These words may be an apt description of mainstream media reporting on Covid and all it has spawned, but they were written in 1898 by French novelist Emile Zola in his battle to overturn the treason conviction of Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus. Lettre à la France: l’affaire Dreyfus was a scathing indictment of the country’s institutions and, indeed, the public. Dreyfus was condemned to life imprisonment on the notorious Devil’s Island owing to witness perjury, a mendacious propaganda campaign by French newspapers and the suppression of exculpatory evidence. The fight to exonerate him exposed profound divisions within the Republic and raised difficult questions concerning French values, revealing virulent anti-Semitism and a cavalier attitude towards truth and justice in the nation of liberté, égalité and fraternité.
There are clear parallels with the Dreyfus Affair of nineteenth-century France and this year’s introduction of the passe sanitaire. Some citizens have been happy to show their vaccine status whenever requested whilst others view the passes as an abomination with no place in the French Republic. Like the Dreyfus Affair, the passe marks a crucial stage in the new culture wars with both sides acutely aware that to the victor will go the spoils. The future of the Republic (and all former democracies) will be decided by the winners. Will France perpetually remain a two-tier society, segregated on vaccination (and endless booster) status or will the Republic reclaim the values on which it was founded? The Dreyfus Affair has been called ‘the site of the battle for the soul of French Republicanism’ (Howard Caygill, Levinas and the Political). The passe is no less important a battle.
Emile Zola recognised that the injustices of the Dreyfus Affair imperilled the Republic, and all it embodied. Is liberty sacrosanct? Is equality absolute? Those who do not possess, or refuse to use, a passe sanitaire are now second-class citizens, forbidden from accessing the most basic of freedoms. In Zola’s words a ‘tide of insanity’ has swept the nation.
Zola delivered a warning in 1898 that we should heed today. The government, he wrote, is ‘voracious.’ They want ‘to eat and do not want to leave the table’. Having feasted on tyranny they will never voluntarily surrender their power. Our politicians have tasted imperial rule. They have issued mandates, laws, regulations, restrictions, tests, lockdowns and passes. They have preened onstage, dominated news cycles, granted and removed freedoms on a whim. Macron, Johnson, Andrews, Trudeau, Biden et al have gorged at the table and discovered that they like it. Their power, however, is precarious, kept alive by blind obedience.
The Army, Church, Judiciary and Press all colluded in Dreyfus’s imprisonment, but Zola did not absolve the French people for being mere dupes. The elite may have behaved abominably but the population needed to ‘wake up’, to take responsibility, to cease accepting everything they read and everything they heard as the truth. Newspaper lies had destroyed logic and reason. Public opinion had been formed by falsehoods unquestioningly accepted as truth. Sensible people, Zola, despaired, had become consumed by fear and intolerance. It is a situation we have become familiar with since March 2020.
The passe sanitaire, like the treatment of Alfred Dreyfus, is incompatible with the values of the Republic. It must be challenged and defeated. Zola saw silence in the face of wickedness as compliance and refused to be silent. In his more famous tract, J’accuse, published shortly after Letter To France, he stated:
Remaining silent is condoning this tyranny. We all have a moral obligation to speak out against it.