By Àgnes Poirier, the author of Touché, a French woman’s take on the English, published in paperback on July 19 (THE GUARDIAN, 10/07/07):
The Economist showed him on its cover as Bonaparte on his horse after the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David, and the foreign press at large has depicted him as a Napoleonic figure, based on his short stature and authoritarian stance. But what foreign journalists seem to forget is that France boasts as many authoritarian styles as it does cheeses. Nicolas Sarkozy is not a Napoleon Bonaparte. For one thing, he has just banned mass mercy to the nation’s prisoners on this Saturday’s Bastille day, a measure that was restored by Napoleon in 1802. Besides, if the current tenant of the Elysee palace had a drop of Napoleon’s genius and vision, we would be hopeful.
Our supreme leader has actually more in common with another Napoleon – le Petit, as Victor Hugo called him. This Napoleonic miniature was Napoleon the third, the great man’s nephew, the dandy dictator and liberal emperor who ruled from 1852 to 1870. And this, my friends, is not good news for France.
Alarm bells rang in the nation’s conscience on the night of Sarkozy’s election. What was our energetic president doing? We gasped in disbelief, watching him getting out of his car on the Champs Elysees to dine at Le Fouquet’s, a kind of posh Hard Rock Cafe. He then eloped for three days on a yacht in Malta, the cost paid by tycoon Vincent Bolloré. Some of us reached for our history books. We found it all in the chapter called Second Empire. Bling culture, a coterie of rich and powerful friends in power – Sarkozy was our new Napoleon the third.
This was the ruler who presided over the Second Republic from his election as president of the republic in 1848, then reigned as a dictateur éclairé, an enlightened or liberal emperor, as he saw himself, from his coup in 1852 to his demise in 1870. This period of history, known as the Second Empire, has striking similarities to the new France.
Napoleon III believed first in himself, then in action rather than morals. This is what his supporters, the reactionary Catholics and the nouveaux riches, believed France needed. He had one objective – to make the French believe they’d get richer, and thereby resolve the social problems shaking the country. He had forged liberal economic policies based on his years in exile in the US and England. France turned bling, and gold adorned every wrist, cleavage and home. Rich bourgeois flaunted their wealth in the face of the people. His supporters relied on him to keep the “little people” quiet while they got wealthier, and the republicans’ most active representatives had to live in exile.
A young lawyer, Gambetta, a future republican leader, gave this frank assessment of Napoleon’s entourage: “Nobody knew these men before [the coup of 1852], they had no talent, no rank, no honour; they are the opportunists who always emerge during coups, the kind Cicero referred to when talking of the scum surrounding Catilina.”
Under Napoleon, the press was free in theory only, and publications that appeared too critical received friendly “warnings” from the government. Auto-censorship thus became second nature to journalists, and although great artists did emerge, they did so in exile or were at risk of being tried for “immorality”, like Flaubert and Baudelaire.
As with most things in France, eventually the people had had enough. The Paris commune was born and Napoleon fled to Kent. Although short-lived, the commune and its effect on world history proved far more important than 18 years of Napoleon III’s prosperity. Let’s hope Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a summary of France’s history to the Elysee. It could prove useful reading.