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Published on March 5, 2008
"The Dreyfus Affair - An unlikely chance for France ?" - Intervention by Mr. Emmanuel Lenain, Press Counselor, French Embassy to the United States.

Yeshiva University Museum, February 5, 2008

I would like to tell you how pleased I am to be here today and to speak to you on the occasion of this excellent exhibit organized jointly by the Yeshiva University Museum and the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris. Let me also extend my warmest thanks to my friend Richard Weisberg and to all the organizers. But while the pleasure is real, I won’t hide from you that there’s a small curse hidden in the blessing: For me—not at all a specialist—speaking to you about the Dreyfus Affair after hearing the remarks of eminent experts who have devoted nearly their whole lives to it, is hardly an easy exercise. I would like in particular to pay tribute to Charles Dreyfus and Vincent Duclerc, whom I am particularly happy to have had the opportunity to meet today.

I was asked to make a comparison between France and the United States. I’m not telling you anything new when I say that the Dreyfus Affair played out on the stage of late 19th-century France, and that the United States did not experience a truly comparable moment. Could such an affair only have happened in France? Why not in the United States? Should it be seen as a sign that France is an anti-Semitic country, as we sometimes hear? I don’t believe that in the least, and I would like to try to see it less as a black moment in our national history than as a decisive chance. A paradoxical chance, perhaps, but real nonetheless: it established the true foundations of the French fight against anti-Semitism.

As I’ve said, I’m not an historian. That is why I am going to share a few simple convictions while asking you, once again, to be lenient.

* * *

My first conviction: The Dreyfus Affair was a seminal moment for contemporary France, somewhat comparable to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

The Dreyfus Affair may be seen as the first major civic moment in Republican France, a moment when people committed themselves to defending not their own interests but the civic principles they deemed intrinsically linked to the idea of the Republic.

Originally, however, Dreyfusard France did not defend the Jews, did not combat anti-Semitism: It defended liberty; it fought injustice. The Dreyfusard fight was a fight for truth—a fight to defend the principles of the French Revolution. But over the years, with anti-Semitism constituting the main argument of the anti-Dreyfusard camp, the Dreyfusards came to fight this ideology of hatred itself, an ideology that led Republican France to voluntarily shut its eyes, to reject its founding principles. In J’accuse, Emile Zola attacked an army that was perverting the meaning of the word justice, leading him naturally to denounce the “hunt for ‘dirty Jews’ that dishonors our time.”

During the Affair, the fight against anti-Semitism gradually came to stand on its own, legitimate in its own right. This was a decisive moment: Anti-Semitic ideology was condemned for what it was; a France emerged, albeit still a minority, that irrevocably conceived of this fight as an absolute duty.

The United States has obviously never experienced a Dreyfus Affair. In 1898, while passions in France were at their highest, Morris Jastrow, a Jewish professor at the University of Pennsylvania wrote, “It is, in my opinion, neither accurate nor just to speak of anti-Semitism in the United States.” One could contest that assertion, but nevertheless the United States has never been rocked by a comparable anti-Semitic crisis. Yet it too has had its civic moment, and while very different, the two fights sometimes resemble one another.

Sixty years after the Dreyfus Affair, the Civil Rights Movement rocked the United States in a rather similar way. As early as 1898, Albion Tourgee, the pioneering defender of civil rights, wrote a letter to President McKinley comparing the situation of the Jews in France to that of the blacks in the South. Indeed, the confrontation that developed in the United States as a result of the racial question in the 1960s presents analogies with that of the Dreyfus Affair. As in France 60 years earlier, it was not racism that was new, but the fact that people were opposing it, that it was no longer being tolerated. And as in the Dreyfus Affair, the confrontation was violent, and in this sense seminal. The United States has since been in the forefront of the fight against racism through laws such as affirmative action. Likewise, there were a few great figures—Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson—who led the entire country in this exceptional civic moment.

Like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Dreyfus Affair implanted deep-seated values in France that we cannot go back on. This brings me to my second conviction.

* * *

My second conviction: Without this “civic moment,” the French Republic would be less moral.

In the wake of the Affair, the fight against anti-Semitism soon became a fight to defend the Republic.

In 1898-1899, after reassessing the situation, the Republic took up the cause that had been led by individuals, endorsing the fight against anti-Semitism.

During the course of the Affair, anti-Semitism, which increasingly took the form of an antiparliamentary nationalism, was quickly perceived as a threat to the Republican system. Paul Déroulède’s attempted coup d’état on February 23, 1899, concretized this threat, and significantly, the response shortly thereafter was the establishment of the Waldeck-Rousseau government, the self-proclaimed “Government of Republican Defense.”

This battle, which was first and foremost one of survival for a still young, potentially fragile system, established itself as a fight for principles—the principle of a moral imperative intrinsically linked to the Republic and to the principles inherited from 1789. Paradoxically, given that many political officials, at least until 1898, had been more or less compromised, the Dreyfusard victory thus appeared as the Republic’s victory; there was the almost naïve idea that the truth had finally prevailed due to the fact that there was a Republic. This reinterpretation made the Affair a seminal moment in France’s Republican mystique. It’s what led to the transfer of Dreyfus’s ashes to the Pantheon, a Republican temple if ever there was one.

