3 min

First Lady of the French empire

Napoleon's homosexual Second Consul

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of Bill C-150 decriminalizing homosexuality — our Stonewall by decree.

Because penal codes in the past have been so heavily weighted against homosexual behaviour and occasionally homosexual identity, the issue of law reform has been of intense importance to gay men and women throughout history.

Yet very few law reformers, if any, have entered the modern queer pantheon. One candidate is France’s Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès — erroneously, I regret to say.

Cambacérès was born in 1753. Trained as a lawyer, he entered politics in that extraordinary last decade of the 18th century which saw the fall of the French monarchy, the proclamation of the first French republic, the nightmare of the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon’s empire.

A moderate, Cambacérès survived by being courted by all factions who respected his legal expertise. Despite an acute awareness of his limitations (“Gentlemen, don’t expect me to support your revolution by force. I don’t even know how to shoot”) he was willing to take risks, including supporting the 1799 coup d’état which saw Napoleon installed as the effective head of state as First Consul.

For his support, Cambacérès, a former minister of justice, was named Second Consul (there were three in all) and given the plum assignment of endowing France with its first civil law code.

The old French legal system was a patchwork affair. Typically, Napoleon wished to streamline and rationalize it (let us not forget that this is the same man who imposed the use of the decimal system in Europe) according to the principles of the French revolution.

It took Cambacérès and a commission of four lawyers five years to complete this task. The result of their work, the French Civil or Napoleonic Code, has been called the most influential legal document in the history of the modern world.

It influenced the legal codes of most of the countries of Western Europe and their former colonies, and provides the basis for civil law in Québec and Louisiana.

Cambacérès’ modern day reputation as a gay hero rests on the belief that his 1804 civil code decriminalized homosexuality, thus setting an example of tolerance for the rest of Europe.

In fact, the French National Constituent Assembly had already abolished the law against sodomy when it revised French criminal law in 1791.

However, a new penal code introduced in 1810 when Cambacérès was the de facto domestic head of government maintained the decriminalisation of gay acts, so perhaps his reputation is justified to some extent.

The new penal code quickly spread to other European countries, either through conquest by the French (Spain) or by free adoption (Bavaria).

That Cambacérès was openly homosexual in a period of relative tolerance is borne out by several anecdotes.

Arriving late one day for an appointment with Napoléon, Cambacérès blamed a mistress. Napoleon replied: “When one has an appointment with the Emperor, one wraps up one’s affairs with her by saying: ‘Sir, grab your top hat and cane and leave.’”

Another — best appreciated by Latinists but here goes anyway — has the French diplomat and wit, Talleyrand, seeing the three French Consuls, Napoleon, Cambacérès and the insignificant Lebrun, pass by and exclaiming “Hic, haec, hoc” or “He, she, it.”

According to one internet source, on fine evenings Cambacérès would leave his office, beribboned and bejewelled and, accompanied by young and comely male ‘secretaries’ cruise the arcades of the Palais Royal, a favourite spot of Parisian gay men and female prostitutes, attracting crowds of gawking tourists as he did.

Faithful to Napoleon to the last, this immensely capable man and famous gourmet (Napoleon used the excellence of his meals as an adjunct to his foreign diplomacy) survived the fall of the empire thanks in large part to his personal charm and his reputation for political moderation.

After a brief period of exile in Brussels, he was allowed to return to Paris where he lived quietly, much given to religious piety, until his death in 1824.

The memory of Cambacérès remains alive today; a reminder that even now we need symbols linking us to the past as we seek to establish our lineage.

Since 1999, there has been an association of French Masonic Grand Lodges — les Enfants de Cambacérès or the Children of Cambacérès — whose purpose is to provide a forum for French Freemasons to discuss homosexuality.

Not only is this appropriate in light of the role individual Freemasons played in the events leading up to the French Revolution, it also serves to remind us that the latter’s ideals — liberté, égalité, fraternité — have yet to be realized.