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 is particularly used in connection with celebrated legal cases.
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, which attracted worldwide interest. Often politicians and social gadflies will become involved in order 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 clarifying them. As one observer states, "[t]he 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".
Notable examples of cases and events described by this term include:
- Vera Zasulich trial
- The Dreyfus affair
- Beilis case
- Rodney King incident
- The O.J. Simpson murder case
- Julian Assange case
- Pussy Riot trial
- Landmark decision
- List of French words and phrases used by English speakers
- Media circus
- Missing white woman syndrome
- List of French phrases
- The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy; third edition, 2002.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; fourth edition, 2000.
- John Humffreys Parry, "Whistler v. Ruskin: An Attorney's Story of a Famous Trial", in The Living Age ... (1921), Volume 308, p. 346.
- 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".
- Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice (2001), Chapter 1: "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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