Belfast Telegraph

Mary Kenny: Despite his sexist opinion of women, Napoleon's thoughts are still relevant to us today

By Mary Kenny

France's national holiday was on Saturday and what better way to mark it than to call to mind the founder of modern France, Napoleon Bonaparte - the historic figure on whom President Macron specifically models himself.

Napoleon is honoured in France not just as a military commander of genius, but for establishing a civil code, setting up the judicial system, ensuring freedom of religion, outlining the theory of meritocracy (careers should be open to talents, not rank), shaping education and founding the lycees, organising banking, launching the honours system of the Legion d'Honneur, devising the administrative and geographical basis for governing a nation, and ensuring that Paris had proper drainage and beautiful monuments.

Yet according to Jules Bertaut, who edited the Emperor's own daily handbook, the 'Manuel du Chef', Napoleon's greatest attribute was his imagination. It was his extraordinary imagination which prompted his actions, his thoughts, his plans. Among the notebook aphorisms Napoleon wrote: "Imagination rules the world."

Napoleon's quotations are still used as prompts for those who aspire to leadership: "There is only one secret for leading the world - it's to be strong." But he esteems the spirit as well as the sword: "There are but two powers in the world; the sword and the spirit. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the spirit."

His advice to politicians is that: "The heart of a man of politics should be in his head." Politicians who promise much might ponder on another line of advice: "The best way to keep your word is not to give it."

But seize opportunities: "Those who don't know how to make the best of circumstances are simpletons." And remember that: "In war, as in politics, a lost moment never returns."

He also reminds those would-be leaders that "Indecision is paralysis". And yet sometimes, "Nothing is more difficult than to decide."

He believed in meticulous planning for every endeavour, yet he advocated flexibility. And he respects the element of luck. "Is he lucky?" he asked of an officer. Bonaparte understands the contradictions that are part of human psychology. French people have two obsessions which seem oppositional - "the love of equality and the love of distinction". Governments must satisfy both by ensuring the law is equal for all, and yet, should award honours to those most deserving of them.

On religion, he could waver. Baptised a Catholic in his native Corsica, where he was born the second of 13 children, he chose to die a Catholic in his last lonely exile in St Helena.

In between he was a sceptic, though attracted to Islam (as was Winston Churchill, who considered it a warrior's faith). Napoleon thought the Koran provided a more comprehensive legal and civil code than the Bible.

But he made peace with the Catholic Church and considered organised religion indispensable for social order and public morality. "Religion is what stops the poor from murdering the rich."

His views on women would be unacceptably sexist today. He didn't think women should be educated, except to be fit companions for their husbands. When Germaine de Stael, the writer, asked him, "Who do you consider the best kind of woman?", he replied, "She who has the most children"; women were "machines for making babies".

Napoleon deplored the way in which women had had the run of the streets during the French Revolution: when he became Emperor, he ensured that women should be returned to "the seclusion of the home", and that husbands retained the upper hand in all marital rights.

Men could not be held responsible for illegitimate children they had fathered: this was to incentivise mothers to marry at all costs.

Yet, as Andrew Roberts' superb Napoleon the Great biography points out, he had far more respect for his strong-minded mother - known as 'Madame Mere' - than his weaker father. And in his marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais, he tolerated her infidelities, and was a tender stepfather to her children.

He was also tolerant towards homosexuals. Jean-Jacques Regis de Cambaceres, his deputy who governed France in his absence, was a gay man (later proclaimed a 'regicide' for voting for Louis XVI's execution).

Napoleon was aware of Ireland's plight, met Wolfe Tone, and even wrote to the Pope about "the intolerable oppression of Ireland's Catholics"; but any plans for teaming up with Irish nationalists were always stymied, as he admitted, by the obstacle of the Royal Navy.

Bonaparte has critics as well as admirers - he over-reached himself, was considered a tyrant by the Spanish and possibly 100,000 men died in battle under his command. But the poet Alfred de Musset wrote that every Frenchman born too late wept bitter tears not to have served the Emperor.

His handbook still has advice for us today. "Ingratitude is the ugliest fault of the heart." "One must know how to pardon... acknowledge human weakness and bend towards it." "From triumph to failure is but a short step." And he proclaimed that, "It would be against French principles to refuse to give refuge to persecuted men." Relevant still.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph