A cause célèbre (French: [koz selɛbʁ], famous case; plural causes célèbres) is an issue or incident arousing widespread controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. The term continues in the media in all senses. Confusingly it is sometimes used positively for celebrated legal cases for their precedent value (each locus classicus or "case-in-point") and more often negatively for infamous ones, whether for scale, outrage, scandal or conspiracy theories.
The term is a French phrase in common usage in English. In French, cause means, here, a legal case, and célèbre means "famous". The phrase originated with the 37-volume Nouvelles Causes Célèbres, published in 1763, which was a collection of reports of well-known French court decisions from the 17th and 18th centuries. While English speakers had used the phrase for many years, it came into much more common usage after the 1894 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus for espionage during the cementing of a period of deep cultural ties with a political tie, the Entente Cordiale. Both attracted worldwide interest and the period of closeness or rapprochement officially broadened the English language. Often, politicians and social gadflies will become involved to use the media attention surrounding the case to promote their own agendas.
It has been noted that the public attention given to a particular case or event can obscure the facts rather than clarify them. As one observer states, "The true story of many a cause célèbre is never made manifest in the evidence given or in the advocates' orations, but might be recovered from these old papers when the dust of ages has rendered them immune from scandal".
^Edgar Sanderson, Historic Parallels to L'affaire Dreyfus (1900), p. 265: "The unique cause célèbre of the nineteenth century, L'Affaire Dreyfus, is conspicuous for every kind of wickedness that can be brought to bear against an innocent man".
^Sowell, Thomas (June 30, 2001) . "The Quest for Cosmic Justice". The Quest for Cosmic Justice. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 19. ISBN978-0-7432-1507-7. OCLC898484807. A more recent cause célèbre of the American criminal justice system was the murder trial of former football star O.J. Simpson, which provoked widespread consternation, not only because of its “not guilty” verdict in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, but also because of the sheer length of time that the trial took.
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