200 years on, Napoleon returns to southern France

French actor Frank Samson, dressed as French Emperor Napoleon Ier performs, during the reenactment of Napoleon's landing, on Sunday, in Vallauris Golfe-Juan, southeastern France. This commemoration celebrates the bicentenary of the Emperor's landing
French actor Frank Samson, dressed as French Emperor Napoleon Ier performs, during the reenactment of Napoleon's landing, on Sunday, in Vallauris Golfe-Juan, southeastern France. This commemoration celebrates the bicentenary of the Emperor's landing after his exile on the island of Elba in 1815. -- PHOTO: AFP

VALLAURIS, France (AFP) - Standing proudly at the front of a boat, arms crossed behind his back and dressed simply in a grey coat, Napoleon landed in southern France on Sunday, announcing "It's good to be back!"

Thousands of spectators gathered on the beach at Golfe-Juan on the Cote d'Azur to watch the re-enactment of the French dictator's arrival exactly 200 years ago.

Napoleon had been held for 10 months on the prison island of Elba, off the coast of Italy, before he escaped his exile.

It took him three days to make the crossing with a fleet of seven ships and 1,200 men who had managed to sneak past his British captors, landing on March 1, 1815.

The re-enactment two centuries later was slightly more modest, but still involved 200 performers and an impressive beating of drums.

Napoleon lookalike Frank Samson, a Parisian lawyer has been playing the role for a decade.

"Victory march on the double!" he cried to his assembled men on the beach. "The eagle and the national colours will fly from steeple to steeple, all the way to the towers of Notre Dame."

Elisabeth de la Boulangere, Napoleon's devoted cook, helped his departure from Elba.

On Sunday, she was played by Laura, an Italian expert on the era and battle re-enactments enthusiast.

"In principle, women were not allowed at battles, but there were always some. Either they were disgraced nobles, or wives of soldiers, or women of the night ... which I might add is not the case with me," she said.

From Golfe-Juan, Napoleon marched north towards Paris, returning power to the royalists but ultimately suffering defeat at Waterloo on June 18.

Some of Sunday's troop of actors will make the same trip over the coming weeks.

"I can't wait to get stuck in!" said one cavalryman relaxing on the beach.