“J’Accuse…!” read the famous headline — a bullet shot at the heart of the French establishment. In his article, Zola named and shamed high-ranking leaders of the government and army. He accused them of framing an innocent officer, Alfred Dreyfus, for treason four years earlier, and wrongly convicting him in a sham trial. Why? Dreyfus was Jewish, the perfect scapegoat in a time of venomous antisemitism.
That case, best known as the Dreyfus Affair, was one of the fiercest political scandals in French history. At the turn of the century, it split France into two warring camps. On one side were the Dreyfusards who believed Dreyfus was the victim of an antisemitic conspiracy — chief among them Zola. On the other were the anti-Dreyfusards made up of zealous nationalists and staunch antisemites like rabble-rouser Édouard Drumont and intellectual Charles Maurras. This public showdown, carried through newspaper columns and public meetings, was really a battle for the soul of France.
The Dreyfus Affair is the backdrop of An Officer and a Spy, Roman Polanski’s new thriller. The central character is not Dreyfus, but another French military man: Georges Picquart. Played with sobriety by Oscar winner Jean Dujardin, he’s presented as the Army’s finest spy. Duty-bound, he possesses an ingrained reverence for the institution of the military. Picquart is also, like most others in French society at the time, an antisemite. Jewish prejudice was so widespread then it was casual.
In the opening scene of An Officer and a Spy, set in 1894, Picquart watches on gladly as Dreyfus is stripped of his rank and medals in a military ceremony at the Invalides in Paris. He even quips, rather proud of his wit, that Dreyfus looks like “a Jewish tailor wailing for his lost gold.” Shortly thereafter, Dreyfus is shipped to Devil’s Island in French Guiana to rot in jail.
Meanwhile Picquart is appointed head of the Army’s Secret Service. His mission: Track down traitors. His investigation throws him on the trail of one Ferdinand Esterhazy, a French officer who moonlights as a spy for the German Empire. Picquart soon realizes Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason; the real traitor is Esterhazy. But his superiors — from the hard-nosed Army Generals to the weak-willed Minister of Defense — refuse to act on this fresh evidence. For them, Dreyfus was Jewish, hence guilty. They order Picquart to stop rocking the boat.
Picquart refuses to be complicit in a cover-up that, in his eye, soils both his personal integrity and — even more importantly — that of the French Army. Ultimately, his quest for truth and honor trumps his dislike of Jews and of Dreyfus. Lacking the power to make a difference on his own, Picquart leaks the results of his investigation to Émile Zola, the popular novelist and reform-minded journalist. Zola uses this evidence to draft his blockbuster editorial “J’Accuse…!” — stunning French society and turning the Dreyfus Affair into the country’s original culture war.
Zola also plays a role in Jean-Paul Delfino’s brilliant, exhilarating new novel, Assassins! set in 1902, in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair. By then, thanks to Picquart’s and Zola’s efforts, Dreyfus had been pardoned but not actually acquitted. This compromise, struck by a sheepish government in the hope of achieving social peace, had done anything but. France was more antisemitic than ever, and its Republic was crumbling. Meanwhile Zola had become the far right’s favorite target, the living embodiment of the France they wanted to get rid of: pluralist, progressive, and pro-Dreyfus.
That year, Zola died in his bed of carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by a blocked chimney. The death has long been ruled accidental. Delfino sets out — via a novel — to come to a different autopsy conclusion. He argues, supported by his own historical research, Zola was killed by an antisemitic network of politicians, magnates, and intellectuals.
Much separates An Officer and a Spy and Assassins! in both style and tone. Filmed mostly in dimly lit interior sets, An Officer and a Spy is a slow retelling of Picquart’s investigation. Unlike past Polanski efforts and despite excellent mise-en-scène, the film is never visceral. But Jean-Paul Delfino makes you feel what Polanski merely tells you. The savagery of the Dreyfus Affair jumps off the page. The author writes with the literary flair and colorful touch of the Old Masters of the French novel: Victor Hugo and, yes, Zola. His style is a throwback to a rich, at times even florid, yet always suitable use of language.
