A crime of truth: Exploring the libel trial of Émile Zola

The Dreyfus affair, a symbol of modern injustice and antisemitism,[i] divided the French nation until its resolution in the early 20th century. A gross miscarriage of justice led Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain of the French army, to be sentenced in a penal colony and publicly degraded.[ii] All seemed lost for the Dreyfusards in 1898, until Emilie Zola published an explosive letter – J’Accuse…! – arguing Dreyfus’s innocence and highlighting judicial errors in the Dreyfus case. The open letter to the Président appeared on the front cover of the newspaper L’Aurore and re-ignited a case that was believed to be closed. Zola was convicted of libel and sentenced to a year in prison[iii] before fleeing to England to avoid serving time in France. Exploring the trial in more detail, we ask ourselves the following questions: What role did the press play during the trial? Why was the trial so revolutionary? And what exactly was it in J’Accuse…! that brought Zola to trial?

THE ROLE OF THE PRESS

A new liberal Press Law in 1881 passed by the republican government jettisoned the labyrinth of legislation that preceded it.[i] New forms of popular press like Le Petit Journal reached an audience entertained by gossip and sensationalism.[ii] In 1884, the newspaper introduced its Supplément illustré, a weekly Sunday supplement and the first of its kind to feature colour illustrations.[iii] The intermediality of text and image revolutionised  the newspaper, opening its doors to the rural population of France, which had traditionally had minimal access to newspapers.[iv] Circulation of the Supplement rose to 950,000 in 1887, the highest of any newspaper in the world. The owner of Le Petit Journal, Marinoni, sensed the popularity of colour illustration. He went on to develop a polychrome rotary printing press in 1889, capable of producing 20,000 copies per hour.[v] The press played a significant role in conditioning public opinion at the time of Zola’s trial. Nationalist newspapers like La Libre Parole and La Croix, outraged by Zola’s accusations towards the army, depicted the trial as “la défense de la patrie.”[vi] Despite Le Petit Journal’s anti-Dreyfusard stance, its Supplément illustré aimed to adopt a neutral tone, prioritising its readership and the commercial logic of mass distribution. Any bias was a potential source of accounting losses.[vii]

Figure 1: Le Réquisitoire

THE ROLE OF THE PRESS

Zola’s fifteen-day libel trial began on 7 February 1898 at la Cour d’Assises de la Seine. Figure 1 depicts the Advocate Général’s Réquisitoire (prosecution closing speech) on the front cover of Le Petit Journal’s Supplément illustré. The supplément claimed not to take sides, yet the featuring of the prosecution speech on its front page is a tell-tale indicator of the paper’s anti-Dreyfusard stance. The cover makes use of the innovation of colour printing, with Advocate Général Van Cassel’s deep red robe dominating half of the image, a marker of his power and another hint of Le Petit Journal’s support for the military. Rather paradoxically given the title of Zola’s article, Van Cassel’s huge figure points an accusatory finger at the frightened-looking defendant. The crowd of witnesses and lawyers watch the highly anticipated spectacle, their eyes transfixed on the prosecution.

Zola chose Fernand Labori, who had acted for Madame Dreyfus during the Esterhazy trial, as his lawyer. Their joint aim was both to speak and to make people speak about the Dreyfus case as much as possible.[i] Labori therefore called over 200 witnesses, depicted in the bustling court room in Figure 1.[ii] Witnesses included senior officers involved in the Dreyfus and Esterhazy cases, graphology experts, politicians, journalists and intellectuals. No less than twelve hearings were devoted to their testimony.[iii] Despite the combined efforts of Advocate Général Van Cassel and President Delegorgue to stop any mention of the Dreyfus case under res judicata, by repeating “La question ne sera pas posée”, the case was inevitably referred to each time witnesses were questioned about Dreyfus.[iv] It was what Felman (2002) calls the “cross-legal nature”[v] of the trial that gave it its revolutionary status. Zola forced the legal system to review the evidence of Dreyfus’s case in a public court, as the original trial had taken place behind closed doors in a military tribunal.[vi] Zola hoped to display the Jewish officer’s innocence through his own trial, deliberately committing a libel offence to give Dreyfus a legal voice.[vii] He exploited his status as an intellectualto engage with the general public, using his creativity as a tool to break open the “closed legal frame.”[viii]

THE CATALYST

Figure 2: J’Accuse..!

