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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 July 2006, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
The Dreyfus affair: 100 years on
France is marking the centenary of Alfred Dreyfus's rehabilitation, recalling a case that shook the nation.

Ceremonies honouring Dreyfus are planned for Wednesday. The BBC's Mark Lowen in Paris examines how this high-profile case of anti-Semitism continues to haunt France.

Alfred Dreyfus
Dreyfus had fought for years to expose the anti-Semitic conspiracy

September 1894: an anonymous note to the German military attache in Paris is found, leaking French army secrets.

Panic-stricken and spurred on by a virulent anti-Semitic press, the government names the alleged culprit - a brilliant young army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew.

The affair divides France, pitting the pro-Dreyfus liberal intellectuals against the right-wing opposition, backed by the clergy and military.

Despite the clear lack of evidence, Dreyfus is found guilty of high treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, French Guiana.

The affair marked the birth of republican France as we know it today
Michel Drouin

For 12 years, Dreyfus and his supporters fight to expose the anti-Semitic conspiracy that drove his conviction.

The open letter from novelist Emile Zola to President Felix Faure, "J'accuse", condemning those he suspected of foul play, remains a model of resistance to authority.

At the dawn of the new century, on 12 July 1906, France's highest court intervenes.

Alfred Dreyfus is found not guilty, readmitted to the army and awarded the Legion of Honour. The French state finally asserts its democratic voice.

'Revenge of Dreyfus'

The anniversary of Dreyfus's acquittal is being marked by a national ceremony led by President Jacques Chirac, a series of conferences and a new exhibition at the Paris Museum of Jewish Art and History, entitled "Alfred Dreyfus: The Fight for Justice".

Emile Zola's open letter J'Accuse
Zola's letter is still seen as a model of resistance to authority

The eastern city of Mulhouse, his birthplace, plans to build a monument to him.

Some are even calling for Dreyfus's ashes to be transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, the burial place of the greatest figures in French history.

The sustained interest in the Dreyfus affair indicates its long-term significance.

It fed the militancy of the far right, as those who maintained Dreyfus's guilt were marginalised to the fringes of French politics.

They drove the anti-Semitic Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

And they spawned the birth of the extreme right-wing group Action Francaise, whose founder, Charles Maurras, cried on his arrest in 1945: "This is Dreyfus's revenge."

Fundamental values

Yet the lasting impact of the affair is due not only to its direct consequences, but also to the broader principles it continues to represent - the dominance of freedom over repression, the confidence of France to stand up to those who challenge its values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

"The affair marked the birth of republican France as we know it today," said Michel Drouin, a Dreyfus historian.

The affair divided the nation at the time
"In accepting Dreyfus's innocence, France enshrined her most fundamental values: respect of the law, non-submission to clerical authority, the rights of the citizen," he says.

Rather than repenting a miscarriage of justice, it is that idea of celebrating the positive results of the affair that characterises France's commemoration.

This is not a collective mea culpa; it is an acknowledgement that the lessons of Dreyfus's plight have been heeded.

Racist crime

But while the country proudly recalls how a Jewish citizen triumphed over anti-Semitism - the birth, it seemed, of racial equality - today's France remains tormented by racist and anti-Semitic crime.

No longer institutional, French anti-Semitism now derives largely from the Middle East conflict, appearing sporadically within some Muslim gangs, often from France's socially disadvantaged suburbs.

"Anti-Semitism is becoming more common among young generations of immigrants from France's former colonies," says Bernadette Hetier of the anti-racist group MRAP.

"They themselves are the victims of racism and social exclusion, so they vent their frustration on others."

It is a phenomenon known all too well in the Marais, Paris' main Jewish district.

One group of youths there told me they could not wear their kippahs (skullcaps) in the metro for fear of being attacked. An elderly Jewish gentleman recalled being spat on, hit and verbally abused.

All quote the example of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish boy from the suburbs of Paris, who was tortured and burned over a period of three weeks earlier this year.

The assailant targeted Halimi with the words: "He's Jewish, so he's rich."

There is the feeling here that the optimism with which Alfred Dreyfus's liberation is commemorated should not shroud the serious and ongoing problems of racial integration that this country still faces.

French protest for murdered Jew
26 Feb 06 |  Europe
Country profile: France
20 Dec 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: France
22 Nov 05 |  Country profiles

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