MEDAN, France – It has been more than a century since the Dreyfus affair electrified France for the first time.
But when a museum dedicated to the infamous saga recently opened on the banks of the Seine, it seemed to have an unfortunate resonance.
The false accusation that a captain in the Jewish army was a German spy divided France at the time, but has long been a symbol of the nationalist fervor that swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. century. This new effort to commemorate the episode has been launched amid new fears of far-right success – and a renewed fight for French identity and history.
Eric Zemmour, a fiery television expert turned presidential candidate and himself a Jew, has shocked many in the country and beyond by questioning the innocence of wrongly convicted Alfred Dreyfus, media say local people, and claiming that the French wartime Vichy regime had “protected” French Jews when handing over foreigners. Zemmour said he wanted France to be proud of its history. “Our glorious past speaks for our future,” he said in a video announcing his candidacy last month.
But revisionism and the expert’s rapid rise in popularity have left mainstream French figures worried that ideas once abandoned to the fringes were becoming more mainstream and that in seeking to challenge these old ones. battles, a more emboldened far right could once again legitimize the policy of hatred and exclusion. .
It is in the midst of media speculation on Zemmour’s presidential ambitions that President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated the museum, installed in the grounds of the house of the great defender of the captain of the army, the writer Émile Zola, at the west of Paris in October.
Dreyfus and his family suffered injustices and humiliations that could never be righted, Macron said. “Let’s not make them worse by forgetting them, making them worse or repeating them,” he said.
Macron called on the youth of France to “remember nothing of these past fights, 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 founding example of European anti-Semitism and a harbinger of the wave of hatred that would sweep across the continent over the next half century. Questioning his innocence has long been a red line for both the French left and the right.
“Except [for]the most extreme people… history has been written, ”said Jean-Yves Camus, political scientist specializing in far-right politics in Europe. “Dreyfus was not a traitor. He was sentenced, he appealed and he won.
For his part, Macron sought to position himself as the heir to the great French leaders and pushed the country to grapple with its thorny past. In a delicate dance that seems designed to appease both the right and the left, Macron refused to vilify the French imperialists, notably Napoleon, but admitted their misdeeds.
Zemmour seeks 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 Zemmour press secretary 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 Medan museum, who spoke to NBC News after a small number of Covid-restricted ticket holders visited the exhibit multimedia museum during a recent visit.
“The question of racism, of anti-Semitism, of xenophobia, the question of secularism, what democracy, the republic, the press and the way it acts”, he said, checking the debates from this period which are still relevant today. “It’s absolutely fascinating to see.
“[Zemmour] is on a political line with Charles Maurras, ”said Oriol, referring to the French nationalist writer who was a prominent voice in the anti-Dreyfus camp at the turn of the 20th century.
Fabien Nury, the creator of the “Paris Police 1900” television series, which aired earlier this year in France and the UK, said he was also struck by the parallels between this period and the spread of sentiment of far right in Western democracies today.
“I hadn’t expected it to be contemporary,” he declared recently about his series which takes place against the backdrop of the Dreyfus affair. “I would be a lot happier if it weren’t so relevant in our time today.”
A number of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents in recent years have served as a reminder that the old hatred is very much alive in modern France.
Francis Kalifat, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, said Zemmour risked pushing France back. He questioned the “Jewish pain,” Kalifat said. “Zemmour has become the standard bearer of revisionism in our country. ”
This can be of concern not only to French Jews, but also to the country’s Muslims – a frequent target of the contemporary far right – among others.
Earlier this month, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, presidential candidate for the main left-wing Socialist Party, caused a stir after local media reported that she compared the language used to talk about Muslims today to that used 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 rule over much of Africa and the Middle East. And in recent years it has been marked by deadly terrorist attacks, many of which were carried out by local radical Islamists.
Anti-Muslim “acts” are on the rise, according to officials and statistics from community groups.
Zemmour has described Islam as “incompatible with France” and has 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 called on immigrants to do more to assimilate.
the the idea that a minority community undermines France from the inside resembles the rhetoric of Catholic nationalists towards Jews at the turn of the century, according to Jean Garrigues, professor of contemporary history at the University of Orleans.
“It is exactly the same approach that the nationalist right adopted during the Dreyfus affair and … at the beginning of the 20th century,“ he added.
For Garrigues, putting French identity and prestige above all else risks setting aside the values that unite French society, those of the republic which first turned against Dreyfus and then exonerated him.
“It brings intolerance,” Garrigues said. “It results in the exclusion of those who are not considered French.