Prangins, broken mirror of Bonaparte

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It is the story of an exile and an umpteenth battle on this field of glory, of tears and ruins that was the First Empire. A battle for a title, revered at the time of the bicentenary of the disappearance of Napoleon I from Saint Helena, an English islet lost in the Atlantic, May 5, 1821. “Prince Napoleon”: two words to designate the ultimate heir to an imperial family banished from French territory between 1886 and 1950. A title surprisingly attached to Switzerland, because jealously preserved by the one who, from her villa in Prangins (VD) , on the shores of Lake Geneva between Nyon and Gland, still perpetuates dynastic memory today: Princess Alix de Foresta, 95 years old, grandmother of Jean-Christophe, the current “Prince Napoleon”. Prangins, or the ultimate sanctuary of a Bonaparte family irremediably associated with the modern history of Confederation.

The sons of history

Charles Bonaparte undertook, in a recently published book, to link the threads of this story. “I am descended from Napoleon’s younger brother, Jérôme, but since we are the last living branch of the family, people easily say that we are descended from Napoleon. […]. Without rejecting history and its moral heritage, I exercised my right of inventory ”, asserts immediately this former international consultant, former deputy mayor of Ajaccio, in Liberty Bonaparte (Grasset). Here he is, in the process of guiding us through the alleys of Sauve, a pretty Cévennes locality in the Gard department where he lives near his sister Catherine. To be born and grow within the Bonaparte clan is a novel. His ancestor Jérôme, born in November 1784, was a pale copy of the invincible conqueror that was his eldest, until the defeat of Waterloo. Enlisted in the Navy the day after the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire, he first fought in the Caribbean seas, then passed through barely independent America, negotiated the release of slaves with the Bey of Algiers and saw himself proclaimed, in August 1807, king of westphalia, one of those German buffer kingdoms that the Emperor of the French established in the hope of uniting Europe around him. “The graft of Bonaparte with the high European aristocracy took nevertheless, since the son of Jerome, prince Napoleon known as” Plon-Plon “, married a daughter of the king of Italy”, estimates Charles, the distant heir, born in 1950 .

Cévennes residence

“You have to distinguish the different Prangins when talking about Bonaparte”, continues the person concerned, seated with us in the rustic dining room of his Cévennes house, open on the wine-growing mountains of the Saint-Loup peak. The next cup of coffee with the pastries. Two family photo albums and some history books are taken from the library. Charles Bonaparte himself wrote a biography of this Corsican “ogre” who dreamed of being the new Alexander the Great: Napoleon my grandfather, this stranger (XO). But nothing about him betrays his lineage. No imperial remains. No Empire style chest of drawers or desk, in dark mahogany with gilding, lion head and claws. Nothing. A chest brought from Tibet. A Thai Buddha. A terrace overlooking the rooftops, swept by a chilly wind. Memories of exotic trips. A nomad for a long time, Charles Bonaparte collects neither effigies or dynastic paintings, nor images of the Lake Geneva shores of his childhood. “It was not very pleasant to live with. Prangins, for me, rhymed little with comfort and affection ”, he concedes in front of the portrait of his family clan taken in 1969, the year… of another bicentenary: that of the birth of the winner of Austerlitz.

The story, the great one, scrolls through his memories. End of the First Empire. Modern Switzerland largely engendered by Napoleon – between the Mediation Act of February 1803 and the annexation of Geneva to the Confederation in May 1815, at the end of the Congress of Vienna – offers refuge to Bonapartes in search of a new homeland. . The first stopover in Prangin is the castle, now a national museum, bought by Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s elder brother, who settled there between 1814 and 1827 (date of his resale), recycling the fortune he won at the head of the brief. Kingdom of Spain (1808-1813). The second is the old sheepfold – today “club-house” of the Imperial Domain golf club – transformed from 1862 into a magnificent villa on the shores of the lake by “Plon-Plon”, the son of Jérôme, with the ‘money amassed under the Second Empire, in the shadow of his cousin Louis-Napoleon – Napoleon III – educated for his part in German-speaking Switzerland, in Arenenberg Castle in Thurgau. The French defeat of 1871 against Bismarck’s Prussia sounding the death knell for his wealth, “Plon Plon” resells this magnificent residence and migrates with his wife and children to the neighboring “villa” he had built. It is there, in this “villa” that the ninety-year-old Princess Alix still resides. There, where Charles Bonaparte grew up with his two sisters and his younger brother in the sixties, a boarder in a private high school in Abondance, Haute-Savoie, where the family gardener came to pick him up at the end of each term.

