Cause célèbre

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A cause célèbre ( /ˈkɔːzsəˈlɛbrə/ , [1] /ˈkɔːzsəˈlɛb/ , [2] French:  [koz selɛbʁ] , famous case; plural causes célèbres, pronounced like singular) is an issue or incident arousing widespread controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. [3] The term continues in the media in all senses. 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. [4]

In common law legal systems, precedent is a principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive for a court or other tribunal when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts. Common-law legal systems place great value on deciding cases according to consistent principled rules, so that similar facts will yield similar and predictable outcomes, and observance of precedent is the mechanism by which that goal is attained. The principle by which judges are bound to precedents is known as stare decisis. Common-law precedent is a third kind of law, on equal footing with statutory law and subordinate legislation - that is, delegated legislation or regulatory law.


The term is a French phrase in common usage in English. Since it has been fully adopted into English and is included unitalicized in English dictionaries, [5] [1] [2] it is not normally italicized despite its French origin.

English language West Germanic language

English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and eventually became a global lingua franca. It is named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the area of Great Britain that later took their name, as England. Both names derive from Anglia, a peninsula in the Baltic Sea. The language is closely related to Frisian and Low Saxon, and its vocabulary has been significantly influenced by other Germanic languages, particularly Norse, and to a greater extent by Latin and French.

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.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

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 between England and France, the Entente Cordiale. Both attracted worldwide interest and the period of closeness or rapprochement officially broadened the English language.

Dreyfus affair Sociopolitical controversy in the French Third Republic where an Alsatian Jew was falsely convicted of treason

The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. 'The Affair', as it is known in French, has come to symbolise modern injustice in the Francophone world, and it remains one of the most notable examples of a complex miscarriage of justice and antisemitism. The role played by the press and public opinion proved influential in the conflict.

Espionage or spying is the act of obtaining secret or confidential information or divulging of the same without the permission of the holder of the information. Spies help agencies uncover secret information. Any individual or spy ring, in the service of a government, company or independent operation, can commit espionage. The practice is clandestine, as it is by definition unwelcome. In some circumstances it may be a legal tool of law enforcement and in others it may be illegal and punishable by law. Espionage is a method of intelligence gathering which includes information gathering from non-disclosed sources.

Entente Cordiale series of agreements between the United Kingdom and France about colonies in Africa, Siam (Thailand), Newfoundland, and New Hebrides (Vanuatu)

The Entente Cordiale was a series of agreements signed on 8 April 1904 between the United Kingdom and the French Republic which saw a significant improvement in Anglo-French relations. Beyond the immediate concerns of colonial expansion addressed by the agreement, the signing of the Entente Cordiale marked the end of almost a thousand years of intermittent conflict between the two states and their predecessors, and replaced the modus vivendi that had existed since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 with a more formal agreement. The Entente Cordiale was the culmination of the policy of Théophile Delcassé, France's foreign minister from 1898, who believed that a Franco-British understanding would give France some security against any German system of alliances in Western Europe. Credit for the success of the negotiation belongs chiefly to Paul Cambon, France's ambassador in London, and to the British foreign secretary Lord Lansdowne.

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". [6]

Notable examples

Edward IV of England 15th-century King of England

Edward IV was King of England from 4 March 1461 to 3 October 1470, and again from 11 April 1471 until his death. He was the first Yorkist king.

Douglas Cause

The Douglas Cause was a cause célèbre and legal struggle contested in Great Britain during the 1760s. The main parties were Archibald Douglas (1748–1827) and James Douglas-Hamilton, 7th Duke of Hamilton (1755–1769). The affair gripped the nation, leading to death threats and rioting.

Ireland Shakespeare forgeries

The Ireland Shakespeare forgeries were a cause célèbre in 1790s London, when author and engraver Samuel Ireland announced the discovery of a treasure-trove of Shakespearean manuscripts by his son William Henry Ireland. Among them were the manuscripts of four plays, two of them previously unknown.

See also

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  1. 1 2 Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014. S.v. "cause célèbre." Retrieved November 30 2018 from
  2. 1 2 Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary. S.v. "cause célèbre." Retrieved November 30 2018 from
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  6. John Humffreys Parry, "Whistler v. Ruskin: An Attorney's Story of a Famous Trial", in The Living Age (January-March 1921), Volume 308, p. 346.
  7. Kertzer, David I (1998) [1997]. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 126–127. ISBN   978-0-679-76817-3.
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