Create an account
to view 3 free articles
more per month.
May 5 marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death in exile, on St. Helena Island, in the South Atlantic, in 1821. A good occasion to ask what is really left of it.
A glance at Quebecers’ perception of Napoleon reveals a lot about what defines them as a particular society.
Napoleon is a unique character in Western history. His memory remains alive today because his image and his story manage to adapt to the changing conditions of the weather. Napoleon’s personality is multi-faceted, and if one becomes less relevant at one time, such as that of a warlord, another emerges that brings him back to the forefront of public opinion.
What, in the character of Napoleon, always maintains its relevance and its permanence in our minds?
Napoleon is a being of extremes: when he declares that he loves Josephine, he is transporting mountains; when he sets out to conquer Italy or Egypt, it is France that runs after him and holds its breath. When he returns, triumphant, he parades the most prestigious war prizes torn from the enemy: the horses of Saint Mark, taken from the famous cathedral of Venice, and the Laocoon, a famous sculpture from Antiquity brought back from the Vatican Museum.
Napoleon is a character of excess: everything with him is pushed to its extreme limit. He will fight all his life: his energy and his belief in being right wins out after him. He is impetuous, willful, will stop at nothing. He never disarms in front of his adversaries, especially not the English. He still stands up to them, even when he is being held in St. Helena and his daily struggle with Governor Hudson Lowe is no longer epic.
It is this aspect of his character that has inspired generations of Quebecers. We love the Napoleon all in one piece, despite his quirks, his faults and his mistakes, because his character makes him see all the colors. Flamboyant, ardent, stubborn, Napoleon represents everything one can hope for from a man of conviction who “absorbs into his fate, the fate of mankind”, as Victor Hugo wrote.
It is this climax of the action that commands attention: why does this human phenomenon still appeal to our imaginations?
In a way, it is Jean-Marc Léger, in his book Le Code Québec (Éditions de l’Homme, 2016-2021), who puts us on a track. Mr. Léger analyzes “the seven differences that [in his words] would make us a people unique in the world”. This exercise of psychosocial analysis reveals four distinctive positive traits: happy, proud, consensual, creative, and three other rather negative traits, namely to perceive oneself as “victims”, to remain rather “undecided” and to have a “village” character. All these traits are found to varying degrees among Quebecers, while being interdependent and linked to each other.
This analysis by Mr. Léger explains in a way what leads Quebecers to choose and maintain certain myths that tell us what they are and why Napoleon remains in their imaginations.
First, Quebeckers form a society that quickly flames for its political leaders, whom they tend to publicize. “Quebec society beats at the same pace and shares the same ideas. Prime Minister Legault likes to repeat it to sell us his policies. The critical spirit is less developed there because Quebecers reassure themselves when everyone reacts en masse to the same event or the same ordeal. Quebeckers “overwhelmingly give their favor to a political leader whom they take in affection,” to whom they prefer to rely.
Perceiving themselves historically as victims, they are amazed in front of a chief who stands up and does not make quarters to his enemies. By a kind of compensatory phenomenon, Quebecers admire strong leaders who reassure them by keeping them under their leadership. The choice of the heroes they revere, such as René Lévesque in politics, Maurice Richard in sports and Celine Dion on the stage, testify to this feeling of stubbornness, even revenge, which calms the spirit and softens the frustrations.
As for the character trait that “Quebec society maintains a parochial spirit”, there is nothing more opposed to this gregarious instinct than a character like Napoleon who conquered Europe, imposed his law everywhere and occupied all the thrones of these ancient kingdoms.
Above all, he succeeded in gaining recognition for his personal genius on a world scale, on whom he sought to impose a common destiny, namely his own. We are there high above the bell tower! And we breathe the open sea …
This imaginary link with glorious France flatters the self-esteem of Quebecers. You remember this repartee from Olivier Guimond in the advertisement for a beer that we all drank: “He knows that …”
Myths are revealers of societies: all of them maintain them, both to situate their continuity in the web of history and time and to consolidate themselves in what makes their originality and their reason for enduring.
Napoleon attaches himself to what unconsciously mobilizes us because he supports us, compensates for our weaknesses in character and inspires us on the path to our destiny.
Monday through Saturday, get the gist of the news.
Yes, replies historian Thierry Lentz, who believes that nothing should however be hidden from the emperor’s past.
Is the neopuritan revolution that is raging in American universities in the process of reaching France?
From Napoleon to Champlain, how far will the heresy trials go?
Any serious historian knows very well that the Napoleon case is one of the most blatant authoritarianism.
We must increase the supply of scientific content in French.
We attribute to the text a desire to set up a “censorship” of content shared by individuals on the Internet.
In order to activate your restricted access to comment on articles published on our website, log in or subscribe