New museum honours dark scandal of France’s past

French President Emmanuel Macron, flanked by his wife Brigitte Macron and Grand Rabbi of France Haim Korsia look at author Emile Zola's J'Accuse! open letter published on the front page of L'Aurore newspaper in 1898.
Emmanuel Macron opens the Dreyfus Museum. Photo: Ludovic Marin / AFP
President Emmanuel Macron this week inaugurated a museum dedicated to remembering the Dreyfus Affair - one of the most humiliating political scandals in French history.

“Do not forget anything about these past fights, because they say that the world in which we live, like our country, like our Republic, are not taken for granted,” Macron said during a visit to the Dreyfus Museum, accompanied by Chief Rabbi of France Haïm Korsia, and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

The museum is housed at Maison Zola, the home of writer Émile Zola in Yvelines in the greater Paris area. It reopens to the public on Thursday after being closed for refurbishment since October 2011.

Zola’s famous J’accuse! open letter in 1898 excoriated the government of the time over its handling of the Dreyfus affair.

“There is in this museum what is inseparable between what makes the Nation and what makes the French Republic: ideals, a love of language and this taste for truth and justice,” Macron added.

“You repeat the importance of this very special destiny, of this man who has suffered the worst; humiliation, silence, isolation. Nothing will repair these humiliations but do not aggravate them by leaving them forgotten, aggravated or repeated.”

The museum remembers the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal that shamed France for decades, and contains more than 500 crucial documents, including the false allegations against the former military officer.

In 1894, army captain Alfred Dreyfus, born into a wealthy French family of Jewish descent, was wrongly arrested for spying. A year later he was publicly stripped of his rank and transported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana for life – while the right-wing press in France whipped up anti-Semitic sentiment. 

But a new intelligence chief reported he had found evidence implicating a major of the crimes for which Dreyfus had been convicted. 

Despite an attempt at a cover up, the scandal was leaked to the press. The major was secretly acquitted at court martial, and fled to England. A second trial in 1899 ended in another accquital.

Dreyfus was officially exonerated in 1906 – eight years after Zola’s ‘J’accuse!’ open letter to then-president Félix Faure, printed on the front page of L’Aurore newspaper. 

In it, Zola accused the government of anti-Semitism and unlawful imprisonment.

Despite being proved innocent, Dreyfus continued to suffer abuse from the right-wing press. He was shot twice when he attended the ceremony at which Zola was interred in the Pantheon.

Despite his treatment, Dreyfus remained loyal to France, and continued his army career – even serving on the front line, in his 50s, during the First World War. He died in Paris in 1935.

The Maison Zola/Musée Dreyfus is at 26 Rue Pasteur, 78670 Medan and opens from Wednesday to Sunday. Tickets are €9.50 for adults and must be reserved online in advance – full details here.


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