Accessibility links

France: 'Dreyfus Affair ' Remains Divisive 100 Years Later

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 16 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The tumultuous scene in the French National Assembly Wednesday afternoon seemed to be more out of the late 19th rather than the late 20th century.

Pandemonium reigned in the historic chamber after Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin accused his Right opponents of having opposed the exculpation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish army officer who in 1894 was falsely accused, and convicted, of treason. In 1906, after a long investigation that showed the evidence against him had been fabricated, Dreyfus' life imprisonment sentence was annulled and he was rehabilitated.

The restoration of Captain Dreyfus' integrity came no less than eight years after novelist Emile Zola began a campaign on his behalf with a famous editorial entitled "J'accuse", published in the newspaper "Aurore" 100 years ago this week. One cartoonist at the time showed the bespectacled novelist, his head atop a pig's body, sitting on a toilet bowl labeled "international pooh" --an apparent allusion to the so-called "international Jewish conspiracy" other editorialists charged Zola was aiding. The novelist himself was later tried and convicted for having published the editorial. He fled to England, where he died four years after the editorial's appearance.

The "Dreyfus Affair" for decades divided passionate French "Dreyfusards" from even more passionate "anti-Dreyfusards" --many of whom were openly anti-Semitic in their harangues. Judging by the deputies' behavior in the National Assembly Wednesday, the affair still divides the country.

"The Left was for Dreyfus and the Right was against him," Jospin said to the Assembly in its weekly question time for the Government. His off-the-cuff remark immediately triggered explosive anger among Center-Right deputies. Many of them jumped out of their seats and surged toward Jospin. The Assembly's official ushers rushed to form a protective cordon around the Prime Minister, and the session --televised in its entirety nationwide-- was briefly adjourned until tempers cooled.

Later, Jospin sought to take the sting out his remarks. He told reporters: "I didn't say that the Right of today was against Dreyfus. I don't think they would be against him today...I was only taking note of historic truths."

The "new Dreyfus affair," as the French press dubbed Wednesday's outburst in the Assembly, clearly demonstrated that the old one still lives on in France. But anti-Semitism is no longer respectable in the country --indeed, making public anti-Semitic remarks is a crime today. On Tuesday, the nation paid solemn tribute to Zola's manifesto against French anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards. At Paris' Pantheon, where the writer is buried alongside other French notables, Jospin noted that, in his words, "the profound causes of the country's blindness will not disappear in a single day."

The phrase "J'accuse" has since become a part of the French language. In a Paris demonstration earlier this week (Jan. 13), for example, unemployed protesters marched behind a banner reading, ""I accuse the employers." A union representative (Marcel Cabasse of the largely communist CGT union) said: "Even 100 years later, Zola's famous 'J'accuse' is still in the news."

Some who led or participated in the anti-Semitic campaign triggered by the Dreyfus affair a century ago, notably some segments of the French Roman Catholic community, have this week formally apologized for their behavior. In a front-page editorial Tuesday, the Catholic daily "La Croix" asked for pardon for the rabid anti-Semitic editorials it printed a century ago --two of which were entitled "It is the Jewish enemy betraying France" and "Down with the Jews!"

Zola's famous broadside also had another important effect on France, which endures until today. "J'accuse" began the intervention of intellectuals in political disputes that has now become a common practice in the country.

Some French intellectuals have since distinguished themselves in support of worthy causes. Nobel-prize winning writer Alfred Camus and political historian and analyst Raymond Aron, for instance, led a rather lonely fight against communism in France in the three decades after World War Two.

But two of Camus and Aron's contemporaries, writers Jean-Paul Sartre and his constant companion Simone de Beauvoir, will go down in the history as having supported the communists even after the Moscow-led 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Finally disgusted by Soviet-style communism in the 1970s, Sartre eventually became a Maoist, another black mark against him in the history books. As for de Beauvoir, she transferred her allegiance to militant feminism.

In the 1920s, a then obscure writer by the name of Julien Benda wrote a now famous book called, "The Treason of the Intellectuals." In it, he denounced French intellectuals as moral traitors those who betray truth and justice for racial and political considerations.

Ironically, Benda himself later became a communist supporter. But his denunciation still carries weight in France today, where intellectuals often embarrass themselves and others by naive or pernicious interventions in political affairs. It's hard to escape the conclusion that France could use a latter-day Zola to write a new "J'accuse" about its contemporary intellectuals.