Napoleon's star dimmed on anniversary of Austerlitz

2nd December 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 2 (AFP) - On the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's epoch-making victory at Austerlitz, the French government was being accused of political correctness Friday for failing to join commemorations for perhaps the most glorious battle in the country's military history.

PARIS, Dec 2 (AFP) - On the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's epoch-making victory at Austerlitz, the French government was being accused of political correctness Friday for failing to join commemorations for perhaps the most glorious battle in the country's military history.

Neither President Jacques Chirac nor Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin were to take part in an evening parade at the Place Vendôme in central Paris, while Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie's visit to the battlefield in the modern-day Czech Republic was being described as purely private.

By contrast critics pointed ironically to France's enthusiastic participation in joint ceremonies with Britain earlier this year to mark the bicentenary of the naval battle of Trafalgar -- which was one of the nation's most crushing defeats.

Historians, editorialists and right-wing politicians chastised the government for bowing to the fashion for "self-flagellation" and refusing to grant Napoleon's stunning 1805 defeat of the Austro-Russian alliance its due place of honour in French and European history.

"Is the duty of memory supposed to be selective?" asked author Jean des Cars in the conservative daily Le Figaro. "One can only wonder when the commemorations for Napoleon's most famous victory are marked with such painful discretion."

"The truth is that it is not the done thing today to celebrate the victories of Napoleon," lamented France-Soir.

"But Austerlitz does not just belong to its general-in-chief ... The 9,000 French soldiers who fell there died for their homeland, and did so while crushing a coalition of aristocrat nations bent on subjugating France and restoring the old order."

For Lionnel Luca, of Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, "The worst of it is this modern trend for repentance at all costs," while his colleague Andre Santini said the absence of an official commemoration was "a sign of a France in decline, a France which forgets its past."

The government's edginess appeared to be linked to an increasingly bitter debate in France over the country's recent past, and accusations that negative aspects of both the Napoleonic and colonial periods have been airbrushed from the textbooks.

The row -- which was given added spice by last month's rioting in France's high-immigration suburbs -- centres partly on a law passed by the National Assembly in February enjoining history teachers to stress the "positive role of the French presence overseas, especially in north Africa."

This has been attacked by the left as a blatant attempt to rewrite the past at the expense of black and Arab indigenous populations.

But at the same time a controversial book has brought Napoleon into the firing-line of anti-racist groups for the first time. In 'The Crime of Napoleon' Claude Ribbe says the emperor was a genocidal dictator who exterminated blacks in the Caribbean and even used rudimentary gas-chambers in the holds of ships.

"All the facts contained (in the book) are known to historians but are willfully overlooked," writes Ribbe, a black academic who sits on a government panel on human rights.

According to the Collective of Overseas French, Napoleon was also guilty of laws banning blacks from mainland France and inter-racial marriages. And by his 1802 order re-authorising the "triangular" trade after it was banned in the revolution, he consigned "200,000 Africans to slavery and more than a million to death."

Angry at what it says is official complaisance in the myth of Napoleonic glory, the collective has called for a protest demonstration in Paris Saturday -- even as thousands of enthusiasts are reenacting Austerlitz at the battle scene hundreds of kilometres to the east.

But many historians are concerned that obsessions of the moment are obscuring the task of objective analysis, and accuse the government of weakly bending to the political wind. "Two and a half centuries of French history have just been consigned to the rubbish-bin," wrote the internationally renowned Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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