A Culture in Despair

Part VI: The Intellectuals and the Mob

(This is Part VI of the series on the Third Republic. I just want to give advance warning that some readers might find the rhetoric and actions described below to be disturbing.)

In the immediate aftermath of Zola’s “J’Accuse” in 1898, mobs took to the street throughout France. The cries of “Long Live the Army” and “Death to the Jews” intermingled. In Nantes, some 3,000 youths rampaged to the street, smashed the windows of Jewish stores, and tried to force open the door of the synagogue. In Rennes, a crowd attacked the homes of Jewish and Dreyfusard professors. In Bordeaux, the police struggled to prevent the looting of Jewish stores. For two weeks, every major city in France saw antisemitic demonstrations descend into pillage and violence; effigies of Zola and Dreyfus were burned, as well as Zola’s books and articles.

But it was in France’s colonial possessions, specifically in Algeria, that “a veritable crisis of anti-Jewish hysteria occurred.”1 The white colonial population, the pieds-noirs, numbering some 320,000, especially resented the decision to naturalize the population of 50,000 Algerian Jews. Many pieds-noirs were actually of Spanish, Maltese, and Italian descent and thus were not citizens: the granting of citizenship to a non-European population was felt to be an insult in a colonial system organized through racial and religious caste. The riots in Algiers dwarfed the scenes in metropolitan France. Most of the Jewish bazaars were devastated. Christian shopkeepers had to mark their stores to prevent being looted as well. Crowds in France mostly satisfied themselves with property destruction, but the mobs in Algiers assaulted Jews themselves, killing several. The authorities praised the actions of the mob while urging calm, with the mayor of Algiers declaring, “You are indignant at the doings of those who are trying to taint that sacred thing, the honor of the French Army…But do not let that explosion of splendid sentiments degenerate into chaos.”2 Antisemitism was already the basis of political careers in Algeria: pied-noir shopkeepers would rather do without the competition from their Jewish neighbors.3 This pattern expressed itself more subtly in the metropole.

The riots across France appeared to be spontaneous outpourings of rage against Zola’s broadside, but in fact they were the product of concerted organization and agitation. Antisemitic posters appeared before the riots and antisemitic conferences took place in many of the cities that witnessed large scale rioting. There was also, as we’ve seen, a growing antisemitic press. The Catholic press, not to be outdone, was increasingly packed with anti-Jewish articles. In Paris, the mobs were becoming organized on an almost paramilitary basis by the Ligue Antisémitique Française.

Behind the wave of antisemitic agitation was a certain class of writer who found in this novel ideology a solution to the profound changes upsetting French society and their own station in life. They were denizens of the cafés on Paris’s grand boulevards and had hoped to establish themselves as men of letters in that world. By the 1880 and ’90s, the career path that lead from the café to the newspaper office to the salon to the Academie Française was fading. New forms of journalism and public entertainment were taking over: mass-circulation dailies filled with reporting, advertisements and muckraking were swamping the old belle-lettristic journals and the cafe-concert was drawing big crowds instead of the old theaters. A wave of rampant commercialization followed an economic depression in the 1880s that devastated an older, smaller model of mercantile life of old Paris. According to the historian Philip Nord, literature in this period witnessed a “crisis of overproduction.”

Édouard Drumont, the editor of La Libre Parole, France’s biggest antisemitic paper, had begun his career as a literary dandy on the boulevards, wrote theater criticism, and wanted to go into the theater himself. Although he had connections in the literary world (remember, we first encountered Drumont in Juliet Adam’s salon), Drumont did not succeed as a playwright. What made him an overnight success was the publication in 1886 of La France Juive, his mammoth compendium of antisemitic invective and conspiracy-mongering, which found the Jew at the root of France’s modern malaise. Drumont combined antisemitism with sentimental pining for the cozy quartiers and little shops of old Paris, which had been displaced by Haussmanization and the grand magasin, the department store. (Drumont’s nostalgic picture of Paris was the opposite of the ugly realities of urban life chronicled in naturalistic detail by Emile Zola.) With the success of La France Juive, he was able to go into business as a newspaperman. “Drumont assembled a hard core of antisemitic disciples, litterateurs very much like himself who exploited antisemitism to relaunch flagging careers,” writes Philip Nord. “Second-hand dandies..sporting the ‘obligatory monocle’…, veterans of the boulevard press, the whole rag-tag bunch who rallied to Drumont were in one way or another connected to the boulevard demimonde.”4

Jules Guérin, the founder of the Ligue Anstisémitique Française, had a similar story: a snappily-dressed boulevardier, cafe-fixture, and washed-up dramaturge, he also failed as a shady businessman and ran afoul of the law. The antisemitic movement gave him a second chance. (Nearly every major anti-Dreyfusard intellectual has\d some connection to the theater; make of that what you will.)

