The procession and parade organised by the authorities presented a level of splendour never before seen. However, the return of Napoleon was not a simple matter of patriotism. The political intent is one that has to be examined closely in order to understand how the French population celebrated their emperor’s return.Louis Philippe, the Orléans king, was in power at the time of the Retour des Cendres. This was not the first time attempts had been made to return his mortal remains to France. When Napoleon died, an appeal was immediately made for the return of his body. Contrary to popular belief at the time, it was not the English who were preventing the return of his remains. Indeed the English government had made it clear to their French equivalents that « le gouvernement anglais ne se regardait que comme le dépositaire des cendres de l’Empereur et qu’il le rendrait à la France dès que le gouvernement français lui en témoignerait le désir ». But in 1821, the government of Louis XVIII was little disposed to bringing the Emperor’s mortal remains back. Louis did not want Bonapartist sentiments to return to the surface, especially with the royalists in power and the potential for a coup d’état. When Louis-Philippe ascended to the throne a petition was presented to the Chambre des députés in an appeal for the return of Napoleon. Although Heulard de Montigny “considered the reign of Napoleon to be the most brilliant time for France”, he failed to convince any of his colleagues. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s other attempts failed. So why did Napoleon make it back after twenty years?The reasoning behind Louis Philippe’s decision to bring Napoleon’s body back to France, instead of leaving it in poetic isolation on St Helena, is complex. The king was heavily influenced in his decision by his prime minister at the time: Adolphe Thiers. Thiers, along with Guizot, used the return of Napoleon’s remains as part of a deliberate political design, a decidedly risky strategy to take. Certainly many French people felt very passionate about Napoleon and wanted his return, but there were also many who were politically and ideologically opposed to the emperor. However, the government felt that the July monarchy was strong enough to recognise the glories of its ideological adversaries and to place them in their ‘juste milieu’, in doing so synthesising all aspects of the past and the social divisions it had witnessed. Unity could be achieved by remembering rather than forgetting the past, and Napoleon was a major part of France’s heritage.
I am not of this Napoleonic religion, of this cult of force, which one has noticed for some time substituting itself in the spirit of the nation for the serious religion of liberty. I do not think it right thus unceasingly to deify war… as if peace which is the happiness and glory of the world could be the disgrace of nations… let us not seduce to such an extent the opinion of a people which understands far better what dazzles it than what serves it.
The nation is a slave who must be convinced he is seated on the throne.