French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Dreyfus Museum near Paris on October 26, 2021. LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.
On October 28 of last year, the French president Emmanuel Macron spoke at a ceremony marking the opening of his country’s new Dreyfus Museum. In his speech, he adhered to the classic French republican “love of language and . . . taste for truth and justice,” and made clear that he sees the museum as the embodiment of those ideals. His remarks and his overall investment of political capital in the event demonstrate the importance he attaches to the museum, and to the history it attempts to convey. And he’s not alone: the Dreyfus Affair is considered one of the founding moments of the French Republic. Macron’s speech at the opening of the museum, and some recent controversies in the French media, suggest that it is a wound that has not entirely healed.
The Affair began in 1894, when a French army officer named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of passing military secrets to the Germans on the basis of a torn-up note—known as the bordereau—that a maid found in a wastepaper basket at the German embassy. He was the only Jew working for the French general staff at the time, and the case soon became fodder for the French anti-Semitic press. In 1895, Dreyfus was convicted of treason, stripped of his rank, and exiled to Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guyana. The next year, the newly appointed head of military intelligence reported that he had found evidence exonerating Dreyfus, and was immediately reassigned to a far less desirable command in Tunisia. The case was later reopened, and eventually the truth came out: the real perpetrator was Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, an officer of aristocratic lineage; Dreyfus had been deliberately framed; and the upper echelons of the military had been involved in the coverup. In 1906, Dreyfus was fully exonerated; he went on to serve in the army, fought in World War I, and died in 1935.
It’s difficult to overestimate the effects of this episode on French politics and society; in the American context, it could be compared to the combined trials of Dred Scott, Alger Hiss, and O.J. Simpson. To simplify somewhat, those who insisted that Dreyfus be exonerated, the Dreyfusards, believed France should continue to be a secular democracy and supported the Third Republic; those who believed him guilty, the anti-Dreyfusards, were religious or social conservatives, and often monarchists. Even in the 1930s, the gulf between the two camps remained politically relevant. The case still resonates as a symbol of past sins, much as various incidents of the persecution of black Americans do in the U.S.
It was the novelist and essayist Emile Zola who, more than anyone else, made the case into a liberal cause with his 1898 open letter “J’Accuse,” in which he argued that government officials had perfidiously set Dreyfus up. Fittingly, the new museum is attached to Zola’s former home in the Paris suburb of Médan, itself a museum and memorial that was reopened at the same October 28 ceremony.
The Dreyfus exhibit consists of several rooms displaying various images: photographs, newspapers, brochures, posters, leaflets, and even a facsimile of the infamous bordereau. There is of course a copy of the newspaper L’Aurore with “J’Accuse” printed on the front page. Some light projections, songs, and videos—and most impressively, a recording of Dreyfus’s voice—breathe life into the story.
Set up by a small association of enthusiasts, apparently with limited resources, the museum lacks books, objects, uniforms, or artifacts, except for a few Dreyfus family pictures. Little effort is made to explain the legal, political, and military dimensions of the Affair. Those who do not already understand its complexity will be left with a rather superficial overview. Incidentally, the museum fails to mention the major influence of the Dreyfus trial on Theodor Herzl’s then-nascent ideas about the need for a Jewish state.
Yet the Dreyfus Museum meets a real need: to learn and to remember. The paucity of artifacts and the simplicity of the exhibit don’t necessarily detract from that. But what is supposed to be learned and remembered? While a visitor walks away with an impression of the virulent anti-Semitism of the 1890s, the museum’s stated purpose is “asking questions about the vital issues of tolerance, otherness, the rights of men and women, secularism, the Republic, and the role that citizens can play in it.” However ambitious and honorable these intentions may be, they dilute the specificity of the anti-Semitism that is at the heart of the matter. Dreyfus thus appears as a martyr who endured persecution in the name of universal values rather than a Jew who paid the price of an indelible particularism. This is not an accident. The president, too, carefully omitted the word anti-Semitism in his inaugural speech.
