Emmanuel Macron’s Napoleon Moment
I have always been fascinated by Napoleon Bonaparte. As a schoolboy, I read the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against, and realized that there were so many different ways of understanding him. History was not clear cut or one-sided. Was he good or bad? A great mind, a brilliant general, a visionary, or was he an arrogant egomaniac? He came to power at a crucial moment in French history. The glorious revolution of 1789 had descended into chaos. He saved it and restored order and French pride.
At this moment, France is at a crossroads again. The decapitation of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by a Muslim extremist, and other subsequent attacks, is the continuation of an existential struggle for France’s character and future. Every country has the right to decide its character. If France wishes to remain an open and free society for all its citizens, it must fight for it. This is President Macron’s Napoleon moment.
The French Revolution, abolished, in principle, the different treatment of people according to religion or origin that had existed under the monarchy. Roman Catholicism had been the established state religion, which disadvantaged all other denominations and religions. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man guaranteed freedom and free exercise of worship, provided that it did not contradict public order. Yet antisemitism remained endemic in French society, even amongst supposed enlightened figures such as Voltaire.
Napoleon had shown sympathy for Jewish aspirations at the siege of Acre in 1799 when he published a proclamation in which he invited all the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag. Unfortunately, Napoleon’s forces lost to Britain and he could not carry out his plan.
He was the first European ruler to grant equality and the rule of law to everyone, including Jews. Of course, he was primarily concerned with France and believed that France would benefit culturally and economically from liberating Jews.
The Jews of central Europe regarded Napoleon as the major forerunner of Jewish emancipation. In Austria, Chancellor Metternich said, “I fear that the Jews will believe [Napoleon] to be their promised Messiah.” All the states that came under French authority applied Napoleon’s reforms. In Italy, the Netherlands, and the German states, the Jews were emancipated and able to act as free people for the first time in those nations. After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, the Council of Vienna reimposed all previous restrictions on Jews outside France and the restoration of discriminatory measures. And post-Napoleon France’s antisemitism was so endemic that it led to the Dreyfus Affair, Marshall Petain, and continues to this day in certain circles.
Napoleon was probably the greatest European military genius. His armies swept across the continent, winning battle after battle. But his success had the effect of forcing others to unite to destroy him. Even after defeat and exile to Elba, he was able to come back and try again with the support of his faithful armies. Finally, at Waterloo in 1815, he was brought down. Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena.
Among Napoleon’s most impressive and lasting contribution was the reform of the French legal system, known as the Napoleonic Civil Code, which became law in 1804. It was groundbreaking not just because it brought the myriad different regional legal systems together into one coherent code, but because it enshrined human rights in law in a way that the American Constitution had failed to, particularly on race. He also set up the first national system of education with secondary schools that offered scholarships for good students.
On the other hand, and relevant to our times, Napoleon was not as enlightened in his attitude toward women and reinforced patriarchal values. A father’s permission was required for the marriage of sons up to 25 and daughters up to 21. Fathers had the right to imprison their children for disobedience. Divorce for adultery was allowed only if the husband had introduced a permanent mistress into the family household or was convicted of a serious crime. A wife could be imprisoned for two years for adultery while a man could only be fined. Married and single men did not need to support illegitimate children. Women could not make legal contracts, take part in lawsuits, serve as witnesses in court or to births deaths, or marriages. They could not sell products in the markets without their husband’s consent. Frankly, those who accuse Biblical Judaism of being restrictive and petty should take a good look at Napoleon’s code written thousands of years later.
Much has changed since Napoleon’s day. Yet most significant nowadays is that Napoleon enshrined the concept of secularism in France. This vision is now being challenged and faces enormous pressure from a growing threat of radical Islamism in France. Up to now, Europe has treated the threat half-heartedly. At this moment, President Macron is talking the talk, but I doubt that he will do anything. Political expediency seems to override principle everywhere. Napoleon must be turning over in his grave.
The author is a rabbi and commentator based in New York City.