On the occasion of the release of Ridley Scott’s controversial film about Napoleon Radio Sud and Ifop held a poll on the popularity of the Emperor with the French and asked what they thought of him, all to be compared with a similar poll held in 1969.
The results are astonishing: 74% of the French believe that the Emperor has done good for France, up from 70% in the 1969 poll. so not only has the image not faded, it is even more pronounced, and public opinion is forgetting the mistakes and tragedies of that era.
If we compare this year’s results with those of more than 50 years ago, opinion remains relatively stable, even improving. The Napoleonic code is one of its best achievements for 40 per cent of respondents, compared to 34 per cent in 1969. Then the creation of higher education and high schools is praised, with 20%, against 5% in 1969. So it is mainly the Napoleonic administrator who is praised, not the military one who, after all, ended his career badly.
Incredibly, given the current historical erasure, no one remembers that the Napoleonic Code, however well written, reintroduced slavery and had a more misogynistic outlook than the revolutionary era. Moreover, the teachings of the Italian Enlightenment scholar Cesare Beccaria, against the death penalty and the re-educative function of punishment, went into oblivion, although they were rather heeded by the absolutist governments of the late 18th century.
“It is the image of what Napoleon left us,” says David Chanteranne, historian and Napoleon specialist. “We are both custodians and heirs of this period. We have to remember that we are like after the revolution, that everything has to be rebuilt. These men and women made 240 reforms: we are really still in Napoleonic daily life today. Education is the major and founding event of this period.”
Indeed, administrative efficiency and, above all, the ability to write simple, clear, unambiguous laws, seems to have ended with the Napoleonic era and its successors in the 19th century, and perhaps it is this that is missed. Today, confusion, complication and enforcement of part of the rules reigns. In Napoleon the French feel the legislator that is missing today.