The rise of the far right puts the Dreyfus affair in the spotlight in the race for the French elections | Emmanuel Macron


More than a century after being exonerated, Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer whose false conviction for treason sparked heated controversy, burst into the French presidential race amid far-right attempts to question his innocence.

Emmanuel Macron personally inaugurated last week the first museum dedicated to the Dreyfus affair, a historical collection on display in the house of Émile Zola, the best-known writer and defender of the persecuted officer, in Medan to the west from Paris.

In the presence of the descendants of the artillery captain, the French president declared that nothing could repair the humiliations and injustices suffered by Dreyfus, but added emphatically: “Let us not aggravate it by forgetting them, by deepening them or by repeating them.

Macron particularly stressed the continued need to fight the anti-Semitism behind the officer’s persecution. “I say to young people: don’t forget anything about these fights,” he said. “In the world we live in, in our country and in our Republic, they are not over.”

Alfred Dreyfus in his room on Devil’s Island in 1898. Photograph: GL Archive / Alamy

The comments have been widely interpreted as targeting Eric Zemmour, the far-right, anti-immigrant and polemic television expert who, although he has not declared his candidacy, is predicted by some polls to reach the second round of the April presidential election. Zemmour claimed that France’s collaborationist warlord Philippe Pétain saved the lives of French Jews, rather than aiding their deportation to Nazi death camps, and has repeatedly stated that the truth about Dreyfus was not clear.

“A lot of people were ready to whitewash Dreyfus, but this matter is murky,” Zemmour, 63, told a TV show late last year. “We will never know” if the allegations against him were lies, he said of another, adding that his innocence was “not obvious”.

Macron also suggested after his inauguration of the museum, which contains more than 500 exhibits and was co-funded by Pierre Bergé, the late partner of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, and anti-racist activists, which the military may consider promoting as posthumous Dreyfus to the rank of general.

The officer’s exemption has long been seen as an affront to national pride by the French far right, and historians say Zemmour – whose parents were Jewish Algerians of French nationality – is far from the first ultra-nationalist to challenge his innocence.

An army colonel was a cashier in 1994 for publishing an article suggesting Dreyfus’ guilt, which led a lawyer for Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former far-right leader, to claim that the exemption of the captain had been “contrary to all known jurisprudence”.

Other far-right writers have argued that the Dreyfus affair was “orchestrated” by “a secret and occult power” and “seriously weakened France” in the run-up to World War I by undermining “the national identity and pride ”. More recently, said historian Marc Knobel, who advises the government on anti-racism and anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalists have made concerted attempts to rehabilitate far-right figures like Marshal Pétain and Charles Maurras.

“The far right has become less inhibited in the face of the past, less defensive in the face of accusations of treason, dishonesty, division and collaboration leveled against it,” Knobel wrote in The Two Worlds Review. “Proclaiming the possible guilt of Alfred Dreyfus is no accident, it is part of a revisionist strategy. Zemmour, he says, “claims to like history. But history is not a weather vane that moves according to a simple ideology. It’s a science.

History is certainly sometimes revised, but “by study, by the discovery of new archives, new witnesses.” Knowledge is obviously not fixed, ”Knobel said.

But with regard to the Dreyfus affair, “historians and researchers have been exploring this vast field of study for decades. And they continue to demonstrate, unanimously, the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. Only Zemmour sows suspicion.

Dreyfus was found guilty by a secret court martial in 1894 of having transmitted military secrets to the Germans and, after being ceremoniously stripped of his rank and his sword broken, sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in Guyana. French.

While the army tried in vain to cover up the guilt of another officer, Major Esterhazy, for the crime, France split into two fiercely opposed camps: the anti-Dreyfusards, right-wing nationalists convinced of his guilt, and the Dreyfusards, mostly from the left. wing antimilitarists. “J’accuse,” Zola’s famous open letter to the president accusing the government of anti-Semitism and unlawful imprisonment, was featured on the front page of Dawn newspaper of January 13, 1898, which earned the author a conviction for defamation.

Far-right commentator Eric Zemmour
Far-right commentator Eric Zemmour questioned Dreyfus’ exemption. Photograph: Chesnot / Getty

Later in the year, the editor of the Observer, Rachel Beer, tracked down Esterhazy, who was in hiding in London, and released her confession to the crime.

Growing public outrage eventually led Dreyfus to appear before a new court martial in 1899, which again found him guilty. In a gesture intended to save the face of the army, he was pardoned and released from prison by the new president, Émile Loubet, but was not officially exonerated until 1906.