Figure 1

This illustration by Caran d’Ache (Figure 1) comes from the 14 February 1898 publication of Le Figaro, a month after Zola published his famous letter ‘J’accuse…!’ accusing the army of conspiring to wrongly convict Captain Dreyfus (Rimoch 2008, p.23). This started ‘l’affaire Zola;’ while Dreyfus’ trial was still at the core of the affair, the real matter became about whether you were for or against Zola, for order or for justice, for France or for Revolution (Boussel, 1960, p.172).

The two images, one of a civilised family dinner and the other of the same family in a brawl, are accompanied by the caption “Surtout ! ne parlons pas de l’affaire Dreyfus ! …ils en ont parlé…”, depicting the division Zola caused in France. The cartoon illustrates the effect intellectuals, especially Émile Zola, and the media had on 19th Century French society and allows us to consider how intellectuals and the media interacted.


Figure 2

Looking at the subjects of the illustration, we learn who Zola’s target audience was when he wrote his persuasive articles about the Dreyfus Affair. In Figure 1, we observe that those discussing the Dreyfus Affair appear to be from the ruling class. They are smartly dressed and sat at a lavishly decorated table under a chandelier, which is indicative of their status. This implies that discussions about the affair were reserved to the upper classes and that they were the most politically and intellectually engaged. Arguably, this is a fair reflection of who Zola targeted in his writing, as although literacy rates were improving and newspapers were becoming more widely available, ‘intellectuals’ have always typically been located in the ‘dominant class’ (Swartz 1997, p.223). Perhaps we can surmise then that intellectuals like Zola spoke to the educated elite, rather than to the masses.

However, in the second picture, we see that the butler and the dog have been dragged into the fight. The involvement of outsiders serves to show just how important the affair was in French society. As antagonisms between right and left intensified, the focus of the debate was drawn to the wider role of institutions, citizenship and antisemitism (Clark 2012). Figure 1 reveals how ‘almost impossible’ it became for anyone to stay neutral towards the affair (Rimoch 2008, p.40). As we can also see by the amount of space the cartoon takes up on the page (Figure 2), the Affair dominated French news at the time. So, whilst intellectual debates on the topic may have been contained within the upper echelons of society, Figure 1 suggests that the repercussions were universal and ultimately, the event affected the whole country.


Generally, we could define a public intellectual as someone who wants to ‘take a stand’, ‘make a difference’ and ‘help society’ yet is distanced from power (Melzer 2004, p.5). Whilst on the one hand, Figure 1 attests to the fact that Zola did ‘make a difference’ to society, on the other hand it suggests that he helped to ‘entrench rather than to resolve’ differences of opinion, as Posner suggests public intellectuals tend to do (Posner 2002, p.160).

Zola was apparently attempting to rally the masses and overhaul traditional ideology (Boussel 1960, p.178). The transition from a civilised dinner to anarchy is symbolic of the change in the public’s behaviour caused by Zola: they went from respecting expectations and consensus to fighting for their morals and going against the norm. Thus, Zola evidently shaped French society by forcing people to question the ethics of the military and the prevalence of anti-Semitism.

Although, in the image, there is no sense of cohesion or that one ‘side’ is winning. This signals complete mayhem rather than productive dialogue and implies that France was stuck in a fruitless war. Furthermore, the caption’s tone suggests a consensus would never be reached, as the advice is to simply keep the peace by avoiding the topic. The newspaper in which the cartoon is printed, Le Figaro, is itself proof of the constant conflict the public experienced internally and externally over the affair, as its stance changed multiple times during the proceedings. As alluded here, Le Figaro initially took an anti-Dreyfusard stance, then became ‘révisionniste’ and by September 1898 converted to Dreyfusism (Ponty 1974, pp. 198-199). Despite advocating for the case to remain closed and giving a platform to known anti-Dreyfusard and anti-Semite Caran d’Ache, the newspaper was also the first to publish Zola’s early articles on the Affair (Clark 2012). If this degree of doubt and indecision is an accurate representation of the mood in France at the time, we must question whether Zola succeeded in ‘helping’ society or destroying it.

Clearly, there was inconsistency between the way intellectuals saw themselves and the way they were perceived by some of the public. According to Rimoch (2008, p.28), Zola considered himself ‘a kind of national saviour… fighting on the side of light,’ yet in Figure 1, there is no sign of salvation or higher moral ground. In fact, it is impossible to distinguish sides and everyone appears to be acting equally as poorly. If Zola is to blame for this disruption, Figure 1 suggests he has caused harm to the nation, rather than saved the nation from harm.

Additionally, the scale of the family in the picture creates distance between the viewer and the family and hence puts us in the perspective of a passive observer. D’Ache uses this perspective to give credibility to his work, as if he is recording the state of France as an objective observer, and create a contrast between him and the intellectuals who, by spreading their philosophy, are apparently responsible for creating chaos in France. Whilst we must acknowledge the unreliability of the illustrator, who produces a narrative from the perspective of someone on the other side of the debate to Zola (Clark 2012), the narrative he constructs is testament to many people’s beliefs about Zola at the time.


