France Knows How This Ends

France Knows How This Ends

Polarization, anger, division—French history offers a warning for what might come after Donald Trump.

A Jewish military officer wrongfully convicted of treason. A years-long psychodrama that permanently polarized an entire society—communities, friends, even families. A politics of anger and emotion designed to insult the very notion of truth. A divide that only grew with time. A reconciliation that never was. A frenzied right wing that turned to violence when it failed at the ballot box.

This was the Dreyfus affair, the signature scandal of fin de siècle France, aspects of which Americans might recognize as we arrive at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency: After decades of cascading political crises, debilitating financial scandals, and rising anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus affair saw the emergence of political surreality, an alternate universe of hateful irrationality and militarized lies that captured the minds of nearly half the population.

That period in France, known as the Third Republic, never resulted in any reconciliation. It turned out to be impossible to compromise with those who not only rejected the truth but also found the truth offensive, a kind of existential threat. The social divide simply grew wider and wider, to the point where bridging the gap became a futile proposition. Even the national mobilization in World War I was not enough to create a durable unity; the wounds of the past proved impossible to heal. In fact, “unity” turned out to be the wrong goal to pursue. What mattered was defending the republic’s values, a defense never made forcefully enough.