rather, what is your policy.
For the left, the Commune is an ideological base, a heroic defeat which was a founding moment of a century of class struggle and, above all, a lasting reason to hate the reactionary bourgeoisie embodied by Adolphe Thiers, who ordered the merciless crushing of the Communards by troops sent from Versailles.
The right, for its part, venerates Napoleon as the example of French power and glory, evoking with the airbrush the monumental toll of the Napoleonic wars, estimated between 3 and 6 million soldiers and civilians across Europe. . The skyline of Paris is shaped by his heritage, with the Arc de Triomphe celebrating his victories and the golden dome of the Invalides crowning his tomb.
His defeats litter the national vocabulary: âA Berezinaâ is a catastrophic rout named after the battle which followed his retreat from Moscow; âA Trafalgar coupâ is a sudden turnaround like the destruction of the French fleet; and “know your Waterloo” will know the final defeat.
Asked about the events that France should mark this year, the liberal historian Pierre Nora declared on France Inter radio: “Yes to Napoleon, no to the Commune”. Cutting the hair in four, he suggested the nation should celebrate Bonaparte – the early years of reform and nation-building – rather than Napoleon, the warlord.
These debates predate this busy year of anniversaries. In Macron’s attempt to reconcile the French with the darker sides of their history and promote a more modern, diverse and gender-balanced vision of national identity, the French president last year commissioned two historians from foreground as deminers, responsible for plugging in some of the black holes in French memory.
Benjamin Stora, born into an Algerian-Jewish family who fled to France in 1962, last month recommended a series of measures to help heal the historic wounds opened with Algeria. These include telling the truth, belatedly, about the torture and disappearances of Algerian nationalists, opening long classified archives and restoring symbols and remains. The so-called “Stora Report” infuriated the surviving settlers driven out of Algeria and their descendants, but was also criticized in Algeria for not advocating an apology or compensation for what Macron himself called the “crimes against humanity âof colonization.
Meanwhile, colonialist historian Pascal Blanchard led a panel that earlier this month presented 318 names of personalities from French overseas territories, former colonies and immigrant communities worthy of honor. with names of streets and monuments. Most French streets and buildings are named after white men, and Blanchard’s efforts are aimed at introducing more diversity. But any decision to change these plates will have to be made by mayors and local councils.
The two reports fueled rather than appeased cultural wars over French history and identity – but perhaps that was the point.
Macron takes a stand opposite to his opponents: to embody the triumphs, sacrifices and diversity of French history while acknowledging his darkest acts (without, however, formally apologizing). This contrasts flatteringly with right-wing opponents who end up painting themselves in a historical nationalist corner by refusing to distance themselves from colonialism, and left-wing opponents who demand atonement and a bonfire from the imperfect national heroes of the history of France.
Macron is right to say that history cannot be set in stone forever. Perhaps the best way to come to terms with the past is to add new monuments rather than tearing down the old ones.