In order to disseminate their ideas and mould public opinion, intellectuals tended to use the press, as Zola did by writing articles for newspapers during the Affair. However, there was tension between intellectuals and the media at the time. While Zola was being accused of causing ‘radical destruction’ (Frank 2006, p.27), he condemned the press for ‘terrorisant’ and ‘vivant de scandales pour tripler leur vente’ (Zola 1897 ). Zola also for a long time occupied a position on the opposite side of the fence to most newspapers, including those his work was published in, like Le Figaro.

As well as being illustrated by a known anti-Dreyfusard (Anon 2007), Figure 1 was published in a biased newspaper, whose main objective initially was to uphold nationalistic values of unity and faith in the army by discouraging calls for Dreyfus’ retrial (Ponty 1974, pp.201-202). The image is a hyperbolic portrayal of a family ideologically divided. One could argue the brawl is reminiscent of the violence and riots which took place during the affair (Wilson 1984, p.106) and thus presents a reasonable warning of the danger the affair posed to society. Perhaps more likely though, as Zola suggested, the cartoon was published to ‘terrorize’ the public and make them fear, to an unreasonable extent, the violence and disruption that would eventually end and which was an unfortunate ramification of his attempt to ‘heal’ France, in order to distract from the ongoing debate (Zola 1897). Le Figaro also sacrificed integrity for sales when the Editor-in-Chief stopped publishing Zola’s articles in response to the discontent of some of their subscribers (Rimoch 2008, p.30). However, it is ironic that Le Figaro was guilty of these trespasses, as Zola’s (1897) critique of ‘certains journaux’, was originally published in Le Figaro.

Even though some people at the time saw Zola and other intellectuals as ‘dangerous subversives’ who ‘led the assault on the traditional order’ (Frank 2006, p.27), this does not entirely discredit the fact that they were standing up for the truth and their morals and in the end achieved justice when Dreyfus’ name was cleared.

In conclusion, from analysing Caran d’Ache’s ‘Un diner en famille’, we learn that the Dreyfus Affair had a major effect on French society, which somewhat transcended social class. This was partly due to the influence of certain French intellectuals such as Émile Zola, who rallied support for Dreyfus, but also down to the media’s influence, as newspapers gave a platform to these public figures and sometimes pushed their own agenda. By looking at Zola’s impact through the eyes of an anti-Dreyfusard, imperfections in a ‘priest-like’ (Melzer 2004, p.4) persona come to light and by delving deeper into the relationship between Zola and the press, we see evidence of a fractious, love-hate relationship. They needed and benefited from each other in some ways but held conflicting views about society.


Figure 1, Figure 2:

D’ACHE, C., 1898. Un diner en famille. Figaro : journal non politique, 14 February, p.3. [online]. Available from : https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k2842896/f3.item [Accessed 9 November 2022].


ANON, 2007. Affaire Dreyfus : l’énigme Caran D’Ache, Le Figaro [online], 15 October. Available from: https://www.lefigaro.fr/debats/2006/07/21/01005-20060721ARTFIG90051-affaire_dreyfus_l_enigme_caran_d_ache.php [Accessed 9 November 2022].

BOUSSEL, P., 1960. L’Affaire Dreyfus et la presse. Paris : Armand Colin.

CLARK, A. ET AL., 2012. A Mockery of Justice: Caricature and the Dreyfus Affair [online]. Available from: https://exhibits.library.duke.edu/exhibits/show/dreyfus/intro [Accessed 9 November 2022].

FRANK, F., 2006. Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? : Confronting 21st Century Philistinism. London: Bloomsbury.

JENKINS, H., THORBURN, D. AND SEAWELL, B., 2003. Democracy and New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

MELZER, A., 2004. The Public Intellectual: Between Philosophy and Politics. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

PONTY, J., 1974. La presse quotidienne et l’affaire Dreyfus en 1898-1899. Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (1954-), 21 (2).

POSNER, R.A., 2002. Public Intellectuals : A Study of Decline, with a New Preface and Epilogue, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

RIMOCH, D., 2008.  The Affair or the State: Intellectuals, the Press, and the Dreyfus Affair. Thesis. University of Pennsylvania.

SWARTZ, D., 1997. Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

WILSON, S., 1984. Ideology and Experience: Anti-Semitism in France at the Time of the Dreyfus Affair. Liverpool: Liverpool Scholarship Online [online]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3828/liverpool/9780197100523.001.0001 [Accessed 9 November 2022].

ZOLA, É., 1897. M. Scheurer-Kestner. In: A. PAGES, ed. 2006. Combat pour Dreyfus. Paris : Éditions Dilecta, , 27-32.


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