If Macron wasn’t interested in condemning anti-Semitism—which would have been an obvious move, given the parlous situation of French Jewry—what was his purpose? Could it be to strike a blow against a competitor in the race for the 2022 presidential election: Eric Zemmour, a Jewish journalist who holds himself up as the avatar of traditional French values? Zemmour’s objective is to replace Marine Le Pen at the head of the French far right, and to merge this movement with mainstream conservatives in order to win the presidency. In a television program on Zola, a month before the inauguration, Zemmour expressed some doubt about the Dreyfus case’s outcome: “Many were ready to say that Dreyfus was innocent, even if this story is also murky, but we are not going to redo the Dreyfus trial here.” Two weeks later, speaking on the subject of the forgeries and expert reports used as evidence against Dreyfus, he went further and said that we would “never know” the whole truth. Was Dreyfus innocent? He replied: “it is not obvious” and in any case, he was accused not “so much as a Jew” but as a “German,” i.e., a native of Alsace, which had been a French province since the 17th century but was occupied by Germany since 1870.
Does Zemmour believe for a moment that Dreyfus was guilty? A provocateur by nature, he insinuates and raises suspicion without making his claims straight out, as a way of demonstrating his fealty to the far right. His assault on the truth makes the museum all the more necessary. By inaugurating it on the eve of the electoral campaign, Macron can position himself, at a low political cost, on the side of justice and truth. As was the case 100 years ago, the Dreyfus Affair still serves as a proxy for other issues. And perhaps Macron avoided condemning anti-Semitism lest he alienate anti-Semitic voters.
But it’s not just Zemmour and Macron who have once again made the Dreyfus Affair relevant. The marginal fringe of society that does not accept the idea that a Jew could be innocent has never entirely gone away, or even stayed marginal. In 1994, the head of the army’s historical service questioned Dreyfus’s innocence; the minister of defense immediately terminated his duties. Far-right authors have consistently insinuated that the captain was in fact guilty, and denounced the permanent mea culpa imposed on the nation by the Affair’s outcome.
French Jews saw the controversies of the 1990s as minor outbursts of residual passions that did not deserve further attention. In a France that was becoming less and less anti-Semitic, the torch of Jew-hatred was taken up by the Muslim community. Since 2000, all serious anti-Semitic acts have been committed by Muslims. Jewish worries about the far right thus shifted as both the political class and the press responded with total denial of the new reality. In light of newer and more urgent threats, the anti-Dreyfusard far right seemed to Jews a desperate movement with little capacity to cause harm. Twenty years later, it is back in force. According to a recent survey, 40 percent of French officers believe that Dreyfus was not innocent. What a boon for the far right that a Jew is now raising suspicions about Dreyfus’s guilt! And what a boon for Macron that he can drape himself in republican virtue by standing up for Dreyfus while campaigning for a second term.
The inauguration of the Museum, therefore, has not only a memorial function, but also a political one, in the highest sense of the term: to remind France of the dangers of divisions such as those created by the Dreyfus Affair, and as a reminder that the Republic and its values must be defended with constant vigilance. It is also political in the grittier sense, in that it is electorally useful for the president.
But none of these functions involves highlighting the danger that anti-Semitism poses to society. The museum is an object lesson of the fact that remembering goes along with forgetting: it casts light on what it wants to retain in order to better leave in the shadows what it wants to make disappear.
