Chirac seeks closure over Dreyfus affair

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President Jacques Chirac will attempt today to close a controversy which has divided France for more than a century - the case of the Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of spying for the Germans in 1894.

In a "national ceremony" described by the Elysée Palace as "a great moment in history", M. Chirac will make a speech to mark the centenary of the final acquittal of Captain Dreyfus on 12 July 1906.

The speech will take place in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, where in 1895 the young, Jewish officer was stripped of his badges of rank before a baying crowd of 20,000 people.

The President is expected, in effect, to re-habilitate Dreyfus fully for the first time. He will describe him as not just the victim of an appalling miscarriage of justice but as a great patriot and a great Frenchman. M. Chirac is also likely to give a warning against the rise of a "new" anti-semitism amongst some black people in France - and the survival of an older kind of anti-semitism amongst some ultra-Catholic whites.

The President has, however, rebuffed moves by the captain's latest biographer and several prominent politicians for the remains of Dreyfus to be exhumed and placed in the Pantheon, the resting place of the official heroes of the French state.

The Elysee has declined to explain its decision officially. Sources suggest that M. Chirac decided that the Pantheon was for people who "did something" important. Dreyfus, famously, did nothing. In other words, he was mostly an innocent victim, rather than a hero. This is hotly disputed by many Dreyfus supporters or "Dreyfussards".

His most recent biographer, the historian Vincent Duclert, says that the courage of Dreyfus in never giving up on democracy and justice helped to prevent France from plunging into a kind of fascist, ultra-Catholic authoritarianism.

Captain Dreyfus was an obscure captain at military headquarters in Paris in October 1894 when he was accused of selling to the Germans a document showing the results of tests on a new piece of artillery. There was no scrap of evidence against him but he was found guilty by a military court, largely because he was Jewish.

He was sent to a hard labour camp at Devil's Island in French Guyana but continued to send letters to Paris protesting his innocence and confidence in French justice. Even when clear evidence emerged that another officer, from a high-Catholic family, was the likely culprit, a second military court found Dreyfus guilty once again in 1899.

Amid national uproar, he was pardoned by President Emile Loubet six days later. His name was not fully cleared until an appeal court ruling in July 1906.

His most recent biographer, the historian Vincent Duclert, says that the courage of Dreyfus, in never giving up on democracy and justice, helped to prevent France from plunging into a kind of fascist, ultra-Catholic authoritarianism.

"He never despaired of the capacity of France to restore his lost honour," he said. "His love of France built the France we know. He never despaired to establishing rights and placed justice at the core of society. He is France."

Other pro-Dreyfus historians suggest that the real work to save him - and save France - was undertaken by democratic patriots like the novelist, Emile Zola. It was Zola who first brought "the case" widely to public attention with an essay filling the front page of the newspaper L'Aurore on 13 January 1898, under the celebrated head-line "J'accuse".

On the far right - and even on the extremes of the conservative, Catholic right - the innocence of Dreyfus is now grudgingly accepted. Nonetheless, the victory of the Dreyfus camp is still seen as a Bad Thing. By using " L'affaire Dreyfus" as a stick to beat the military, the church and conservative values, the hard Right argues, the Republican "left" sapped French "greatness" at the dawn of the 20th century.

By giving public homage to Dreyfus, the centre-right President will come down today on the republican side of the argument. The controversy is likely to continue.