The French establishment was confused on 2 December about how to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz. While we’d have expected to see a commemoration similar to that of Trafalgar in the UK this October, last month’s riots have made the government edgy about offending France’s racial minorities.
Historians such as Claude Ribbe have recently attacked the fact that Napoleon remains so revered in France — after all, he gassed rebel slaves in Haiti, forbade “people of colour” to enter France and re-introduced slavery to the Empire in 1802. French politicians have always preferred to focus on his success in spreading the Code Civil throughout Europe — but this attitude has become an embarrassment for an establishment worried about racial tensions.
As a result, de Villepin (who wrote a book about Napoleon, The Spirit of Sacrifice) and Chirac were forced to absent themselves from the official celebrations. The defence minister did lay a wreath on the battlefield “only to honour the military accomplishment” — as if they’d celebrate the successes of someone they disapproved of!