France has the largest Jewish minority population in Europe, estimated at around 500,000 people. The main centres are Paris, Marseilles, Lyons, Nice, Toulouse and Strasbourg. A significant number of French Jews leave the country every year to live in Israel – in recent years, between 3,000 and 7,000 annually – reportedly due to fears around terrorism and anti-Semitism.
Jews first settled in the area that is now France in Roman times. In the eighth century they became established in agriculture, medicine and trade and were accepted at the highest levels of society. Returning Crusaders justified their persecution of the Jews throughout Europe in the eleventh century. In the twelfth century persecution intensified, including ritual violence and killing, imprisonment, confiscation of property and expulsion. But after being expelled, they were often allowed to return only for their property to be confiscated again and to be expelled again. In 1305 100,000 Jews were expelled but were allowed to return in 1315. The Jews were scapegoats for the Black Death later in the fourteenth century. After vicious attacks they were expelled in 1394. In the sixteenth century Sephardic Jews fled from Spain and Portugal to France where they converted to Christianity and were allowed to remain. Many became successful and wealthy. In the seventeenth century Ashkenazi Jews fled from Poland and Ukraine to Alsace, Lorraine and Savoy, but here Jews remained poor and persecuted. In the eighteenth century Jews returned to Paris, the Sephardim settling on the left bank of the River Seine and the Ashkenazim on the right. Anti-Jewish laws were repealed in the 1780s, and the first synagogue opened in 1788.
In 1790 the revolutionary government granted Jews citizenship. From 1793 to 1794 all religious institutions and community organizations were closed as a result of revolutionary secularist fervour. In 1806 Judaism became a recognized religion with a state-approved structure covering the whole of France. This structure is the basis for the present consistorial system. Despite this progress, in 1808 laws were passed restricting the areas where Jews were allowed to live and cancelling debts owed to Jewish money lenders. In 1818 Jewish schools opened in Strasbourg, Metz, Colmar, Paris and Bordeaux. Jews became prominent in business, finance, science, the arts and, to a much lesser extent, in politics. But anti-Jewish violence broke out in 1848 and again in the 1880s when anti-Jewish newspapers and books appeared. Jews were accused of causing the collapse of a Roman Catholic bank.
The Dreyfus Affair
In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian and the first Jewish officer on the French Army’s General Staff, was wrongfully accused and convicted in a secret military trial of spying for the Germans. The case caused a scandal in its abrogation of human rights and its disregard for the law. French opinion was divided for and against Dreyfus, with socialists, republicans and anti-Roman Catholics generally supporting Dreyfus and conservatives, royalists and the Roman Catholic Church using the case to justify anti-Semitism. Dreyfus was pardoned by the President in 1898, following a retrial in which the military judges upheld their previous verdict despite new evidence clearing Dreyfus. The case eventually led to the 1905 Act which disestablished the Roman Catholic Church and created the secular state. It also polarized French politics, with divisions that remain to the present day.
The case gave impetus to the Zionist movement. The Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl, who covered the case, wrote The Jewish State in 1896 and founded the Zionist Organization in 1897, convinced that Jews would never obtain justice in Europe.
From 1881 to 1914 over 25,000 Jews came from Eastern Europe to France, mostly en route for the United States (USA). After World War I immigration soared from Russia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, then from Germany to escape Nazi repression in the 1930s. The USA called a halt to free immigration in 1924, putting extra pressure on France. The Fédération des Societés Juifs de France was set up in 1923 to take care of the growing community. When the Germans invaded in 1940 there were an estimated 300,000 Jews living in France.
The wartime Vichy government introduced anti-Jewish legislation, and 76,000 Jews were deported from France, 73,500 of whom died in the concentration camps. Over two-thirds of those deported were stateless refugees, whom the Vichy government readily handed over to the Germans.
Between 1945 and 1951 the Jewish population rose from 180,000 to 250,000 with immigration from North Africa. Anti-Semitism was ever present. Following the Six Day War between Israel and the neighbouring Arab countries in 1967, left-wing student protestors in 1968 supported the Palestinian cause, as did the government of the time. There were clashes between Jews and new Muslim immigrants.
The number of ultra-Orthodox Jews rose in the 1980s, especially Paris.
