On the occasion of the 120 e anniversary of the publication of I accuse… ! of Emile Zola , the editions of the Holy Fathers publish the manuscript, a text of 39 pages of inestimable historical value. Thousand copies were fired
s, only available on the Internet . I accuse… ! has become one of the most famous in the history of the French press. The number of Dawn published on January 13, 1898 has been sold more than 300,000 copies. “I have only one passion, that of the light in the name of humanity that has suffered so much and has the right to happiness,” writes Zola.
In this letter addressed to the President of the Republic Felix Faure , the naturalist writer rebels against the injustice that overwhelms the military Alfred Dreyfus French officer accused of treason and sentenced to deportation. The hints of anti-Semitism surrounding this accusation, the case without tangible evidence and the rapid progress of the trial have revolted some French intellectuals.
In 1894, a letter proving that confidential documents were forwarded to the German embassy in the army is uncovered. On the basis of a typographical resemblance between his writing and that of the letter, the staff officer Alfred Dreyfus is accused of high treason. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was degraded in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire de Paris on January 5, 1895, and deported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The case goes out for two years, but his family, convinced of his innocence, prepares his defense and gathers evidence. In November 1897, the commander Walsin Esterhazy, indebted, is recognized as the true author of the facts by the colonel Marie-Georges Picquart . However, in order to prevent the revival of the case, the latter is sacked by the staff and transferred to North Africa. In November 1896, a copy of the statement of the letter is published in the press: the writing is in no doubt about the guilt of Commander Esterhazy. The camp of the “Dreyfusards”, initially largely minority, is gaining momentum. The staff is compelled to judge Esterhazy in court martial. He was acquitted unanimously on January 11, 1898. It was after the acquittal of Esterhazy that Zola, mad with rage, took the pen.
Manuscript of the letter “J’accuse …!” Emile Zola published by the editions of Saints Fathers © National Library of France – Reference: N08451622 National Library of France – Reference: N08451622
Behind the scenes of one of Dawn
In 1898, Emile Zola, already known to the general public, is at the height of his glory. He has obtained the Legion of Honor and chairs the Société des gens de lettres. The Rougon Macquart have already been published in 20 volumes and he is preparing a series of three books entitled The Three Cities. He has already written two articles on the Dreyfus affair published in Le Figaro , but they have passed more or less unnoticed.
The writing time of I accuse… ! debates among historians: while some argue that Zola would have written in just two days and in one go, other specialists think rather, in light of information that the writer exploits, that the writing began to the end of the year 1897. But the news of Esterhazy’s acquittal only reinforces Zola’s desire to make a splash. It is on January 13, only two days after the acquittal of the latter, that appears I accuse… ! .
Manuscript of the letter “J’accuse …!” Emile Zola.
Charles Peguy is in Paris on the morning of January 13th. He then testifies: “All day long, in Paris, the hoaxers screamed Dawn , ran with Dawn, in large packages under the arms, distributed Dawn to the eager buyers. The shock was so extraordinary that Paris nearly turned around. And the newspaper Dawn, which exists only for three months, benefits from the notoriety of the man of letters. Accustomed to prints not exceeding 30,000 copies, the number sells more than 300,000 copies. On January 12, Clemenceau, editorialist of the newspaper, exclaims when reading the letter: “It’s huge, that thing! The mastery of the verb which characterizes the writer and the use of all the literary figures proper to rhetoric make this letter formidable convincing. I accuse… ! is a real break in the journalistic production of Zola.
The birth of the committed intellectual
The brutal, complete and uncompromising letter makes the political sphere tremble. “My duty is to speak, I do not want to be an accomplice. My nights would be haunted by the specter of the innocent who expiates there, in the most hideous of tortures, a crime he did not commit, “he writes. And, in the days following its publication, Zola is confronted with an almost general hostility. Nevertheless, it gets the desired effect: the Dreyfus affair is revived. The Republican left, Clemenceau and Jean Jaurès on the front line, initially convinced of the guilt of Alfred Dreyfus, changes his mind. The historian René Rémond even sees in this clash provoked by I accuse… ! one of the origins of the clash between the right and the left as we know it today (1).
Manuscript of the letter “J’accuse …!” Emile Zola. © National Library of France – Reference: N08451622 National Library of France – Reference: N08451622
As a result of this publication, many writers in the press sign a “protest” – the ancestor of our forums – to obtain the revision of the Dreyfus trial. They will be 2,000 intellectuals to sign, including Anatole France, Georges Courteline, or Émile Duclaux, director of the Institut Pasteur. The shock caused by the publication of Zola also testifies to the evolution of the press: since the law of July 29, 1881, it continues to impose itself as a real counter-power, capable of influencing the political and judicial sphere.
I accuse… ! also marks a major change of perspective for French intellectuals, who are more in the news and, above all, conscious of their influence as citizens. Vincent Duclert, a historian specializing in the Dreyfus affair, speaks of “a civic role of scientific knowledge at the end of the nineteenth century, a relationship between science practices and a consciousness of citizenship, a relationship revealed in the Dreyfus affair. collective and individual and which leads to the birth of a type of intellectual, the critical intellectual become in the twentieth century the democratic intellectual (2).
On February 23, 1898, Zola was sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 4,000 francs. To escape justice, he exiles himself to England. After the trial against Zola, convinced that the judicial arsenal did not work properly, Ludovic Trarieux, former Minister of Justice, organizes on 25 February 1898 the first meeting which will lead to the creation of the League of Human Rights. the man (June 4, 1898). (1) René Rémond, The right in France from 1815 to the present day. Continuity and diversity of a political tradition, The Aubiers, 1954.
(2) Duclert Vincent. “The scientific commitment and the democratic intellectual, the meaning of the Dreyfus affair”. In: Politix, vol. 12, No. 48, Fourth quarter 1999. Scholars and politics. pp. 71-94.