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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-05-07

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Is Macron fated to follow in the footsteps of Napoleon?

Spotlight

By Simon Tisdall

News of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte in exile on St Helena, 200 years ago this week, did not reach London until July 1821 – but the press reacted swiftly. “Thus terminates the most extraordinary life yet known to political history,” the Times declared. France’s deposed emperor, who seized power in a 1799 coup and was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815, was a “destroyer of the rights of nations … [who] extinguished liberty in France and had no hold upon his subjects but their love of military glory”. As now, the French were ambivalent. “A soldier who, by the force of genius alone … gives tranquillity to a disturbed society and dictates his laws to sovereigns, appears to the world as a wonderful person, and the earth is silent before him,” one Parisian newspaper said. Napoleon divides opinion. The “Corsican ogre”, as his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, knew him, was idolised by anti-establishment romantics such as Byron and Shelley. Victor Hugo and the young Disraeli worshipped the ideal of the “restless, doomed hero”. For many years, fans on both sides of the Atlantic denied he was really dead. They awaited a glorious return. For Anglophobes in postcolonial America, Britain’s “harsh decree” banishing “this illustrious captive” to a remote island was as mistaken as his invasion of Russia. In 2002, Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister, praised Napoleon as a modern Alexander who exemplified the French “spirit of resistance” later reincarnated in another totemic military leader, General Charles de Gaulle. Quoted by Robert and Isabelle Tombs in their study of Anglo-French relations, That Sweet Enemy, Villepin said Napoleon nourished “the French dream … the idea we have of ourselves: an authoritative state, contempt for parties and compromise, a shared taste for action, obsession with … the grandeur of France … and dignity in defeat”. This particular, conservative version of France and Frenchness plainly resonates with today’s occupant of the Élysée. Mocking comparisons are drawn between the similarly youthful, energetic Emmanuel Macron and the world’s best-known, hyperactive seeker after “la gloire”. Politically speaking, Macron – like Bonaparte – came from nowhere. While Macron is no tyrant, there is something veritably Napoleonic about how he views his country’s place in the world. Addressing the École de Guerre in Paris last year, he laid out an expansive vision for “global France” with distinct echoes of the past. His aim, he said, was “true French sovereignty”. Defence and foreign policies must “enable us to master our own destiny”. This was “not incompatible with our desire to develop European capabilities”. You can almost hear Napoleon clapping. Macron urged enhanced European “strategic autonomy”. In a fast-changing world, “stability in Europe requires more than the comfort provided by a transatlantic convergence with the US”. This “Europe first” approach, including an army distinct from “brain-dead” Nato, has a grandeur if not a grandiosity that is palpably imperial. It has often left Germany’s leaders, heirs to those tardy Prussians of old, trailing in his wake. The Americans frankly hate it. Macron’s international activism, diplomatic and military, keeps France in the game as England, its oldest rival, slides towards irrelevance. He has sent French forces into west Africa and the Sahel, Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, once again confronting neo-Ottoman Turkey. His confident interventionism recalls Tony Blair, pre-Iraq. There are big downsides. In December, for example, Macron hosted Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt’s despotic leader, prioritising trade and defence ties over human rights. In the Sahel, he coddles dictators. This is cynical pragmatism at its most inglorious. Revisiting another old battlefield, Macron has offered a new strategic relationship to Vladimir Putin even as London and Washington switch to cold-war mode. He insists, unpersuasively, that France is an “Indo-Pacific rim power” that China dare not ignore. The country’s 2021 defence review underscored Macron’s view that France and Europe cannot allow themselves to be squeezed between competing great powers. “Macron believes that heightened US-China competition and the erosion of multilateralism call for a stronger EU,” wrote analyst Jean-Loup Samaan. “[He] believes that, despite the Biden presidency, American retrenchment from the world stage is a long-term trend.” Polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations suggests the public concurs. Two-thirds of respondents agreed Europe should look to its own defence capabilities rather than rely primarily on the US. In France, the figure was up to 70%. Amazingly, in post-EU Britain, it reached 74%. Yet for all his focus on global grandeur, Macron’s 2022 re-election hopes falter. He is level-pegging with the far right’s Marine Le Pen. Pandemic gloom, economic hardship, and unassuaged fears of Islamist terrorism are hurting him. Nor can Napoleon necessarily help. Anniversary events have been overshadowed by revisionist claims that Boney was a shameless misogynist who backed slavery and destroyed the republic. The old ambivalence persists. Macron suffered another ghostly visitation last week – a trumpet call by retired senior officers for a military takeover to save France from “civil war”. In short, a Napoleon-style putsch. The government was scandalised, but a poll found most people supported the idea. The coup was fantasy. But it raises a question: is Macron fated to be France’s new “restless, doomed hero”, destined like his illustrious predecessor to re-play the “dignity in defeat” storyline? Whoever you are, whatever you say, there’s no escaping history.

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