A Century Later, Statue Pays Homage to Dreyfus and Splits French
PARIS (AP) _ Nearly a century after the famed Dreyfus Affair divided France, a statue of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus has unleashed a debate over anti-Semitism, racial hatred, and the National Front party.
Culture Minister Jack Lang, who commissioned the statue and spoke when it went on public display Thursday, said the attitudes that led to the Jewish army officer’s false conviction for treason survive in today’s France in the form of the extreme-right National Front.
The party’s head, Jean-Marie Le Pen, ran on an anti-immigration platform in April’s first-round presidential elections and took a surprising 14.4 percent of the vote.
″I didn’t realize that my first act as a minister would coincide with what we’re living through on a moral and political level,″ said Lang, who returned to his former post last month in a new Socialist government.
″The National Front is the party of the anti-Dreyfusards,″ he said, three days before runoff elections for National Assembly. Lang spoke at the statue’s new site in the Tuileries Gardens near the Seine River.
Le Pen denies accusations of racism and anti-Semitism.
The Dreyfus affair was launched by French author Emile Zola in his broadside ″J’Accuse″ (I Accuse), which charged that false evidence with anti-Semitic motives was used to frame Dreyfus on charges of giving military secrets to the Germans.
The case raged for years, dividing France into pro-Dreyfusards and anti- Dreyfusards. Zola fled the country to avoid punishment for libel but was later cleared.
The 11-foot-tall statue, which shows Dreyfus standing at attention and holding a broken saber upright in front of his face, sparked a public debate even before it was finished.
In 1985, Lang proposed placing it in the Ecole Militaire courtyard where Dreyfus was stripped of his rank and dishonored in a ceremony on Jan. 5, 1895. That plan was opposed by Socialist Defense Minister Charles Hernu, who said the courtyard was inappropriate because it is closed to the public.
It was widely thought, however, that many in the French army objected to the statue, and the public debate was called a ″new Dreyfus affair.″
When the statue by sculptor Louis Mitelberg, who works under the name ″Tim,″ was completed in 1986, the conservative government of former Premier Jacques Chirac decided not to put it on public display.
Lang said he hoped the statue could be displayed near the courthouse in central Paris where judicial proceedings eventually cleared Dreyfus of any guilt 12 years after he was exiled to Devil’s Island. Dreyfus later was reinstated as a major in the army and received the Legion of Honor.
So far, the city administration under Chirac, who remains mayor of Paris, has balked, Lang said. Because the Tuileries is national property, the city’s agreement was not needed to place the statue there.
Lang denied any political motive in bringing out the statue three days before runoff elections for the National Assembly. But he denounced the center-right coalition parties for making an agreement with the National Front not to run candidates against each other in a few key districts.