When History Moves into the Future

February 14, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- William Faulkner, nearly a half-century ago, speaking of the American South, said that the past ''is not even past.'' France has just demonstrated what that means. The Dreyfus case, which occurred exactly a century ago, is not ''past'' either.

The French army's magazine just published an article on the Dreyfus case, written by the head of the army's historical section. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish officer, graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, the most highly regarded of France's ''grands ecoles.'' He was accused of being a German spy on the basis of a document stolen by French counterintelligence from the German Embassy. He was convicted in 1894 and sent to Devil's Island.

Later, another French officer, Major Esterhazy, not a Jew, was implicated and tried but acquitted. An enormous controversy ensued, and the novelist Emile Zola published his famous denunciation of French military justice, ''J'accuse!'' It was discovered that the document that condemned Dreyfus had been forged by an officer of the general staff, who killed himself when this was found out. Esterhazy fled the country. A new military trial nonetheless convicted Dreyfus once again.

Ten days later, France's president pardoned Dreyfus. He subsequently was restored by court order to his rank in the army, was decorated by order of parliament and served honorably in the First World War. He died in 1935. His court-martial condemnation, however, was never revoked.

The army magazine article recapitulates this history, but then says that the defenders of Dreyfus were leftists ''hostile to national military service,'' who wanted to destroy the officer class. Dreyfus' opponents were patriots who, ''in the context of an impending war with Germany, were attempting to prevent the destabilization of the army.''

The practical result, the article says, was to ''dismantle French military intelligence and cut funding for the army at a moment when Germany was rearming.'' Today, it concludes, ''Dreyfus' innocence is the thesis generally admitted by historians. However, behind the political scandal was a disinformation operation directed against German intelligence, and even now no one is in a position to say whether Dreyfus was consciously or unconsciously implicated in that.'' In short, Dreyfus may, after all, have been guilty.

As soon as this article was drawn to general attention by French newspapers, the minister of defense dismissed the officer responsible, finding the article ''tendentious'' and containing ''historical inexactitudes and errors.'' The general reaction in France was of a certain astonishment, if not uneasiness, that elements in the army still are prepared to defend, even indirectly, the thesis that Dreyfus was guilty.

What is chiefly notable in this affair is its irrelevance to the main currents in France, where the old right, traditionally hostile to the republic, to secular schools, liberalism, internationalism -- and to Dreyfus -- is all but dead, even inside the French army. General DeGaulle's defeat of Petain, and Petainism, was its defeat as well.

There is a new right instead, or a new populism, which is not exclusively a French phenomenon. This movement is against ''cosmopolitanism.'' It says that an ''obsession with anti-Semitism can only uselessly and dangerously complicate'' the construction of a new Europe ''of the peoples.''

TTC It says that it is anti-Zionist, but mainly it is anti-American, since the U.S. stands for an undiscriminating consumerism and materialism. It defends -- as one of its theorists says -- ''the grandeur of nations against the Balkanization of the world on the orders of Wall Street, the Zionist international, the Frankfurt stock market, and the gnomes of Tokyo.''

In France it includes a number of people previously associated with communism or the extreme left. One of its leaders says that right-left categories now, after the collapse of communism, are outmoded, and that the political scene should be described in terms of a center and a periphery, the center occupied by the complacent established forces of capitalist society, the

periphery by all those who want radical social change. These, he says, naturally tend to blend one into another as you work your way around the periphery.

Thus ex-leftists and neo-fascists can come together to struggle against unemployment, immigration, ''Americanization,'' ''cosmopolitanism.'' The newly appointed leader of France's enfeebled Communist party, Robert Hue, first came to national attention when, as the mayor of a working-class suburb, he led a vigilante group in harassing a Moroccan family accused by neighbors of dealing drugs.

This alliance of populist radicals was forged during the Persian Gulf War, which was opposed by both the National Front and the Communist Party in France. The Communist Party today denies any sympathy for National Front causes, but the convergence of interest is clear -- and is not simply confined to France.

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