Battle rages for the Napoleonic succession

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The Battle of Austerlitz was fought 192 years ago yesterday with cannons and cavalry and guile. The battle of the Napoleonic succession was being fought out in a gentleman's club in Paris last night without so much as a bread-roll. Obscure legal and constitutional argument, precedent and sentiment will probably carry the day.

Members of the Souvenir Napoleonien - an organisation dedicated to upholding the memory of the Emperor - were unwilling to discuss the proceedings with outsiders. Especially British outsiders. "Prince" Charles Napoleon, great great-grandson of the Emperor Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, is battling for his right to be considered Chief of the Imperial Household. The title is, in legal terms, meaningless, but important to nostalgics and, doubtless, useful as a business calling card. When his father, Prince Louis Napoleon, died seven months ago, it seemed Charles, 47, (pictured), who runs a financial services business in Corsica, would inherit the distinction automatically. But the cantankerous, octogenarian prince left a "political testament", saying the succession should pass to his grandson, Jean-Christophe, Charles's son, an 11 year-old schoolboy. The deceased man's motives were twofold, according to his lawyer, Maitre Jean-Marc Varaut. Louis Napoleon disapproved of the fact that his eldest son had divorced and re-married without his permission. He also detested his political views, which were, by his admission, "republican and democratic". In an interview yesterday with Le Figaro, Charles Napoleon admitted he was a democrat and an ordinary chap. Asked if he would take become a full-time, dispossessed Royal if he succeeded, he replied: "No, my psychological balance wouldn't stand it." He conceded his "personal values" made him feel closer to the early period Napoleon (defender of the Republic) than the later period Napoleon (autocratic emperor). Certain aspects of the Emperor Napoleon's record, and that of his nephew, Napoleon III (1852- 70), should be "judged severely".

This mildly revisionist view of Napoleon is now standard in France. If anything, the academic trend is towards a downward revaluation of his bloody attempts to create a prototype European union (with headquarters in Paris). The winner of this year's Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary prize in France, was a novel by Patrick Rambaud, La Bataille, which re-creates the battle of Essling, a forgotten and disastrous episode in the Napoleonic wars.

It presents Napoleon as a foul-mouthed, callous bully, driven by vanity and detested even by his closest comrades. In the conservative Le Figaro yesterday the writer Claude Jacquemart said it had to be admitted the "Napoleonic adventure" was "an immense tragedy which left France physically and morally exhausted".

This is unlikely to impress the Souvenir Napoleonien nostalgics, holding their annual meeting yesterday, on the anniversary of Austerlitz and also of the coup which brought Napoleon III to power. Charles Napoleonwas addressing the meeting to try to persuade his great, great, great-uncle's most devoted followers he was worthy of the imperial lineage. Legally, their approval or disapproval counts for nothing: the battle will continue elsewhere. But, morally, it was essential for Charles to persuade the last remnants of the Grande Armee to follow him.

The omens were not good. He told Figaro he wanted to make the Napoleonic tradition "modern and forward-looking". As head of the Imperial household, he would emphasise the republican Napoleon, elected by popular vote, and the constructive Napoleon, who built many of the institutions which serve France to the present day. It is difficult for a mere Briton to judge, but it sounds as if Charles Napoleon's father was right: he is a good democrat but he would make a useless emperor.