The French political elite can claim that there are no longer parades chanting “Death to the Jews” in French streets as there were during the Dreyfus Affair, and that, in any case, the laws no longer permit such excesses. But while the latter is true, such a parade did take place in 2014. More importantly, in the 1890s the dogs barked but hardly bit, and no Jews were killed (except in Algeria). Today, calls for murder are forbidden, but murders of Jews multiply, and not at the hands of the far right: the squalid killings of Sébastien Sellam in 2003 and Ilan Halimi in 2006, or the Toulouse school and Paris kosher-shop massacres of 2012 and 2015. Mireille Knoll, a survivor of the Shoah, was stabbed to death in her bed in 2018 by a young man shouting “Allahu Akbar.” A year earlier, Sarah Halimi was beaten to death before being defenestrated to the sound of Quranic verses. Her murderer escaped prosecution because he was in a so-called marijuana-induced “acute delirious episode” at the time. (It is worth noting that similar drug consumption had been an aggravating circumstance for a man who had earlier defenestrated a dog in Marseille. But such circumstances do not generally exculpate homicide.)
In short, Jews are more afraid in France today than in the 1890s.
As for governmental anti-Semitism, it would be illusory to believe it evaporated with the High Court of Justice’s 1906 decision to exonerate Dreyfus completely and to restore him to his previous rank. The Vichy years remind us of this, as do some more recent incidents.
According to the invaluable website MEMRI, in September 2010, France’s ambassador to the Council of Europe, Mr. P., was summarily recalled, reported to the public prosecutor, and sent into early retirement. He didn’t even find out the nature of the accusations against him—which were both unproven and minor—until two years later, as the incriminating report had been removed from his file. Nothing of the sort happened to diplomats who committed theft or other crimes, like the two French ambassadors convicted of corruption and influence peddling on behalf of Saddam Hussein in the context of the UN’s “oil-for-food” program. The last French diplomat to be subjected to such a procedure was the pro-Vichy writer and diplomat Paul Morand in 1945. However, a few years later he was discreetly reinstated to his pension after a famous (and infamous) decision of the High Court of Administrative Justice—whose government commissioner at the time was Georges Pompidou, later president of the Republic. While one can’t conclude with any certainty that Mr. P was forced out because he is a Jew, it’s hard to guess what other reason there could have been for his dismissal.
Eight years later, Mr. D, a senior figure at the General Directorate of Internal Intelligence (the equivalent of the FBI) was slated to become the head of the future European Intelligence College proposed by Macron himself, when he was ousted from the security service before taking his new position. His crime? He had provided security on a voluntary basis for the Jewish primary school where his child was enrolled. As a result, he was suspected of having links with the Mossad, and thus, in the mind of some high-ranking intelligence officials in a position to make this decision, a traitor. The justice system still refuses to show Mr. D the document—should we call it the new bordereau?—stating the charges. The government, with the help of a servile administrative justice system specific to some countries with a French legal culture, is trying to hush up the incident, whereas a century earlier it had given maximum publicity to the accusations of treason against a Jewish officer in the general staff. Methods change, but the tradition of “secret files” is not lost in French justice when Jews are concerned, despite the president’s grandiloquence.
In his speech at the museum’s opening, Macron quite rightly declared: “Nothing will repair [the Dreyfus family’s] humiliations, but let us not make them worse by letting them be forgotten, aggravated, or repeated.” It is through the struggles for justice and truth, he added, that “the Republic has become fully itself” and it is necessary “to transmit the fortitude that it takes to wage them.” In particular, he took a stand against those who want to separate the Republic from France, a pointed rebuke at anti-republicans sympathizing with Zemmour—who has even won support from some Jews desperate for anyone who would protect them from the Islamist menace.
Both the president’s speech and the museum’s homepage mislead us. At the beginning of the 21st century, the four main forms of anti-Semitism in France are generally denied: Islamic and far-left anti-Semitism are minimized by the elite, including the French Jewish establishment, and populist (e.g., that of the yellow-vest protestors) and far-right anti-Semitism are minimized by those Jews who support Zemmour. In a way, the museum reconciles the two in error. If the creation of a Dreyfus Museum is to be welcomed, French Jews are not fooled: it is a reminder that, as always, the main function of yesterday’s Jewish victims is to make society forget the Jewish victims of today.