As part of the 200 year commemoration of Napoleon, President Emmanuel Macron recently addressed an audience of secondary school students amid the architectural grandeur of the Institut de France
He note in particular that we ought not to gloss over the complexities of a historical ﬁgure he described as “both eagle and ogre”. On the contrary, as well as explaining Napoleon’s soaring achievements, the President highlighted the appalling errors the “Little Corporal” had made, and their tragic cost in human life.
This was the object lesson on the importance of truth in history. “You are not responsible for France’s past,” Macron told the students, “nor are you its guardians.”
“It comes to you as an inheritance, without a testament attached,” he went on to say, using a phrase every French student would recognise as a quotation from the poet and resistance hero, Rene Char. “You may choose to love it; and so too you may choose to criticise it.”
“But ﬁrst of all you must learn it”: which means “facing it directly and as a whole”, imbued “with a love of knowledge” and “resisting the temptation to judge yesterday by today”. That is the foremost duty “a free people” owes its ancestors who secured the freedoms it enjoys — but it is also a free people’s greatest privilege, because it is only by “understanding its past” that it can freely “forge its future”.