French politicians were notably absent from the 200-year commemoration of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but that did not stop the country’s biggest national newspaper using the symbolism of France’s bloody loss to warn Britain against a carnage of another kind: the Brexit.
Le Monde, France’s paper of record, took the unusual step of publishing its daily editorial in English under the warning: “Britain beware, Brexit could be your Waterloo!”
“The country which cornered Napoleon cannot succumb to Nigel Farage,” the paper pleaded, urging “our British allies” to “resist the familiar temptation of splendid isolation”.
“Today, we solemnly say to our friends across the Channel: beware, Brexit could be your Waterloo! And to make sure the message is really heard, we have gone as far as to convey it in English. Messieurs les Anglais, don’t let the sirens of a fake independence pull you away from the continent. Just as in 1815, your future is inEurope.”
In France, the prospect of a no vote in a British referendum on whether to stay in the European Union has exasperated the majority of the political class, with the exception of the far-right Front National, which wants France to leave the euro and suspend the Schengen free circulation area.
The 1815 Battle of Waterloo was a watershed in European history that marked the end of Napoleon and French domination and the beginning of the British century. In a half-day battle, more than 10,000 were killed in fighting between French troops and an international coalition led by Britain’s Duke of Wellington. Wellington won but described it as “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”.
As le Monde pointed out, France’s snub of the commemorations is not because they are bad losers. Rather, the country still has a complex and uneasy relationship with what came to be seen as Napoleon’s toxic image. French leaders have always kept a distance from Napoleonic commemorations, even that of his greatest victory at Austerlitz.
“In France, the Napoleonic legend has lost much of its lustre,” le Monde wrote. “The military genius, it turns out, was also a dictator. The image of the revolutionary, of the visionary of modern Europe is now tainted with the legacy of nepotism and slavery.”
Rather than travel to Belgium for the Waterloo re-enactment alongside British royals and officials, the French president, François Hollande, who is well known for his love of historic commemorations, was celebrating a more important anniversary. In France, 18 June is remembered not for Waterloo but as the day General de Gaulle launched his appeal from London in 1940, calling his fellow countrymen to resist the German occupation.
Le Monde noted that one “spectacular achievement” of Waterloo was “two centuries of Anglo-French peace”. It said: “Never again have we been at war with each other, except on rugby fields. Inevitable skirmishes have happened, at Fashoda and elsewhere, but from Suez to Libya, for better or worse, the Entente Cordiale has prevailed.”