Skeletons don’t always lurk in cupboards, some of them hide under dance floors waiting for a particularly rousing party to dislodge them. Such is the story of one of Napoleon’s favourite generals, César Charles Étienne Gudin de La Sablonnière, whose missing remains were discovered under a dance floor in Smolensk in 2019, over 200 years after his death from a cannonball during the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Yesterday, his one-legged skeleton was repatriated to France via a private jet chartered by the Russian oligarch, Andrei Kozitsyn. Not a bad way to travel for a Napoleonic soldier.
The discovery of Gudin’s remains and their passage home unearths some complicated truths for President Macron. Having recently navigated the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death in May with a rousing (if elliptical) speech on the virtues of the Napoleonic era, Macron finds himself once again in the Napoleonic crossfire that divides left from right in France.
As a man often compared to the emperor, Macron decided in 2019 to celebrate the return of Gudin’s remains with a national commemoration and a ceremony to mark their interment at Les Invalides. This was a fitting symbolic gesture to accompany Macron’s attempts to bring Russia in from the cold when Putin visited the presidential summer house, Fort de Bregancon, in 2019. But like Gudin’s body, whose heart was ripped from his chest and buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery shortly after the battle at Smolensk, the cart has come before the horse. In the wake of the pandemic and after Russia’s arrest of the dissident Alexei Navalny, Macron’s enthusiasm about this diplomatic gift to Putin waned. The President refused to make a formal request to Russia to repatriate the body, and said there would not be a national commemoration for the general on his return to France.
Macron’s rowing back may have had something to do with the historian revealed to be behind the push to repatriate Gudin, Pierre Malinowski. A former officer in the French army and erstwhile aide to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the historian is seen by the Macron camp as a risky association ahead of next year’s elections. Undeterred by Macron’s apathy, Malinowski did what all good Napoleonic generals would do, and simply carried on with his push to repatriate Gudin regardless. Unable to obtain approval from the French state to request the body from the Russian government, Malinowksi went via a legal backdoor, issuing a demand for Gudin’s remains on behalf of his descendants. Of these, Albéric d’Orléans openly denounced Macron’s decision to not honour someone who gave their life for France. Such rhetoric, coming not long after the French army’s vote of no confidence in Macron, was hardly music to the President’s ears.
Nonetheless, via a Russian dance floor, an oligarch, and a private jet, Gudin’s remains landed at Bourget airstrip outside Paris yesterday to a full Napoleonic welcome. Lowered from the plane to rows of grognards in full military attire, in a coffin draped with the French tricolore listing his military honours, Gudin got the homecoming the emperor would have wanted for his friend. Where his remains would go from the airport was eventually settled at the eleventh hour by the minister for French veterans, Geneviève Darrieussecq. Arriving at the ceremony, to the surprise of the assembled family, Darrieussecq announced that Gudin’s remains would be buried aux Invalides with full national homage on 2 December, the anniversary of the French victory at Austerlitz.
The assurance that Gudin will be buried amongst the great and the good at Les Invalides will come as a relief to his descendants, certainly, but also to those prepared to abandon Macron should he betray France’s military past. Gudin was, after all, a general whose name was inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe and who has a bust at Versailles. That didn’t stop the mayor of Gudin’s hometown, Montargis, from declaring that they simply ‘didn’t have the means to build a mausoleum for’ the general. By making room for Gudin at Les Invalides, Macron has erred on the side of caution, keeping his message on Napoleon, if not obsequious, then at least consistent.
For Malinowski, Gudin’s recognition by the French Republic, with all the pomp and circumstance that entails, will count as a victory. Having tried to engineer a Franco-Russian alliance for some time, and as a friend of Putin’s, Malinowski has forced Macron’s hand in favour of the Kremlin through a mixture of political manoeuvring and sentimental blackmail. Such victories, as Gudin himself would attest to, are hard fought. Macron may do well before the presidential elections to beware further skeletons lest he become their puppet.