New Art Exhibit Draws Questions Over Napoleon’s Legacy in France

A new art exhibit called “Images of a Legend” opens this week in the city of Arras in northern France. Focused on France’s most recognizable historical figure, the exhibit aims to paint Napoleon Bonaparte as the military leader single-handedly responsible for rebuilding France after the French Revolution.

But not everyone is quite so enamored with the bicorne-wearing emperor. Two centuries after his death, many wonder if he should be remembered as the hero he is so often portrayed as in paintings and textbooks, or if the title “ambitious warmonger” would be more appropriate. Regardless of opinions, his lasting mark on France is undeniable, physically, legally, and politically.

“Napoleon embodied… the ‘Myth of the Savior,’” says historian Xavier Mauduit. This ‘Myth of the Savior,’ according to Mauduit, is behind the ruling style of all French political heroes, and explains the take-charge, man-of-the-moment attitude of France’s favorite leaders, from Charles de Gaulle to wunderkind Emmanuel Macron. “There [are] now French presidential elections focused on one person who can fix everything,” continues Mauduit, who claims that this attitude is a large part of France’s political legacy left by Napoleon, and one we should keep in mind as Macron finds his footing in his new presidential role.