But Assassins! owes as much to the big screen as it does to the written word. The novel is cinematic: part Oliver Stone’s JFK, part Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. As it unravels the conspiracy against Zola, it also depicts the author’s final night — spent in a rhapsody of thoughts, feelings, and memories summing up Zola’s brazen life. The result is a tour de force rarely achieved but pulled off effortlessly by Delfino, a deeply humane and intimate work that conveys with full force the brutal sweep of history.
Assassins! is also a work of contemporary political significance, a feverish journey into the dark recesses of France’s national psyche. Delfino brings back to life a vile cast of historical figures — far-right freaks and racist rascals — all merchants of hate united in hatred for the Jew: “the Other.” There’s Édouard Drumont, a narcissistic congressman who edits a Breitbart-like tabloid, La Libre Parole, and calls for Jews to be kicked out of France by violent means. There’s also “Gyp” (real name: Sybille Aimée Marie-Antoinette Gabrielle de Riquetti de Mirabeau, Comtesse de Martel de Janville), a royalist columnist and Ann Coulter–like provocateur, for whom bigotry is an art form and creative game — the trolling of her day.
Perhaps the scariest of Delfino’s villains, however, is an “ordinary” Frenchman, Henri Buronfosse, a penniless chimney sweeper. Buronfosse worships Drumont and his ilk. At their order, he blocks Zola’s chimney so it kills him. Buronfosse is a fanatic. He’s surrendered his mind in exchange for the drug of nationalism. He’s scary because, unlike the movers and shakers of the far right, his bigotry does not carry an ounce of political strategy or calculation. He’s a true believer. For him, hate is fulfilling in and of itself. And sadly, he’s not the only one like that — then or now.
So, what to make of the Dreyfus Affair a century onward? Merchants of hate are still in business, just as they were then. Antisemitic attacks are in sharp ascent in France. In Hungary, meanwhile, the public debate seems straight out of the late 19th century. Jewish billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros is depicted by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as a shadowy globalist who threatens the nation’s very survival. All the old antisemitic tropes, showcased in the Dreyfus Affair, are there: Soros as a Rothschild-like figure, with no national loyalty but to his Jewish heritage, secretly plotting the demise of the West.
Today, alongside Jews, other minorities also provoke the far right’s ire: people of color, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and of course immigrants. In this regard, French right-winger Éric Zemmour makes for an interesting case study. Zemmour, a pseudo-intellectual profiled by The New York Times last February, has risen to fame through a series of shock pronouncements about “colonizing immigrants,” the “Islamization” of France, and his opinion the country’s problems were “aggravated by immigration, itself aggravated by Islam.” Zemmour’s also praised the “great replacement” conspiracy theory of white nationalist Renaud Camus, which holds white Europeans are being gradually “replaced” by nonwhite, non-European immigrants.
According to French historian Gérard Noiriel, Zemmour borrows from the same rulebook as Édouard Drumont — the antisemitic populist at the heart of Assassins! — and leader of the anti-Dreyfusards. Zemmour, like Drumont, have both taken advantage of the political and economic crises of their day. They provide facile explanations blaming French decline (or “suicide” as Zemmour calls it) on multiculturalism, and rely on a Manichean opposition between “us” and “them.”
The “them” has changed, of course. For Drumont, it was Jews. For Zemmour, Muslims and migrants. Noiriel recognizes Zemmour’s speech is not as extreme as Drumont’s — a man who publicly called for Jews “to be hanged.” And yet, although Zemmour stops short of overt incitement to racial violence, the very structure of the two ideologues’ discourse is undeniably similar.
In 1936, France elected its first Jewish head of state, Léon Blum. This was only three decades after the Dreyfus Affair had concluded, at a time when sections of the French people were still consumed by antisemitism. And yet, it was also France’s finest hour. Blum was a socialist who led the Popular Front — the French equivalent of FDR’s New Deal — a coalition of progressives spearheaded by the twin values of equality and social justice. It’s useful to remember, then, that for every merchant of hate, there’s someone resisting — unyielding, determined, ready to speak out for the truth. For every Drumont, there’s a Zola, a Picquart, a Blum.
Theo Zenou is a PhD candidate in History at Cambridge University. He’s worked in TV, and contributed to New Statesman.