France still haunted by the spectre of Dreyfus

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The Independent Online
The headline "J'Accuse...!", published 100 years ago today, changed the course of French history. It led, eventually, to the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain found guilty of treason on trumped- up, anti-Semitic charges.

John Lichfield in Paris asks why, a century later, the Dreyfus Affair still reverberates so powerfully in France.

The novelist Emile Zola wrote hundreds of thousands of words but he is best remembered for just two which, properly speaking, he did not write.

It was Georges Clemenceau, editor of L'Aurore, later prime minister of France, who decided to splash "J'accuse ...!" on the front of his newspaper, above Zola's lyrically angry intervention in the Dreyfus case.

The writer, author of Germinal and La Bete Humaine, used the words over and over in the text but he had titled his piece, rather pedantically, "Letter to the President of the Republic". It was Clemenceau's startling headline - all the more startling because such headlines were not yet common - which increased circulation of the newspaper 12-fold to 300,000 and helped Zola to change the alarming direction of "L'Affaire Dreyfus".

France celebrates the headline and the Zola letter this week with ceremonies, seminars, and the draping of a 150-square- metre reproduction of the front page of L'Aurore over the facade of the National Assembly. President Jacques Chirac has marked the occasion with an eloquent letter to the descendants of Zola and Dreyfus. "The Dreyfus Affair," he said, "tore French society apart, divided families, split the country into two enemy camps, which attacked each other with exceptional violence ..." It was a reminder, he said, that the "forces of darkness, intolerance and injustice can penetrate to the highest levels of the state". Why is the Dreyfus case still such a live issue in France? Arguably, it changed the course of French history, confirming France as a republican and democratic state, defeating the forces of extreme nationalism, racism, clericalism and nostalgic royalism which might have pushed the country into a kind of proto-fascism or Francoism. It was Zola's letter which tipped the balance, persuading other French writers and scholars to join the battle to exonerate Dreyfus. This was the supreme prototype for the engagement of French intellectuals in politics; the word intellectuel was first used as a noun during the Dreyfus Affair.

Secondly, the existence and strength of the far-right National Front - direct spiritual descendants of the die-hard, anti-Dreyfus camp - means that the struggle with intolerance, injustice and anti- Semitism is far from over. Publications close to the NF still regularly proclaim the guilt of Dreyfus. His statue at the Place Pierre-Lafue in the sixth arrondissement in Paris, erected three years ago, is frequently daubed with anti-Semitic slogans. As recently as 1994 the head of the French army history department was dismissed for allowing the military's magazine to publish an article which described the innocence of Dreyfus, unenthusiastically, as a "thesis generally held by historians".

Finally, the broader issues raised by the case - raison d'etat versus individual justice and truth - remain live forces in all politics but especially in the French political psyche. Witness the cynical bombing of the Rainbow Warrior or the French government's realpolitik support of the genocidal Hutu regime in Rwanda.

Dreyfus was an obscure artillery captain in French military headquarters when he was accused in 1894 of writing a memo to the German embassy, containing a sort of shopping list of French military secrets. Few facts pointed to his guilt but he was Jewish and had been born in Alsace, then part of Germany. The case was used, with great success, by nationalists, the clergy and the higher echelons of the military to whip up a xenophobic and anti-Semitic frenzy.

Dreyfus was convicted, stripped publicly of all his military insignia and placed in a kind of cage on Devil's Island, a tiny outcrop off the coast of Guyana. Evidence emerged that another officer - Ferdinand Esterhazy, a scoundrel married into the French aristocracy - had written the memo to the German ambassador. To no avail. New evidence was fabricated by the French military to confirm the guilt of Dreyfus.

It was the scandalous acquittal of Esterhazy by a court martial in 1898 which persuaded Zola that the case was not only a gross miscarriage of justice but a threat to the political and personal freedoms established by the French people since the Revolution.

His intervention began the first concerted campaign to prove the innocence of Dreyfus. A year later the captain was re-tried by court martial but again, found guilty on no evidence whatsoever. He was immediately pardoned by the President and released. It was not until 1906 - four years after Zola's death - that the supreme French civil appeal court declared Dreyfus to be innocent.