By publishing his famous J’accuse…! in L’Aurore, pictured in Figure 2, Zola made use ofthe mixed benefits of the 1881 Press Law. The new law enabled the denunciation to be published,[i] but maintained that defamation was punishable offence under articles 30 and 31, with slander against the military being an aggravating factor.[ii] “La diffamation commise (…) envers les cours, les tribunaux, les armées de terre ou de mer, les corps constitués et les administrations publiques, sera punie d’un emprisonnement de huit jours à un an et d’une amende de cent francs à trois mille francs…”[iii] Yet, Zola was prepared to submit himself to the legal authorities, concluding J’accuse…! with “Qu’on ose donc me traduire en cour d’assises et que l’enquête ait lieu au grand jour ! J’attends”.[iv] Anything within the text of J’accuse…! regarding the conviction of Dreyfus was excluded from the prosecution,[v] forcing the court to retain only eighteen lines of the text out of several hundred. Included in these passages, was the repeated accusation that the council of war acquitted Esterhazy “par ordre”.[vi] Evidently, this was impossible to prove and thus resulted in Zola’s conviction.[vii]

Moreover, the deliberate visual rhetoric in Figure 2 cannot be ignored. The layout of the article, or what Hauksson-Tresch (2019) calls its “plastic” element,[viii] contributes to the way in which the text is perceived by its audience. Immediately, the reader is confronted with thick, poster-like letters spelling “J’Accuse…!” using double capital letters on the J and the A.[ix] A headline that grabbed the attention of the general public was Zola’s intention, and it worked. L’Aurore distributed 300,000 copies that day, as opposed to the standard 30,000.[x] The general public were so invested in the affair by the time of the court case, that on the day of the trial Zola was subject to “the most ignominious attacks”[xi] as well as an abundance of support and congratulations.[xii]

The press had habitually ridiculed, humiliated and degraded the intellectual (see Figure 1), particularly under the new press laws of 1881. Yet Zola used his intellectuel engagé status to exploit the media and its laws, harnessing it as a means of bringing justice to the Dreyfus case (see Figure 2). The press acted as a platform from which to launch his own trial; an instrumental step towards Dreyfus’ release. Zola knew that by telling the truth, he was committing a crime, but as he so profoundly cried out in J’Accuse:“la vérité est en marche et rien ne l’arrêtera.”[xiii]

References:

Figure 1: ‘L’affaire Zola. Le réquisitoire’, Le Petit Journal, supplément illustré, 6 mars 1898.

Figure 2: Zola, Émile ‘J’Accuse’, L’Aurore, 1898.

Primary Reading:

Digithèque, Grandes lois de la République (2005) <https://mjp.univ-perp.fr/france/1881presse.htm&gt; [accessed 11 November 2020].

L’affaire Dreyfus. Le procès Zola devant la cour d’assises de la Seine et la cour de cassation (7 février-23 février-31 mars-2 avril 1898) : compte rendu sténographique “in extenso” et documents annexes <https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k62779w/f1.item.r=advocat%20general#&gt; [accessed 11 November 2020].

Zola, Émile ‘J’Accuse’, L’Aurore, 1898.

Secondary Reading:

Bacot, Jean-Pierre ‘Le role des magazines illustres dans la construction du nationalisme au XIXe siecle et au debut du XXe siecle’, Réseaux, .107, (2003), 265-293.

Bredin, Jean-Denis, L’affaire, Plunkett Lake Press, 2014).

Chupin, Ivan, Nicolas Hubé, Nicolas Kaciaf, Histoire politique et économique des médias en France (Paris: La Découverte, 2009).