Perhaps the most striking of the déclasse figures of the antisemitic demimonde was the aristocratic bon vivant and clubman the Marquis de Morès. Restless and unable to make anything of himself in France, Morès declared “Life is only valuable through action.”5 He traveled to the United States, where he failed as a rancher in the Dakotas, then traveled to French Indochina, where he oversaw a disastrous railroad project. Back in the metropole, he found in the figure of the Jew the cause of all his failures. His theories pilfered anticapitalist notes from the French socialist tradition and put them to nationalist ends. Morès organized a group of Paris butchers as antisemitic street toughs, dressing them in ten-gallon hats and chaps of the Wild West. It was Morès who killed the Jewish officer Armand Meyer in a duel in 1892. He himself was killed by Tuareg tribesmen in North Africa while hatching an insane plan to unite Muslims against the Jews and the British. The nationalist writer Maurice Barrés declared Morès, “the first national socialist.”6

The character of the anti-Dreyfusard milieu appears somewhat paradoxical at first glance: it was established and marginal, respectable and bohemian, aristocratic and plebeian. “In joining the anti-Dreyfusist cause [the established] were defending a social order which had showered its blessing on them and established values with which they felt solidarity,” writes Jean-Denis Bredin.7 Philip Nord describes the alliance struck between the marginal and the successful:

The eclipse of the boulevard culture brought disappointment to journalists and littérateurs whatever their position in the old hierarchy of success. The marginals could never hope to rise in a world of shrinking opportunities. As for the successful, the emergence of new cultural hierarchies devalued their achievement. They were equally victims of a profound cultural change. The old world, of course, did not vanish noiselessly but made a supreme effort in anti-Dreyfusard Nationalism to postpone defeat.8

The Dreyfusards drew their recruits mostly from new scientific disciplines like sociology and the as-yet-unrecognized avant-garde of the literary world, attracting writers like Marcel Proust, André Gide, Stéphane Mallarmé, Charles Péguy, and Léon Blum. This group was tarred as “intellectuals” in the anti-Dreyfusard press: the products of a decadent culture, who wanted their abstract, metaphysical notions to replace the concrete interests and values of France. The nationalist Maurice Barrés charged the Dreyfusards with using the affair to “remake France in the image of their own prejudices”: “…They say Dreyfus is a symbol. Be quite certain that these political operators have picked up this little Jew to use as a weapon, like picking up a knife from the gutter.”9 (The theories of the anti-Dreyfusards are often confused: was it the Jews using the intellectuals, or was it the intellectuals using the Jews? Consistency is not their metier.)

Both camps were turning Dreyfus into a symbol of a political struggle over the nature of France itself. As things stood in 1898, the Dreyfusard camp was much smaller than the anti-Dreyfusards, and their meetings came under constant assault from Guérin’s mobs. The antisemites seduced a large section of Paris shopkeepers, once the backbone of democratic republicanism but now squeezed by the Depression and the department store, over to the side of reactionary anti-democratic politics. Zola’s conviction for libel over “J’Accuse” probably saved his life: had he been acquitted the mob would’ve probably torn him to shreds outside the courtroom. The Dreyfusard press was small compared to the combined might of La Libre Parole, with its half-million readers, the 1,500,000 subscribers of Petit Journal, and the Catholic press, which was growing vocally antisemitic with support from Rome. Nevertheless this small Dreyfusard vanguard gradually rallied and gained strength, leading the anti-Dreyfusards to attempt a series of desperate coups against the Republic.


The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, Jean-Denis Bredin, 287


Ibid., 287


“The Antisemitic Riots of 1898 in France,” The Historical Journal,Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec., 1973,) Stephen Wilson, 794


The Politics of Resentment: Shopkeeper Protest in Nineteenth Century Paris, Philip Nord, 374


The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton, 58




Bredin, 278


Nord, 463


The French Right (From de Maistre to Maurras,) J.S. McClelland, ed., 167