Monarchical heritage

“My father, educated in the royal family of Belgium, saw in our lineage a monarchical heritage. However, for me it is a misunderstanding or worse, a misunderstanding, ”argues the one who admits“ having distanced himself terribly ”from his Swiss ties. “At the time of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, I want to put the Bonaparte equation differently. In fact, it is inseparable from freedom. It proceeds from the Republic. She does not intend to replace her. ” Two days before we met, Lake Geneva, seen from Prangins, looked like a mirror. A smooth surface from which emerge the Alps that the emperor crossed in May 1800 to conquer Italy via the Grand-Saint-Bernard pass. “Prangins is like a broken mirror”, risks Charles Bonaparte, now president of the European Federation of Napoleonic Cities which, strangely, does not include any Swiss city, even among its partners. “I prefer to bring together cities rather than families” says this history and heritage enthusiast.

The most recent crack in the imperial mirror of Prangins is that which once opposed the author to his father, Prince Louis-Napoleon (1917-1997), a figure of the post-war European aristocratic elite. Son of Princess Clémentine of Belgium, great-grandson of French King Louis-Philippe, this great sportsman and mountain and motor racing enthusiast was the first of the Bonapartes to be able, from 1950, to set foot on France again. . His fights for free France, in the ranks of the Foreign Legion – the Bonapartes not yet having become French citizens again – earned him Gaullist sympathies. But inside, the soul remains rigid and imperial. A divorce without paternal consent means Charles is excommunicated, deprived of his princely title in favor of his son Jean-Christophe.


“By virtue of a senatus-consulte dating from Napoleon III, my mother, the executor and my young brother Jérôme had co-signed a pseudo-testament designating my 10-year-old son, future head of the imperial family”, tells us- he does. The bucolic tranquility of Prangins is definitely broken. The municipality of the Vaudois Riviera becomes a land of relentless betrayal. “I hardly come back to it. My brother Jérôme Bonaparte continues to live between Geneva and Lausanne. My son Jean-Christophe, who has the princely title, comes back to see his grandmother. For me, the story is not there. The large paintings in the villa are too heavy to carry. I have always found them very boring, especially since my father did not explain them to us. ” Furtive memory of a father-son discussion in the Trans Europe Express between Lausanne and Paris, when the revolution of May 68 burned down the Latin Quarter: “I discovered that many Bonaparte had experienced the same taste for freedom and ‘had paid the same price: the incomprehension and the trial in ingratitude. “

Two hundred years. On May 5, 2021, all those whom the emperor continues to fascinate, will attend this anniversary which, by itself, speaks of the fear that Napoleon, reclusive at Longwood in the coldness of Saint Helena, then inspired the most mighty monarchs. It took two months for Le Héron, the ship carrying the message of his death on May 5, 1821, entrusted to the English captain Crokat, to reach Portsmouth, then to London and Paris where the news arrived … in early July 1821. “Dozens of brochures were hastily composed, sometimes accrediting outright lies about the causes of death and even contesting it,” says historian Thierry Lentz in Bonaparte is no more!(Perrin). Switzerland must wait a little longer. It was in Geneva that the announcement of the imperial death first arrived. Joseph, the emperor’s older brother, was then in the United States, having preferred American exile to the proximity of his newly acquired Prangins castle.

The Confederation, however, sees no obstacle to its return. In Prangins, the Hameau Bonaparte takes shape. The people of Vaud know what they owe to this family. “It was logical that the family of Napoleon, mediator of the cantons and champion of the bravery of the Swiss soldiers, particularly during the retreat from Russia, is well received in Switzerland”, notes Jean Tulard in The World According to Napoleon (Tallandier). In the Memorial of Saint Helena, published in 1823, a sentence on Switzerland is also lent to the late emperor by its author, Emmanuel de Las Cases. Not without contemporary echo, a few days after Moutier’s Jura vote: “In Bern and other aristocratic cantons, their pride is even more concentrated than in France. A Bernese nobleman always believes that he reigns, he has more pride, harshness and arrogance for the peasant than a great French lord. “

To read : Liberty Bonaparte, by Charles Bonaparte (Ed. Grasset)

And also: The Switzerland of Bonaparte, by Gérard Miège (Ed Cabedita)


Napoleon and Switzerland in a few dates

August 15, 1769: Birth of Napoleon Bonaparte in Ajaccio (Corsica)

November 1797: First crossing of Switzerland by General Bonaparte

April 1798: Geneva, attached to France, becomes the prefecture of the Léman department

November 9, 1799: Coup d’Etat of 18 Brumaire with financial assistance from Swiss bankers

May 28, 1800: Bonaparte crosses the Grand-Saint-Bernard pass to win the Italian campaign

September 5, 1802: First consul, Bonaparte detaches Valais from Switzerland

September 30, 1802: Bonaparte summons the Swiss deputies to Paris

February 19, 1803: Solemn delivery of the Mediation Act which restructures the Confederation and confirms the birth of the canton of Vaud

December 2, 1804: Napoleon 1st is crowned Emperor of the French

December 1810: Valais becomes the Simplon department

May 5, 1821: Died in exile in Saint Helena