Reviews: Books of General Interest



Les Cent-Jours, ou l'Esprit de Sacrifice

By Dominique Villepin

Villepin, Dominique de.  Les Cent-Jours, ou l'Esprit de Sacrifice.  Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 2001. 634 p. ISBN# 2262013977. 159 francs.

Les Cent-Jours Book Cover

The great success of French Napoleonic literature during the first half of the year 2001 did not come from an author dedicated to the genre. Even Jean Tulard's excellent Les Vingt Jours: Louis XVIII ou Napoléon? – 1° - 20 mars 1815 was exceeded by the success of Dominique de Villepin's bestseller, Les Cent-Jours, ou l'Esprit de Sacrifice.

Dominique de Villepin is  better known in France for his high political responsibilities as General Secretary of the Presidency of the Republic since 1995. His high position can be the main reason for the success of his book: a man who knows the ins and outs of  political power analyzes the return of one who had dominated Europe for 15 years.

During the television broadcast of "Bouillon de culture" ("Cultural Broth"), where he presented his book, Mr. de Villepin summarized the thesis of his book:

"There is in the Hundred Days one very particular moment when one discovers a little-known face of Napoleon: A man of flesh and blood, a man of doubts….He discovered humiliation, treason, popular hatred, which upset him and transformed him deeply. One does not see it again during the return of the Eagle, since he is carried by the movement and the breath of the army and the peasants. But when he arrives at Paris he finds the sad truth of power: What to do?

"He has Europe threatening at the gates, and he must try to reconcile the French. He finds in himself the necessary idea to reconcile two Frances, to reconcile the notables with the people from where this idea came to bring in more of the freedom of the Revolution. To become again either a man or an Emperor was the choice, of this he was completely aware. Those around him do not recognize him any more, they think that he was changed.

"He meets with Benjamin Constant, a liberal who opposed him, to speak about giving France a new constitution.  Moreover, he will say, 'I don't want to be the King of a Jacquerie' and after Waterloo he confirms his choice by saying the same thing to Benjamin Constant, while refusing to act according the expectations of the people who ask him to stay: 'I did not return from the Island of Elba to spill the blood of Frenchmen.' He had decided to follow his choice to its conclusion: a kind of spirit of sacrifice by offering his person to save France."

The book reads like a novel. In 594 pages and three main chapters – "The Flight," "The Trap," and "The Sacrifice" - Dominique de Villepin describes to us Napoleon's last ride. The style of the author is pleasant, precise, never heavy, richly documented. The footnotes are filled of anecdotes and quotations showing that he knows perfectly his subject.

The Flight

After Napoleon's first abdication, Louis XVIII must try to reconcile three main forces:

- The Ultras, represented by the Count of Artois, his brother;

-  The Army, always faithful to the ex-Emperor;

-The liberals, who would like to take as their example the English monarchy.

Hesitating, wanting to satisfy these three by turns, Louis XVIII achieves the impossible: dissatisfying all three.

-The Ultras reject the charter that they judge too liberal;

- By appointing Dupont, who had capitulated at Baylen, the troops feel humiliated;

- By appointing Ultras to the government, the liberals and the people fear the "White Terror," the return of privileges, and the recovery of the properties confiscated by the Revolution.

Since Elba, kept informed by his partisans who had taken "the violet" as their symbol, Napoleon understands quickly that the moment had come to return to France. He has nothing to lose, the Bourbons not having respected the Treaty of Fontainebleau.

During his return it seems that his star shines more brightly than ever for Napoleon.

He has the right words, the right attitudes, though it must be said that he was helped by the incompetence of the Bourbons. Louis XVIII thinks only of his meals, and this in the face of the ardent speeches of Napoleon to the people or the troops (the immortal "Soldiers of 5th, recognize me, if there is one among you who wants to kill his Emperor, he can do it now, here I am!").  Louis XVIII opposes a demand to the citizens to "hunt down" (courir sus) Napoleon like a wild beast. Chateaubriand, in a marvelous page, satirizes this archaic expression come from the time of the ancien regime: "Louis XVIII, without legs, to hunt down the conqueror who stepped over the earth! To hunt down in 1815! Hunt down! Hunt down who? A wolf? Hunt down a leader of bandits! A perfidious lord? No: Napoleon who had hunted down kings, had seized them and marked them forever on their shoulders with his indelible 'N'!"

