Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Media and Politics in the Dreyfus Affair

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The Dreyfus Affair: A Historical Clash Between Media and Politics[edit | edit source]

Introduction[edit | edit source]

History is the study of chronologically explained events that unfolded in the past. An example of a historical two sided viewpoint matter where media and politics clashed over events within 19th century French society was the Dreyfus affair. These disciplines intertwined and disagreed on certain issues, and discern the importance of historical context to reactions fueled by a certain event in time.

Historical Context and Brief Antisemetic History of France[edit | edit source]


From the Early Middle Ages, multiple waves of persecution against Jews stained French History. Although one of the first European countries to emancipate its Jewish population, France suffered periods of antisemitism [2], particularly during the Dreyfus Affair. In the 19th century, Jews were regularly used as scapegoats and blamed for the hardships of modernization. Racism based antisemitism arose mainly in the 1880s because of the founder of the newspaper La Libre Parole, Edouard Drumont, whom also created the Antisemitic League of France. Regarding media during the 3rd republic, high speed presses allowed the rapid printing of many newspapers and new types of graphics.

The Dreyfus Affair[edit | edit source]

In 1894, evidence surfaced that someone in the French army had been passing secret information to the German about French military operations during the war. Circumstantial evidence pointed to Captain Dreyfus , even if there was no real proof. He was quickly and secretly caught, found guilty, stripped of his rank, and sent to Devil’s Island in French Guinea. He was indeed the ideal culprit: member of l’Etat Major with access to confidential documents like those stolen; from Alsace, thus a German speaker.[3] . However, confidential documents continued to disappear. In 1896, Georges Picquart established that the real culprit was Major Esterhazy. Yet, the French army decided to silence the affair. Picquart was sent to Algeria, Esterhazy was acquitted, and Dreyfus remained on the island. Dreyfus was retried in 1899 and was once again found guilty, but with “extenuating circumstances”. He was nevertheless sentenced to ten more years in prison. Days later, he was granted a Presidential pardon and allowed to return home. This was a compromise that saved the military’s face. His rank was restored six years later, in 1906.[4]

Role of the Media in the Dreyfus Affair[edit | edit source]

La Libre Parole[5]

Media as a Discipline[edit | edit source]

Media is a process of distribution and communication of information taking the shape of audio, visual inputs such as newspaper, video, teledistribution, poster etc… Increasingly taken as a major at universities, it has its own methods meaning it can be classified as a discipline.[6] A major actor in the Dreyfus Affair, media influenced public opinion through the means of newspaper and speeches.

The Press shaping Public Opinion[edit | edit source]

The press made the Dreyfus Affair an “Affair”[7]: Starting as a miscarriage of justice lasting several years, it became a political affair overnight after the publication of Emile Zola’s “J’accuse” [8] France became divided in 2 opposed camps: the Dreyfusards, who believed, like Zola, that justice should be served to Dreyfus, and the Anti-Dreyfusards.[9] The press has a significant power, shaping and amplifying public opinion. French citizens all became involved because of the publicity of the case, obliging them to agree or disagree with their political leaders’ decisions on the fate of Dreyfus.

The Press mirroring Public Opinion[edit | edit source]

Another role of the press in understanding the affair was exposing to the surface the real mindset of the french society and its deeply rooted anti-semitism. Indeed, antisemitism had always been around, and the Dreyfus affair simply made it public. The Dreyfus Affair created a polarised and emotional national case. Dreyfus became an enemy for half of the French simply on the basis that he was a Jew. The first page of the newspaper “La Libre Parole” mirrors this mindset with the syllogism “le traitre juif”: the jewish traitor, reflecting the thought that people did not judge him for his action but for what he represented. The media created a platform for people to express their racism: If the press could exacerbate racist thought, then anyone could do so openly.[10]

Politics in the Dreyfus Affair[edit | edit source]

Politics as a Discipline[edit | edit source]

The Discipline of Political science is the study of democracy, government, politicians, elections, parliament, power plays, and more. Across history, politics have played a key role in the fate of nations. The Dreyfus case is one example of how politics shook an entire nation [11] challenging the core of France's system.

