Race and Identity in France



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Race” and Identity in France

In the late 1800s, Germany and the United States excluded many individuals and groups from their “universe of obligations.” In both nations, “race” increasingly determined who “belonged”

and who did not. Many people believed that France was different. It seemed free of the racism they observed in the United States and Germany. African Americans often felt freer

there than they did at home. And French Jews experienced none of the open antisemitism that marked German life. Yet the French also struggled with issues related to racism. The intensity

of that struggle was revealed in nation’s response to the Dreyfus case. It exposed ancient

hatreds and fostered angry exchanges over who was a citizen and who was not.
In November, 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer, was accused of selling

secret documents to the Germans. Two months later, he was convicted of treason. At a

special ceremony, the army publicly degraded Dreyfus. He was brought before a group of

officers and told, “Alfred Dreyfus, you are unworthy to bear arms. In the name of the

French people we degrade you!” A senior officer then cut off his badges and buttons and

broke his sword in half. The prisoner was then marched around a courtyard as his fellow

soldiers watched silently. Dreyfus himself was not silent. He repeatedly shouted that they

were degrading an innocent man. A huge crowd gathered outside. When they heard

Dreyfus’s cries, the spectators responded by whistling and chanting “Death to Dreyfus!

Death to the Jews!”


In describing the trial, reporters repeatedly referred to Dreyfus as a Jew even though

his religion had no bearing on the case. Antisemites like Leon Daudet wrote, “Above the

wreckage of so many beliefs, a single faith remains authentic and sincere: that which

safeguards our race, our language, the blood of our blood, and which keeps us all in

solidarity. The closed ranks are our own. This wretch is not French. We have all

understood as much from his act, his demeanor, his physiognomy.”


At first Dreyfus’s family and friends fought the conviction on their own. In time,

others joined the struggle. Their efforts divided the nation. For some, the issue was

clearly antisemitism. They argued, “Because he was a Jew he was arrested, because he was a Jew he was convicted, because he was a Jew the voices of justice and of truth could not be heard in his favor.” For others, the honor of the army and the nation was more important than any individual Jew’s rights. They believed that it would weaken the army – and ultimately the nation – to reconsider the case or suggest a mistake had been made. When an officer found proof that Dreyfus was innocent, the army transferred the man to North Africa to keep him

quiet. Others interpreted French honor differently. They believed that it required a retrial.


As more and more evidence of Dreyfus’s innocence came to light, tempers flared. Debates often ended in fights, duels, and even riots. Finally, in 1899, Dreyfus was retried and once again convicted. But the day after his second conviction, he was pardoned. The courts

did not vindicate him until 1906 – twelve years after the case began.


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