Conversely, throughout the 20th century, France experienced crises whenever it ignored this moral imperative. We naturally think of the Vichy Regime, once again anti-Semitic at its core; we might also think of 1958, when the Republic’s moral imperative was tested by the Algerian War and the use of torture. But on several occasions France also demonstrated its powerful resolve to resist this destructive hatred: The Fascist League riots on February 6, 1934, were met with an even more massive civil demonstration on February 9; more recently, many French, and notably young people, spontaneously rallied to denounce the presence in the presidential run-off election of a candidate who had been convicted a number of times for his anti-Semitic remarks; more than 80% of the French subsequently voted against him.

* * *

My third conviction: We must acknowledge that anti-Semitism exists—we certainly mustn’t deny it—but France is not an anti-Semitic country.

Acts of anti-Semitic hatred are sometimes committed in France. It would be criminal to deny their reality or their gravity, but it would be both a historical and a political error to extrapolate from that the idea—all too often heard these days—that France is an anti-Semitic country. It is not one today, and no doubt it was not in the 19th century. Calling France anti-Semitic reveals an ignorance of history.

• Never mind that in 1791, Revolutionary France was the first country in Europe to grant Jews full citizenship, something that—in continental France at least—was never challenged throughout the 19th century, rich as it was in political reversals.

• Never mind that France is proud to harbor the world’s second-largest Jewish community, after the United States, and that it is proud of the heritage of its great Jewish politicians such as Léon Blum in 1936 and Pierre Mendès-France in 1954. In the United States, it wasn’t until 2000 that a Jewish candidate appeared on the presidential ticket.

• Never mind that when the Dreyfus Affair broke out, France had no special status for Jews, unlike several states of the German Reich. Nor had it experienced for centuries the pogroms that still existed in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. Yet like most European countries, hostility toward Jews remained powerful, nurtured for centuries by the Catholic Church, which held the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus; by the Socialists, who called the Jews a “corrupt race on the side of capital”; and, more and more, by the nationalists who held them to be “hardly French” and as such, inclined to betray them. The Dreyfus Affair did indeed constitute an “anti-Semitic moment,” representing the violent unleashing of this resentment. But there was an “Affair” precisely because there were those who opposed anti-Semitism, who wouldn’t go along with it. At a time when, in Germany notably, an anti-Semitic party was forming that would enter politics with no major obstacles, France ended up on the brink of civil war because first its intellectuals and then its leaders rose up to reject the condemnation of an innocent Jew and, for the first time, to denounce anti-Semitic madness. The failure of French parliamentary anti-Semitism, initiated in 1898 and nipped in the bud, is a revelation of this refusal to go along with or accept anti-Semitism in any way.

* * *

My fourth conviction: You don’t explain anti-Semitism, you fight it.

It is precisely because it is responsible for this historic heritage that France must never deny or trivialize anti-Semitism. For France, the Dreyfus Affair represents the permanent memory of what anti-Semitic madness can provoke; a reminder of how it can pervert the ideals of a system founded on the opposite values. France today sees itself as the heir of those men who were the first to fight anti-Semitic madness, the daughter of Zola and Picquart, Jaurès and Péguy. France remembers the moral responsibility embraced by the Republic and wants to meet the challenge on a daily basis. That means not seeking to understand anti-Semitism, because that would be the first step toward excusing it, but to fight it relentlessly, maintaining a policy of zero-tolerance in every domain.

• In the law and institutions first. France has established a powerful legal arsenal to fight racism and anti-Semitism. Under the 2003 Lellouche Law, any anti-Semitic motives in a criminal act are considered “aggravating circumstances.”

• And because such a problem must be attacked at its source, and early education is the only way to root out this irrational hatred for good, special efforts have been made at school. An in-depth study of the Holocaust is part of the curriculum in all French middle and high schools and is most often made concrete by trips to sites that relate to it, notably the extermination camp of Auschwitz in Poland. Confronting young people with the horror to which anti-Semitic madness leads is the best way to fight against the perpetuation of this ideology of hatred.

• This relentless, ongoing fight against anti-Semitism is bearing fruit, which must only encourage us to pursue it more enthusiastically. While the number of people convicted for anti-Semitic acts has risen consistently for several years, it is not because such acts are more numerous, but because they are prosecuted without tolerance, to ensure that none go unpunished.

* * *

My fifth conviction: The fight against anti-Semitism is also the fight against disorder in the world.

This fight against hatred and violence is one that we must also pursue outside of our borders, first because anti-Semitism must be fought wherever it may be found, and especially because even what happens thousands of kilometers from France still obviously influences what happens there.

This is true in particular when certain leaders make remarks that elicit legitimate indignation. My country unreservedly condemns the unacceptable comments made by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whenever they occur, and as recently as a few days ago. They are an insult to the values defended in the course of the Dreyfus Affair, an insult to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and an attack on Israel.

* * *

The Dreyfus Affair unleashed the most irrational, the most condemnable hatred. It was a true anti-Semitic moment—this should not be denied. But it also sparked an unwavering fight against such madness.

That is why I like to think of the Dreyfus Affair as a sort of chance for France today. It proved that France could only emerge greater from the fight against anti-Semitism. We must continue to do so today, recalling our absolute duty to remain vigilant.

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