sábado, dezembro 03, 2005

Austerlitz downgraded

Daily Telegraph (Filed: 03/12/2005)

Two great battles were fought in 1805. In the first, on October 21, Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, ensuring British dominance of the sea. In the second, on December 2, Napoleon crushed the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz, destroying the Third Coalition against France.

The British have celebrated the first with a multinational naval review in the Solent, a flotilla on the Thames, a service in St Paul's Cathedral and an exhibition on Nelson and Napoleon in the National Maritime Museum.

The French, by contrast, have played down the second. President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, have declined to attend commemorative ceremonies in the Place Vendôme in Paris, whose column was forged from the bronze of captured cannons, and in Slavkov (formerly Austerlitz) in the Czech Republic, where today the battle will be re-enacted. France will be represented by its defence minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie.

What has come over the French leadership, previously never slow to celebrate national gloire? Austerlitz was a great victory. Napoleon told his soldiers that they had only to say they had been there for people to reply: Voilà un brave. Like Waterloo, it has given its name to a railway station. What is more, Mr de Villepin is a great admirer of the victor, having written a book on the 100 days between Napoleon's escape from Elba and his abdication after Waterloo.

It is said that, in his new job, Mr de Villepin sees himself as a man of the people - as opposed to his previous incarnation as an aristocratic diplomat - and therefore wishes to avoid too close an association with the Emperor. But the lives of Napoleon and his marshals are classic instances of men of the people making good. The likelier cause of official reticence is a growing popular awareness of the dark side of the Bonapartist legacy; witness the publicity given to Claude Ribbe's book about the suppression of black rebellions in the Caribbean in 1802.

The French might be gently reminded that Napoleon's brutality has long been apparent to the victims of his ambition, from the British to the Spanish and Russians. They are mystified by his semi-deification - at least until now - at the hands of men such as Mr de Villepin.