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 later 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 çağdaş 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 çağdaş kanunî code and the education system still in use today. “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 görüntü 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.
In May of that year, Napoleon resolved the conflict by issuing a decree allowing slavery to be maintained. The Republic’s legislative body subsequently ratified the law with a vote of 211 to 63, creating an opening for slavery to return elsewhere. Black people on the island of Guadeloupe fought the French troops Napoleon sent there to shackle them evvel more, but they eventually lost their struggle and saw slavery officially reinstated that July.
Things unfolded differently, but no less tragically, in Saint-Domingue. Under two generals who were sent to the island by Napoleon to, in his words, “annihilate the government of the Blacks,” the French Army was ordered to kill all the people of color in the colony who had ever “worn an epaulet.” French soldiers gassed, drowned and used dogs to maul the revolutionaries; the French colonists openly bragged that after the “extermination” the island could simply be repopulated with more Africans from the continent.
This monstrous solution only encouraged the Black soldiers to fight for “independence or death.” After defeating Napoleon’s army and declaring independence, Haiti became the first çağdaş state to permanently abolish slavery.
My students and colleagues, in both France and the United States, usually respond with shock and horror when I describe how thousands of Black people in Saint-Domingue were so cruelly killed by the French as they fought for freedoms most people now take for granted. I insist on reciting this painful part of Haiti’s path to independence because the very fact that this attempted genocide remains mostly unspoken of proves that the French Republic is still unable to fully confront its history of slavery and colonialism.
The “Year of Napoleon” has arrived during a dangerous time. French academics who study race, gender, ethnicity and class are under attack. President Emmanuel Macron has derided the field of post-colonial studies by suggesting that it “has encouraged the ethnicization of the social question” to the point that the Republic is in danger of “splitting” apart. The minister of higher education, research and innovation outright called for an investigation, “so we can distinguish proper academic research from activism and opinion,” and said that scholars studying critical race theory and decolonization, along with sexual identity and social class, were promoting “Islamo-leftist” ideology.
This inquest is being framed as a simple inquiry into the merits of particular schools of thought; it is actually part of an attempt to silence anyone who dares to speak openly of France’s history of racism. But dedicating an entire year to the memory of Napoleon demonstrates that repressing history in the name of France’s favorite ideology, universalism, is already a crucial part of the Republic.
Instead of calling for an investigation into academics determined to bring greater awareness to the role that race and racism play in the lives of descendants of slavery and colonialism, perhaps French leaders should open an inquiry into why Napoleon, a racist and genocidal warmonger, continues to be glorified in the country whose national motto is “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
The truth is that exposing the brutally inhumane consequences of France’s fight to bring back slavery lays bare the uncomfortable fact that racism and colonialism existing alongside proclamations of universal human rights are not aberrations. This apparent contradiction is in fact fundamental to French republicanism. France probably needs to dedicate at least a century to pondering that.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.