The Dreyfus Affair, which began in 1894, is a cause célèbre that refuses to go away. The framing of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on espionage charges split public opinion in France into pro and anti Dreyfusard camps.
What gave the case added resonance and placed it high on the list of historic miscarriages of justice was the overwhelming stench of anti semitism surrounding the entire episode. France was recovering from the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) and the German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. Ultra-nationalists in particular were out for revanche (revenge) against Germany to win back the “lost” provinces.
The paranoid atmosphere at the top of the French military establishment was heightened by the discovery that one of their number was passing secrets to the German embassy. The top brass had little hesitation in deciding that the Jewish Dreyfus was the person responsible, largely due to their antisemitic belief that Jewish citizens could not be “true Frenchmen”. That Dreyfus had earned his post through merit rather than aristocratic connections was another reason why he was deemed “not one of us”.
Dreyfus was found guilty of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment, and packed off to the dreaded penal colony of Devil’s Island. A year or so later the real culprit, a certain Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, was unmasked, yet the military hierarchy tried to suppress this and fabricated documents to further frame Dreyfus.
The efforts of investigative journalists and the incendiary “J’accuse” article by Emile Zola attacking the French President for failing to exonerate Dreyfus eventually led to his complete rehabilitation in 1906.
Paris Police 1900, an eight-part TV series created by Fabian Nury and shown recently on the BBC gives a reasonable approximation of what the political climate France was like at the time. It is largely accurate in terms of historical detail, including a salacious opening scene where President Felix Faure succumbs to a heart attack whilst his mistress performs fellatio on him.
A significant focus of the series is Jules Guerin, leader of the Antisemitic League, which published a weekly newspaper charmingly entitled L’Antijuif. Guerin and various other characters on the far right including royalists conspired for a coup against the Republic. They hoped that organising anti Dreyfus riots in Paris would encourage the army to intervene and establish a military dictatorship. Their attempt was foiled by Louis Lepine, Prefect of Paris Police, whose officers besieged Guerin’s fortified house on the Rue Chabrol for 23 days before he surrendered.
Reminding us of the Dreyfus case is particularly timely in the run up to next year’s Presidential elections in France, as a new candidate of the far right may very well be standing. He is Éric Zemmour, who has been given considerable space on French TV to style himself as an anti-establishment “truth teller” with a heavy focus on stoking hatred against the Muslim community.
Zemmour is essentially a French version of Trump. He has promoted the “great replacement” scare that the established white and Christian population will become a minority (while his far right rival Marine Le Pen has avoided doing that so far) . Dipping even further into history’s poisoned well, Zemmour has cast doubt on the innocence of Dreyfus, saying it was “not obvious”.
Zemmour has defended the fascist wartime regime of Marshall Pétain, claiming it had actually saved Jews from the Nazi death camps!
Zemmour’s remark concerning Dreyfus and Pétain seem particularly bizarre considering that both his parents are Jewish. He is living proof, though, that you can be both Jewish and antisemitic. (Likewise, Zemmour rages against immigration, though his parents are migrants from Algeria).
No doubt he reckons his “contrarian” rants will maintain his high media profile as well as chiming in with the traditional prejudices of a significant minority of the French population. Add Zemmour’s polling numbers to those of Le Pen at they come out at around 34%, which is probably not far short of the size of the anti Dreyfusard camp at the turn of the last century.
My main criticism of Nury’s series is that there’s not all that much focus on the pro-Dreyfus forces. There are some shadowy anarchists who confront the antisemitic rioters, but they are a bit cardboard cutouts. The strong support of most of the French population for civil rights and secular values doesn’t really get much emphasis in the drama.
I asked a French friend if she’d been watching the series and she related a remark that had been handed down in her family that was made by a relative who would migrate from Poland to France. “What! Fifty percent of the people support the Jews! And they allow Jews to join the army! I want to go and live in Paris!”
• Paris Police 1900 is available on BBC iPlayer