In July 1994 President Mitterrand inaugurated an official monument in memory of the 13,152 Jews rounded up by French police in 1942, the first official acknowledgement of French complicity in the Holocaust. However, that same year Mitterrand was criticized by Jewish leaders for saying that it was too late to try Nazi war criminals. In 1995 President Chirac recognized the active participation of Vichy France in the Holocaust, but proponents of Holocaust denial were already attracting attention and openly flouting the Gayssot 1990 law banning such denial. In 1997 an extreme right Roman Catholic publication criticized the Roman Catholic Church for its apology for collaborating with the Nazis.
The extreme right party Front National, which was founded in 1972 and led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, gained more votes than expected in the 1995 presidential elections, and forced the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin out of the second-round ballot in 2002, resulting in the re-election of Jacques Chirac when many had expected Jospin to win. Le Pen had dismissed Hitler’s gas chambers as a mere detail of history.
The number of anti-Semitic incidents, including desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, rose following the events of 11 September 2001 and the escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. Incidents reached a peak in 2004. Although incidents reported to the police and the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) fell significantly in 2005, the first anti-Semitic murder in 10 years took place in February 2005. A young Jewish man was kidnapped, tortured and killed by an Islamist gang in Paris. Several attacks on Jews by Africans and an attack on a Jewish school in Paris followed this murder.
Though they make up the largest Jewish population in Europe, significant numbers of France’s Jewish minority number have been emigrating in recent years, partly in response to the perception that they are no longer safe in France. This feeling intensified following an attack in March 2012 by a religious extremist who, after killing three Muslim soldiers, fatally shot a rabbi and three Jewish children. Subsequently, an attack on a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 saw 15 Jewish people held hostage and four people killed.
Besides these high-profile incidents, hate crime and hate speech rose in 2015. The Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de L’Homme (CNCDH) recorded 335 anti-Semitic acts in 2015, although Jewish community groups warned that many victims were hesitant to file complaints. There has since been a drop in the reported number, with the CNCDH recording 311 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. While the authorities point to efforts to strengthen security measures for the Jewish community, community representatives feel that there are other causes, including that Jewish families have been moving out of the suburbs and also increasingly placing their children in private schools. Moreover, the nature of anti-Semitic hate incidents has very worryingly shifted from verbal abuse to violence. According to the CNCDH, the number of violent anti-Semitic attacks increased by 26 per cent in 2017, totalling 97 incidents reported during the year. In comparison, the number of threats, or instances of verbal abuse, dropped by 17 per cent to 214 recorded instances.
Activists have criticized what they argue has been a limited judicial response to anti-Semitic violence. For example, authorities initially did not include a hate crime indictment in their prosecution of the murderer of a 65-year-old Jewish woman in Paris, despite evidence of long-standing anti-Semitic abuse, though following pressure these charges were added. Sadly, these targeted killings have continued; in March 2018, an 80-year old Holocaust survivor became the eleventh victim in 12 years.
Incidents such as these appear to have contributed to the emigration of thousands of French Jews to Israel. The picture is mixed, however. 6,628 Jews emigrated to Israel in 2015, while the figure dropped in 2016 and again in 2017 to 3,157 in that year. While the French authorities believe that the drop in emigration is due to the success of their policing measures, some analysts have pointed to significant internal migration from certain suburbs to other areas around Paris, as well as increasing segregation, in response to fears of anti-Semitism, including from Muslims. In interviews, some French Jews add that the complexity of starting afresh in a new country makes them hesitate; some have even returned after having emigrated to Israel before.
The right-wing political party Front National had a long history of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism under its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. His daughter and the party’s current leader Marine has taken steps to move the party away from anti-Semitism – though she attracted criticism for comments made in April 2017 suggesting that French authorities had played no part in the round-up of Jews during the World War II. Many analysts have questioned the sincerity of Le Pen’s rejection of anti-Semitism and pointed to its persistence within the party to this day. Her 2018 decision to rename the party Rassemblement National or National Rally was supposed to have been an attempt to close a chapter in the party’s past and take it further into the political mainstream. However, many commentators have pointed out that the name matches closely that of a 1940’s collaborationist Fascist organization, Rassemblement National Populaire.
Updated September 2018
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