Struggling France reembraces Napoleon

Mingling with extras in historical costumes and fans who called him “His Imperial Highness,” Charles Napoleon sipped from a plastic cup and said matter-of-factly: “I gave my spit to be analyzed.”

The affable businessman was referring to a recent study by a French scientist that matched his DNA to that of his great-great-grand-uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte I.

Yes, that Napoleon Bonaparte.

The study, part of an effort to reconstruct the genome of the 19th century emperor, may eventually help solve the mystery of whether the remains preserved in Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides museum in Paris are really his.


Napoleonic DNA was just one focus of avid discussion at recent festivities here marking the 198th anniversary of one of Napoleon’s last military victories.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy had just declared his candidacy for reelection, and comparisons were made between the emperor and today’s similarly height-challenged and ambitious leader. There was also chatter about the new exhibit of lesser-known Napoleon battle paintings at Versailles.

The piece de resistance: the mayor’s plan for a Napoleon theme park on the outskirts of Montereau-fault-Yonne, complete with snowy battle reenactments and a ride in the shape of Napoleon’s famous arched hat.

In this town 50 miles southeast of Paris, where cannonballs from the 1814 battle with Austrian forces and their allies are still being uncovered, “Napoleon is an especially big deal,” said Daniel Thuillier, 70, who volunteers at the local tourist office.

“We learned about him in school. We were soaked in Napoleon,” Thuillier said. “We also know there are some who criticize and are against him.”

But Napoleon, he said, remains a hero: “He created France’s splendor.”

As economic crises and global competition seem to be striking their hardest, the French are having something of a Napoleon moment.

Yes, the hero’s grandiose ambitions led to war after war, countless deaths and, finally, the collapse of his empire. But many in France are focusing on the positive aspects of his reign, notably his influence as a modernizing force in Europe.

For those who see him as a symbol of shining, albeit brief, glory, Napoleon is a source of pride, even an inspiration, as they watch their country and the European Union struggle to adapt to new economic realities.

“In a world in crisis like ours, I’m convinced that a better understanding of history is part of the remedies that give nations and people the strength and the cohesion to face an ever-uncertain future,” Mayor Yves Jego said. “People without history don’t weather storms.”

Jego, who is also a conservative member of the French Parliament, said the story of Napoleon could give the nation something to hold on to during times of hardship. And why not tell it through an amusement park? he asked.

The idea is not to vaunt a bygone glory, Jego insisted, but rather “to give a little pride to France, to show that the figure of their history has an international dimension,” and to use “innovative” ways to illuminate his unappreciated sides.

For all his flaws, Napoleon was “a legal authority of great standing, an extraordinary conqueror, an incredible soldier, strategist and a romantic,” Jego said.

“I think that history should be shared with the people,” he said. “And visiting a historic park is more enriching than visiting a park about a cartoon character, however great he is.”

Although details are sketchy, plans call for the theme park to reproduce famous battles and the way of life during the Napoleonic era, using classic amusement park rides, digital images or interactive video games and old-fashioned performances with horses and actors.

One sketch shows a giant N-shaped water feature running through a landscape sprinkled with carefully trimmed parks typical of the period, castles, a cathedral, a small mountain range and a likeness of the Sphinx.

“There is the Egyptian campaign. The pyramids, of course, immediately come to mind as things we can imagine, as mysteries to discover,” Jego said. “And, of course, all the Russian epoch with the cold and snow. But also in Napoleon history, you have the West Indies!”

Some visitors might not view that particular part of Napoleon’s legacy with enthusiasm. He reinstated slavery in the islands, after it had been abolished during the French Revolution.

Then there were the wars Napoleon waged in a tireless quest to expand France’s territory toward the end of his military career.

“A country which can still partly revere such a man surely has a problem,” wrote Stephen Glover of Britain’s Daily Mail, describing Napoleon as “a man whose actions led to the deaths of millions of people — and whose defeat paved the way for British 19th century supremacy, reducing France to the rank of a second-rate power where, let us be honest, it has remained.

“If we were unfortunate enough to have a Napoleon Bonaparte lurking in our past,” he wrote, “I can’t imagine that many of us would smile on a plan to erect a theme park in his name.”

Nonetheless, project organizers have the backing of the French government and the Napoleon Institute, which includes some of the foremost historians of the era.

A planning group that includes historical experts is developing an outline of the project to present to potential investors. Organizers are looking to raise $265 million to $330 million and hope to begin construction in 2014. The park is expected to attract foreign tourists, especially from China.

French historians have also been taking a second look at Napoleon’s legacy.

Because Napoleon seized control of the republic established after the French Revolution and restored the monarchy, “for a long time he was a person that wasn’t well viewed in universities,” said historian Jacques-Olivier Boudon. “It’s still true, but less so.”

Now historians are “realizing the republican model is not the only model, and that there were other ways of progressing politically and culturally,” he said. “The empire is also seen through its positive angles,” including its creation of the Napoleonic Code, which established principles of freedom and equality inspired by the French Revolution that are still in place today.

Charles Napoleon, a member of the Socialist Party, says he is “not a Bonapartist” or a believer in “dynasties,” and that a theme park should present an accurate picture of his ancestor’s legacy.

“Of course, the restoration of slavery is distant from our values, and the fact that we abhor the idea of war … we have a hard time understanding all of that today. But we need to start by understanding,” he said. “And then judge.”

No matter how often proponents of the project said it would show all the faces of France’s former emperor, a palpable sense of pride in their lost hero was evident at the recent festivities in Montereau.

“France seems to have forgotten how much this hero can be the bearer of its splendor,” read an anonymous comment in a booklet about the park.

On the cover were three words: “Napoleon is back.”

Lauter is a special correspondent.