From museums to TV, far-right gives Dreyfus affair new meaning in France

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MÉDAN, France — It’s been more than a century since the Dreyfus affair first electrified France.

But when a museum dedicated to the infamous saga flung open its doors recently on the banks of the River Seine, it seemed to carry an unwelcome resonance.

The false accusation that a Jewish army captain was a German spy divided France at the time but has long stood as a symbol of the nationalist fervor that swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This new effort to memorialize the episode was launched amid fresh fears of far-right success — and a renewed fight over French identity and history.

Éric Zemmour, a firebrand TV pundit turned presidential candidate who is himself Jewish, shocked many in the country and beyond by questioning the innocence of the wrongly convicted Alfred Dreyfus, according to local media reports, and by claiming that France’s wartime Vichy regime had “protected” French Jews while handing over foreign ones. Zemmour has said he wants France to be proud of its history. “Our glorious past speaks in favor of our future,” he said in a video announcing his candidacy last month. 

But the pundit’s revisionism and rapid rise in popularity left mainstream French figures concerned that ideas once consigned to the fringes were increasingly becoming mainstream and that in seeking to relitigate these old battles, a more emboldened far right might once again legitimize the politics of hate and exclusion. 

The affair was brought to prominence by writer Emile Zola’s 1898 article ‘J’accuse,’ which helped turn the tide in Dreyfus’ favor. He was later exonerated.Ludovic Marin / Pool via Getty Images

It was amid rampant media speculation concerning Zemmour’s presidential ambitions that President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated the museum, housed on the grounds of the home of the army captain’s great defender, writer Émile Zola, to the west of Paris in October. 

Dreyfus and his family had suffered injustices and humiliations that could never be repaired, Macron said. “Let us not aggravate them by forgetting, worsening or repeating them,” he said.

Macron called on France’s youth to “forget nothing of these past battles, because they tell you that the world in which we live, our country, our republic are not acquired but are the fruit of indispensable struggles.” 

The Dreyfus affair was a seminal example of European antisemitism and a harbinger for the wave of hatred that would spread across the continent in the next half-century. Questioning his innocence has long been a red line on both the mainstream French left and right.  

“Except [for]the most extreme people … history has been written,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist who specializes in far-right politics in Europe. “Dreyfus was not a traitor. He was sentenced, he appealed and he won.” 

For his part, Macron has sought to position himself as the heir to France’s great leaders and has prompted the country to grapple with its thorny past. In a delicate dance that seems designed to appease both the right and left, Macron has refused to vilify French imperialists, most notably Napoleon, but has recognized their wrongdoing. 

Macron inaugurated the Dreyfus museum while surrounded by the late army captain’s relatives, as well as those of the writer Zola. Ludovic Marin / Pool via Getty Images

Zemmour is seeking to defeat Macron next April and win the presidency by pledging to “save” the country from its supposed decline, speaking directly to nostalgic right-wing voters. A press officer for Zemmour did not respond to a request for comment. 

The parallels between the Dreyfus era and modern France are not lost on Philippe Oriol, the director of the museum in Médan, who spoke to NBC News after a small number of Covid-restricted ticket holders had taken in the museum’s multimedia exhibition during a recent visit.  

“The question of racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, the question of secularism, what democracy is, the republic, the press and the way it acts,” he said, ticking off the debates of that period that are still current today. “It’s absolutely fascinating to see.”

“[Zemmour] is on a political line with Charles Maurras,” Oriol said, referring to the French nationalist writer who was a leading voice in the anti-Dreyfusard camp at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Fabien Nury, the creator of TV drama “Paris Police 1900,” which aired earlier this year in France and the U.K., said he had also been struck by the parallels between that period and the spread of far-right sentiment in Western democracies today.    

“I didn’t plan for it to be contemporary,” he said recently of his series, which is set against the backdrop of the Dreyfus affair. “I’d be much happier if it wasn’t so relevant to our current times.” 

A number of high-profile antisemitic incidents in recent years have served as a reminder that the old hatred is very much alive in modern France. 

Francis Kalifat, the president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, said Zemmour risked taking France backward. He has called into question “Jewish pain,” Kalifat said. “Zemmour has become the standard-bearer of revisionism in our country.” 

Zemmour, whose parents were French Algerian Jews, has angered many in the country’s Jewish community with his views.Rafael Yaghobzadeh / AP

This may not only be a concern for French Jews but also for the country’s Muslims — a frequent target of the contemporary far right — among others.

Earlier this month, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the presidential candidate for the main left-wing Socialist Party, caused a stir after local media reported that she’d compared the language used to talk about Muslims today to that employed against Jews in the 1930s. 

France’s relationship with Islam is complex. The country has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe, a legacy of its colonial domination of large parts of Africa and the Middle East. And in recent years, it has been scarred by deadly terrorist attacks, many of which were carried out by homegrown radical Islamists. 

Anti-Muslim “acts” have been on the rise, according to officials and statistics from community groups.

Zemmour has described Islam as “incompatible with France” and repeatedly espoused the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. But he said he makes a distinction between Islam and Muslims and that everyone has the right to practice their religion. He has called on immigrants to do more to assimilate. 

The idea that a minority community is undermining France from within resembles the rhetoric of Catholic nationalists toward Jews at the turn of the century, according to Jean Garrigues, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Orléans. 

“It’s exactly the same approach the nationalist right took at the time of the Dreyfus affair and … at the start of the 20th century, he added. 

For Garrigues, putting French identity and prestige above all else risks sidelining the values that hold French society together — those of the republic that first turned on Dreyfus but then exonerated him. 

“It brings intolerance,” Garrigues said. “It brings the exclusion of those who aren’t considered French.”

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