French President inaugurates Dreyfus affair museum in Paris
French President Emmanuel Macron has inaugurated the first museum dedicated to the Dreyfus affair.
Maison Zola-Musée Dreyfus is located in the former home of French author Émile Zola and houses the full Dreyfus Collection containing more than 500 items. These include documents, photographs, songs, posters and other memorabilia relating to the Dreyfus affair and designed to give a full picture of events in France in the late 19th century.
The events that became known as the Dreyfus affair took place in the late 19th century, after antisemitism led to the wrongful conviction of army captain Alfred Dreyfus as a traitor and spy. After Captain Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment on the infamous Devil’s Island, Émile Zola – already a leading author – wrote an open letter to French President Félix Faure in defence of the Jewish officer.
The letter was published on the front page of the popular L’Aurore newspaper under the banner headline “J’accuse.” Mr Zola blamed the army for its mistaken conviction of Captain Dreyfus and for attempting to cover it up. Following the public outcry, the incident became known as the Dreyfus affair. Mr Zola himself was found guilty of libel and was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine. Captain Dreyfus was tried again on the same falsified charges and a military court again found him guilty, but he was pardoned by the new President, Emile Loubet, in 1899.
Captain Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in 1906 and went on to serve honourably in WWI, but the memory of the case cast a long shadow of antisemitism over France’s history.
The restoration and creation of the museum in the former home of Mr Zola in Médan, just west of Paris, took ten years and was co-financed by fashion entrepreneur Pierre Bergé; the French Government’s Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah; and the Government-run Dilcrah, which works to combat discrimination of all kinds, including antisemitism.
Louis Gautier, President of the Maison Zola-Musée Dreyfus Association, told a Paris newspaper that the museum would principally focus on education, hosting school groups. It would focus on “questions of racism and exclusion,” and would explain how the justice system works.
In 2002, at the 100th anniversary of Mr Zola’s death, France’s then-President Jacques Chirac held a national homage at Maison Zola, and declared that the writer’s ideals still needed to be upheld in modern times.
The story of the Dreyfus affair was adapted into a 2019 film called J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy). Directed by Roman Polanski, it won awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay in the French César Awards.
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