Politics during the Affair[edit | edit source]

Under the appointed prime minister Jules Méline, the Dreyfus Affair created a real fracture within the French politic, tearing apart the population: the right against the left, army and monarchists against republicans and socialists. As newspapers strongly affirmed their political borders, the mediatic war became political, pushing the government to resign several times.[12] Afraid, the army manufactured false documents to reinforce the guiltiness of Dreyfus. Fear of the failure of the republic and radicalisation took over France. Tensions arose with Germany, where on several occasions the German ambassador in France tried to deny Germany's involvement. The matter became so difficult that Casimir Périer resigned under 'ministerial crisis", later replaced by Félix Faure as president of the French Republic. As an open liberal conservative, Faure [13], both certain of Dreyfus' innocence and anxious to favour the reason of the state, was torn between the two.

Final political action was taken in 1902, when Jean Jaurès was elected President and decided to relaunch the case to later rehabilitate Dreyfus. As a deputy several years back, he had impressively defended Zola at his trial.[14]

History as an issue[edit | edit source]

Clash of Media and Politics in History[edit | edit source]

The fingerprint of a society, History reveals a nation's decision-making and place on the world stage. Among other aspects, the history of a nation reveals its political system and use of media. When studying the Dreyfus Affair, it becomes clear that the clash between Media and Politics occurs because of France's complex History. Considered as an “old country”, its systems of governance and relationship with media have evolved over time. These two disciplines have a past of clashes in French History since the French revolution in 1789 when the freedom of press was established and used as a means of fighting absolute monarchy. In the Dreyfus Affair, politics and media clashed as politics sought the stability of a system of governance, and on the other hand, media served as a tool of subversion.[15]Balancing the want to ensure the survival of the 3rd republic, while saving the freedom of speech and responsibility of the media in the French society [16] created friction.

Approach From an Interdisciplinary Point of View & Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Using an interdisciplinary approach to history, we observe that the media's will to unveil the truth clashed with dishonest political actions. Indeed, the antisemitic historical context affected both the politics and public opinion in their views on how Dreyfus should be tried: disagreeing on the conception of Justice and how the French ought to represent their values. A conclusion to this conflict came to the hands of Justice when Jaurès addressed the Chamber of Deputies in 24 January 1898 to defend the honor of Dreyfus.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Zola, E. (1898) « J’Accuse...! Lettre au président de la République », L’Aurore Dreyfus — Page 1, Musée Criminocorpus consulted on Dec. 14, 2020.
  2. Jennings, J. (2000) Anti-Semitic Discourse in Dreyfus-Affair France. In: Arnold E.J. (eds) The Development of the Radical Right in France. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  3. Begley, L (2009) "Why the Dreyfus affair matters" Yale University Press, New York (Accessed: December 12 2020) Available at:
  4. The Irish Times (1998)[online] « The role of the Dreyfus affair in shaping France's social and political agenda », (accessed December 12 2020). URL :
  5. Drummond, E. (1899.) available at consulted on Dec. 14, 2020.
  6. Larousse, É. (n.d.) Définitions : média – Dictionnaire de français Larousse, Available at:édia/50085 (Accessed: 01  December 2020).
  7. Testard-Vaillant, P. (2019) How the Dreyfus Affair Went Global, CNRS News. Available at: (Accessed: 12 December 2020).
  8. DeNoël,C. (2004) « " J'accuse... ! " de Zola », Histoire par l'image [en ligne], (accessed December 12 2020). URL :
  9. Ancery, P. (2020) « Surtout, ne parlons pas de l'affaire Dreyfus ! », Retronews. Available at: (Accessed: 12 December 2020).
  10. Murrell, D. (2018) An Affair on Every Continent: French Reaction to the Foreign Press during the Dreyfus Affair, Penn History Review. Available at: (Accessed: 12 December 2020).
  11. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2009)"Dreyfus affair", Encyclopædia Britannica URL: Accessed December 14, 2020,
  12. Jacquet J.(2012)“The Significance of the Dreyfus Affairs on Politics in France from 1894 to 1906” (Accessed: November 30 2020) Available at:
  13. Houte, A. (2020) « L'affaire Dreyfus Stressait Félix Faure ». [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 13 December 2020]
  14. Péguy,C. (2020) Google. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 13 December 2020].
  15. Bredin,, J. (2004) 1906, Dreyfus est innocenté, L'Humanité. Available at: (Accessed: 12 December 2020)
  16. Bourgois, R. (2020) Liberté d’expression : faut-il changer la loi de 1881 ?, France Culture. Available at: (Accessed: 12 December 2020).