Felman, Shoshana, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2002)

Hauksson-Tresch, Nathalie ‘Visual Rhetoric of the Truth in the Dreyfus Affair: A Semiotic Approach’, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law – Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique (2019).

Kuhn, Raymond The Media in France, 1 edn (London: Routledge, 1994).

Ozanam, Yves ‘Défendre Zola pour sauver Dreyfus – La plaidoirie pour “J’accuse…!” (Février 1898)’, La Grande Bibliothèque du Droit, (2015), in Avocat <https://www.lagbd.org/index.php/Défendre_Zola_pour_sauver_Dreyfus_-_La_plaidoirie_pour_%22J%27accuse…!%22_(Février_1898)_(fr) > [accessed 10 November 2020].

Rimoch, David ‘The Affair or the State: Intellectuals, the Press, and the Dreyfus Affair’, Honors Program in History (Senior Honors Theses) (2008).

Shaya, Gregory ‘The Flaneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860-1910’, American Historical Review (2004), 41-77.

Weber, Eugen, Peasants into Frenchmen: The modernization of rural France ([n.p.]: 1976)

Wincock, Michel L’affaire Dreyfus, (Paris: Points histoire, 1998).

Winock, Michel Le siècle des intellectuels (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1999).

Zablotsky Peter A., ‘Considering the Libel Trial of Émile Zola in Light of Contemporary Defamation Doctrine’, Touro Law Review, 29.1, (2012)


[i] Michel Wincock, L’affaire Dreyfus, (Paris: Points histoire, 1998).

[ii] Nathalie Hauksson-Tresch, ‘Visual Rhetoric of the Truth in the Dreyfus Affair: A Semiotic Approach’, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law – Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique (2019).

[iii] Peter A. Zablotsky, ‘Considering the Libel Trial of Émile Zola in Light of Contemporary Defamation Doctrine’, Touro Law Review, 29.1, (2012), (p. 61).

[i]Raymond Kuhn, The Media in France, 1 edn (London: Routledge, 1994).

[ii] Gregory Shaya, ‘The Flaneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860-1910’, American Historical Review (2004), 41-77.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The modernization of rural France ([n.p.]: 1976), p. 464 .

[v] Ivan Chupin, Nicolas Hubé, Nicolas Kaciaf, Histoire politique et économique des médias en France (Paris: La Découverte, 2009).

[vi] Michel Winock, Le siècle des intellectuels (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1999).

[vii] Jean-Pierre Bacot, ‘Le role des magazines illustres dans la construction du nationalisme au XIXe siecle et au debut du XXe siecle’, Réseaux, .107, (2003), 265-293.

[i] Yves Ozanam, ‘Défendre Zola pour sauver Dreyfus – La plaidoirie pour “J’accuse…!” (Février 1898)’, La Grande Bibliothèque du Droit, (2015), in Avocat <https://www.lagbd.org/index.php/Défendre_Zola_pour_sauver_Dreyfus_-_La_plaidoirie_pour_%22J%27accuse…!%22_(Février_1898)_(fr) > [accessed 10 November 2020].

[ii] David Rimoch, ‘The Affair or the State: Intellectuals, the Press, and the Dreyfus Affair’, Honors Program in History (Senior Honors Theses) (2008).

[iii] Ozanam

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Shoshana Felman, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 221.

[vi] Ibid, p.117

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[i] Digithèque, Grandes lois de la République (2005) <https://mjp.univ-perp.fr/france/1881presse.htm&gt; [accessed 11 November 2020]. “Tout journal ou écrit périodique peut être publié, sans autorisation préalable et sans dépôt de cautionnement, après la déclaration prescrite par l’article 7.”

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Émile Zola, ‘J’Accuse’, L’Aurore, 1898.

[v] Ozanam

[vi] Zola, 1898.

[vii] Ozanam

[viii] Hauksson-Tresch

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Jean-Denis Bredin, L’affaire, Plunkett Lake Press, 2014), p. 234.

[xi] Wincock, 1999.

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Zola, 1898.

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