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A century later, Dreyfus affair still resonates
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-03 06:46 (KST)   
"I accuse...!" the headline of the daily "L'Aurore" on January 13, 1898
"I accuse...!" is the title of what will remain one of the most poignant opinion pieces in history. Written by Emile Zola, the French novelist and social activist, this open letter to then French President Felix Faure was published in the newspaper l'Aurore in 1898. Zola writes about the scandal known as the Dreyfus affair, named after the French Army officer who was charged with treason and sentenced to life on remote Devil's Island, off the shore of French Guyana.

Alfred Dreyfus was born of a Jewish family, in the eastern region of Alsace, which in 1871 would become part of the German Empire after France's defeat in its war against Prussia. Yet Dreyfus' father would choose French nationality for his son, who in turn would embrace a career in the French Army to express his attachment to France. For Alfred Dreyfus, his being French is not an accident but rather a pledge.

In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus is a young high-ranking military officer in the French Army, a successful career which symbolizes the Republican values brought about by the French Revolution. He was therefore not very concerned when he was requested to show up at the Army headquarter for an inspection.

He should have been: during this inspection, Dreyfus would be convicted of treason for allegedly passing on classified information to the Germans. He would then be discharged of his functions and have to spend the following five years in jail, thousands of miles away from his family.

Alfred Dreyfus faces dishonorable discharge
Dreyfus was innocent, but for a segment of the anti-Semitic French population, he was an ideal target in this spying case involving Germany. As it would turn out, his conviction was based on flawed procedure and fabricated evidence produced by some ill-intended individuals, supported by a number of anti-Semitic conservative press members, and finally covered up by the Army, for "Raison d'Etat," or national interest, at a time when rivalry with Germany was building up again.

All of these flaws would eventually be uncovered by a few tough-minded persons among whom was Alfred Dreyfus' brother, and brought, in 1898, to the knowledge of the widest public by Zola's famous article. "My duty is to speak out; I do not wish to be an accomplice in this travesty. My nights would otherwise be haunted by the specter of the innocent man, far away, suffering the most horrible of tortures for a crime he did not commit," Zola writes, and then proceeds to accuse the individuals responsible for this affair by name.

Of course Zola's article did not immediately restore the truth and rehabilitate Dreyfus. For the following decade, French people would be divided into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. Dreyfus would finally be cleared of all these false accusations on July 12, 1906, but remnants of this division are to be found even today.

This victory of the Dreyfus side carries a deep significance for France. Some regard this event as a milestone setting the values that define the French Republic until today. A few weeks ago, on July 12, President Jacques Chirac held an official centennial ceremony for the rehabilitation of Dreyfus and stated that there is no final victory in "the fight against the dark forces of intolerance and hatred." Indeed, it may be vain to believe that intolerance and hatred could one day be completely defeated.

But more worrying is that mistakes that led to an innocent man spending several years in hell, are still being made today, as if no lessons had been learned from the Dreyfus affair. From the fake cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk case in Korea, to the treatment of innocent individuals in Guantanamo, or the Dreyfus affair: all are very different scandals from different times and places. Yet, all stem from the same mechanism: truth is covered up in the name of "national interest," while most of the press does not play its checks-and-balances role.

"Truth and justice, so ardently longed for! How terrible it is to see them trampled, unrecognized and ignored!" Zola deplores in his article. Today, his reflection could still apply in far too many cases.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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