The Trap

The epic of the return of the Eagle ends in Paris. It is necessary for Napoleon to choose his ministers, some are qualified, some faithful, but rarely both. Davout is qualified as Minister for War, but will be sorely missed at Waterloo. Fouché, with his usual deceit, will play the double cross as the Minister of the Police. Some, like Molé, will refuse posts, others like Carnot, at the Ministry of the Interior, an old man and worn out, will be unable to rise to the responsibility.

The Republicans, the old men of the Revolution, believe in Jacobinism. They want Napoleon to revive again the spirit of Revolution, isolate the notables, persecute the nobles and raise a "levée en masse" so that the Nation can recapture its energy and frighten the allies. But Napoleon does not seem to have returned to make a new Revolution: He chooses liberalism. He feels that the notables 'were spoiled' by the Bourbons. They had got a taste of power.

Napoleon then approaches Benjamin Constant. Liberal writer, but often called a "chameleon" or "weather vane," he wants to serve the cause of Napoleon and to serve himself. After long meetings with Napoleon, he will be put in charge of the project of creating a new constitution.  The basic idea is to modify the absolute power of the sovereign (of one king, of one emperor or even the people) by the concept of the relative sovereignty of the people, limited by the respect for others. Napoleon, by rallying this old adversary to him, hopes to prove that he is different man.

In March 1815, the Congress of Vienna "amuses itself!" "One ruins oneself, here, in fetes…Finish with these Congresses" Talleyrand says, à la Napoléon--the "little Corsican" with his glistening eye imposed his will on those he called "a heap of kings," without thinking of fetes and banquets. Finally the old aristocracy closes ranks, among men of good company, and they want with one blow of balanced treaties and consanguine marriages, to erase "the Corsican Attila" who ignited the Continent with his hordes of janissaries. 

Skillfully exploiting the divisions among the allies the "lame devil," Talleyrand, obtains great advantages for France.  But on 7 March 1815, at dawn, Metternich learns the incredible news: "Napoleon has disappeared from the Island of Elba!"  The music and the balls stop, the kings meet and recognize this new nightmare. Europe is their domain, it belongs to them. The aristocracy does not admit the popular legitimacy which seems to support Napoleon and says: "The wish of the French people, if it was fully noted would be nonetheless null and without effect." They called that, "a motivated intervention," we would say today, "the right of interference."

Napoleon tries desperately to convince the powers, he multiplies his contacts to prove that he does not have any expansionist ideas, but there is too much hatred: The decision is made, the commands are given, the coalition will meet in Belgium, it's imperative to kill "the usurper." In just a single day Napoleon destroyed Talleyrand’s work. War is inevitable.

Napoleon pretended to have the support of certain powers, Austria among them. When Napoleon asked Davout to occupy the War Ministry, he refused. When Napoleon, in a moment of sincerity, admits to Davout that this is false and that Europe is united against him, and that the situation was in fact desperate, then Davout said to him: "I accept." Admirable Davout! The war is decided.

The Sacrifice

Thus it is in Belgium that Napoleon will face the allied powers. In 60 pages Monsieur de Villepin tells us of Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo. It is not necessary to speak again of what were some of the most tremendous battles of history; so many have done it before.

One last time Napoleon will resist the Jacobin temptation which believes that the Nation, according to the spirit of Revolution, will defend the soil of France against the Allies.  Napoleon, tired, decides to give his person to save France. The people of Paris parade in front of his window in Paris. The people want him to stay. But Napoleon has decided: he will be a prisoner of the allies. He knows that the man will disappear, but that in a few years, 20 or 30 years—it does not matter—the people will understand. The kings thought they had given Napoleon one mortal blow without knowing that his legend will survive.

I cannot recommend this work to those who like about the era only the noise of the guns and heroic charges. But for those that want to know another aspect of Napoleon and to understand the history of this time, the book of Monsieur de Villepin is impossible to circumvent.  He gives true meaning to Napoléon's famous phrase: "What a Romance, my life!" 

Reviewed by: Dominique Contant June 2001

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