Updated: May 6, 2021 7:50:55 am
Ideologues, both from the left and right, have a fundamental problem with un-anchored centrists. The wishy-washy middle, they argue, wants to eat its cake and have it too. They sway whichever way they think the wind is blowing, hoping to keep the people on their side. And while these criticisms can be too harsh, the shifting centre, in its desire not to alienate anyone, often ends up angering everyone. Take Emmanuel Macron, president of France. Earlier this week, he laid a wreath on Napoleon Bonaparte’s grave at Les Invalides on the 200th anniversary of the latter’s death. In doing so, he has waded into a polarising debate on French nationalism, and the legacy of its most famous reactionary, liberal state builder.
Napoleon, in many ways, laid the foundation for the modern French state — its bureaucracy, education system, even secularism and modernity — and built a European empire. More recently, though, his legacy has become controversial for his support of slavery, the promotion of systemic misogyny and imperialism. Understandably, people’s views on Napoleon have become a barometer for their political allegiance, with the right attempting to claim his legacy. For many in France, now a middle power, Napoleon represents a lost glory; for others, his role in history is of an oppressor. In this climate, Macron has chosen — unlike most of his predecessors — to “commemorate”, but not endorse, Napoleon.
Since the killing of a school teacher by a religious extremist in 2020, the Macron government has been shifting rightwards. The “commemoration” of Napoleon, many political observers of France say, is an ill-disguised attempt to woo the rural and small-town right-wing voter. But Macron, like most self-proclaimed centrists, seems not to understand that when it comes to virtue signalling through political symbols, people often prefer authenticity — even politically and morally questionable audacity — to pandering.
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