There's been a distinct touch of 'Forward into the 19th century!' about the past week. While Britain was replacing four decades of moderated European partnership with a Palmerstonian bray of 'Send in a gunboat', Emmanuel Macron was laying a wreath beneath the soaring dome of Les Invalides and urging his countrymen to reassess a leader about whom, on the 200th anniversary of his death, they remain uncharacteristically conflicted, embarrassed and reticent.
These days, the visitors to Napoleon Bonaparte's magnificent red marble tomb on Paris's Left Bank are predominantly foreign tourists. The first time I went, as a boy in the 1960s, there was a joke doing the rounds. Why, it was asked, was the tomb sunk below the level of the main floor? Answer: to leave room for Charles de Gaulle to place his even grander sarcophagus on top of Napoleon's.
Not for the first time, le général duly confounded expectations, and took his eternal repose in the churchyard of his home village, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises in the Haute-Marne. But the very fact that this was a matter for levity, especially levity shared with foreigners, was a measure of the ambivalence the French feel towards their most ambitious and volatile leader. You can't imagine such frivolity at a memorial to, say Jeanne d'Arc, Henry IV, or Jean Moulin. Or even Johnny Hallyday.
In a country where any Frenchman (and I do mean 'man') who has succeeded in combing his hair without serious mishap can expect to have streets, squares and schools named after him, you look in vain for Rue Napoleons or Boulevards Bonaparte. Every village bigger than a farmyard has public places named for Balzac, Hugo, Voltaire, Pasteur, Debussy and, indeed, de Gaulle. But not for l'Empereur who, for 16 blistering years, made France the most dangerous and dynamic power on earth, and who cut the template for 19th-century imperial adventurism. Paris has but one solitary, and unglamorous, Rue Bonaparte: named for Napoleon III, the little Corsican's nephew.
Whenever France wants to summon up its past glories, mourn its lost generations, preen itself before the gaze of the world, or rattle its military technology, it hastens to the Arc de Triomphe to do so. But there is rarely reference made to the man who commissioned the great monument and, for that matter, ordained much of the military choreography enacted in its shadow. He is not exactly an un-person: it is simply that the French find it easier not to talk about him.
When they do, the views come from starkly opposed viewpoints. Since the regrettable division of historians into left and right now seems immutable, we can reluctantly say that admirers of Napoleon are generally to be found on the right. The case they make for him is powerful: that he consolidated and propelled the principles of the Revolution so as to turn France from a mire of rustic backwaters into a centralised power that briefly bestrode what was then the civilised world; that he won office by routing a nascent royalist comeback; that he commanded a transformed military with brilliance and daring, until he bit off more than he could chew; that France's peerless museums and galleries owe much of their treasury to his imperial pillage; and that he left behind an imperishable civic legacy, in the form of codified laws, a Council of State, a central bank (built on the work of a Scot, John Law), a National Audit Office, Chambers of Commerce, metric measurements, freedom of worship, a culture of scientific inquiry, and a hyper-achieving system of higher education.
I list these in an ungainly single sentence to convey the magnitude, and the diversity, of what he accomplished in his meagre decade-and-a-half of command. He was always much more than just the bumptious little general of British propaganda, with his hand inside his coat. And yet the case to be made against him, though revisionist in some respects, is no less powerful than that in his favour.
It begins with the charge that his vainglorious military adventures cost as many as 700,000 French lives, and united much of Europe against France in the humiliating defeat at Waterloo. Bonaparte was forged by the 1789 Revolution, squashed an aristocratic resurgence, and sought to purge his European neighbours of feudalism as the Revolution had purged France: yet, his coronation as Emperor at Notre-Dame in 1804 was as overblown as any monarch's, and he left in his wake a period of dynastic monarchy, albeit constitutional and cautious.
While the scope of his institutional legacy is nowhere disputed, its merits are. The Civil Code provided France with a clear and lucid rubric of principles that continue to underpin French law. But it replaced the Revolution's radical emancipation of women with an attitude of benign subjugation, also enduring, which held that women are to be lovingly curated rather than empowered.
Worse, from a 21st-century perspective, Bonaparte was a harsh, exploitative and callously racist ruler of his empire. Uprisings in the French West Indies colonies of Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue were crushed with the same brutal ruthlessness that also extinguished his opponents back in France. Worst of all, in 1802 he ordered the reinstatement of slavery, abolished in 1794 in the afterglow of the Revolution, and which would remain in force across the colonial Francosphere until 1848. No other colonial power, having accepted an end to slavery, repented of its own decency.
The age of empires everywhere looks different now from how it looked at the time. Pride in an imperial past has faded in France, as in Britain, with the passing of the generations. It could be argued that France today is more engaged in its colonial responsibilities than other ex-imperial powers. Switch on French TV at any hour, and you will see lively reports and documentaries from Guadeloupe, Réunion or Martinique, and the inhabitants of 'Overseas France' have rights of democratic representation and participation like the rest of the populace.
But it is more than a modern distaste for colonialism that tarnishes Bonaparte's reputation as Emperor. The slavery restoration cannot have looked much better then than it does now. Lionel Jospin, the former Prime Minister, wrote one of many revisionist histories (The Napoleonic Evil
). He accuses Bonaparte of 'perverting the ideas of the Revolution' and enforcing 'extreme domination'. Another critic, historian Claude Ribbe, says: 'We can commemorate him, but never celebrate him'.
Recent French Presidents have been reluctant to do even that, boycotting successive Napoleonic anniversaries. Which is why Macron's appearance at Les Invalides was significant. Some saw it as a cynical overture to right-wing voters. Macron, as only he can, trod a delicate path.
Napoleon, he said, was at once 'the soul of the world and the devil of Europe'. Against his shameful support for slavery, must be set a life that 'gives us a taste of what is possible if we accept the invitation to take risks'.
'We take responsibility for all,' Macron concluded. 'We are not engaged in an exalted celebration, but in an exalted commemoration'.
Yes, well… you can push this risk-taking business too far.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster