French Jewish History, 1650-1914

The Republic's liberal principles brought tolerance and opportunity.

Print this page Print this page

The French monarchy progressively expelled its venerable Jewish community during the 14th and 15th centuries, largely because of religious anti-Jewish sentiment and popular resentment fueled by money lending. France ended its ban on Jews in the 17th century when it acquired a few thousand Ashkenazic Jews by conquering the Germanic lands of Alsace, Lorraine, and Metz. At the same time Portuguese "New Christians" who had settled in Bordeaux and several other smaller communities in the 16th century were gradually dropping the pretence of being Catholic and beginning to live openly as Sephardic Jews. In the early 18th century, they, too, won official recognition.

France's New Jews

France's new Jews were organized along the lines of almost all Jewish communities in Europe at the time: they existed not as individuals but as a corporately organized, legally autonomous community with defined rights and responsibilities toward the Crown. Jewish communities, for example, paid specific taxes and duties to the king and other authorities, while being exempt from other forms of taxation. Jews also had the right and obligation to govern and police themselves. Jewish communities could compel individual Jews to pay into communal coffers, respect the authority of the Crown-recognized heads of the Jewish "nation," and abide by the legal judgments of the rabbinate.

France accepted Jews not because of religious tolerance but because of a strong sense of raison d'état (national interest), a value which increasingly trumped religious belief for policy makers. In the case of the Portuguese Jews, the government valued the community's prominent role in maritime commerce, and especially trade with France's Caribbean colonies. In the case of the eastern Jews, the government valued the group's ability to supply military garrisons with provisions and horses, the taxes these Jews paid to the Crown as protection money, and the critical role they played in the rural economy. Jewish peddlers and moneylenders were often the sole source of coin and 'the only connection to regional markets.

Although the economic activities of the Jews of eastern France were appreciated by Paris officials, they were a lightning rod for anti-Jewish sentiment in rural France well into the nineteen century. Large numbers of Jews were destitute and depended on Jewish charity.
Wandering Jewish beggars went from community to community seeking alms. Most of the community--barred from engaging in the majority of commercial and agricultural activities by medieval legal restrictions--survived by peddling dry goods and selling livestock. Many extended credit to customers at interest or lent money. Not all or even most moneylenders in the areas of Jewish settlement were Jews, but peasants commonly owed enormous sums of money to Jewish creditors.

The Emancipation Debate

The universally negative attitudes towards Jews in France did not begin to change until the 1780s, when a public debate began over whether the negative attributes of Jews--which no one disputed--were innate or the result of discrimination. In 1785, the Metz Royal Academy of Sciences sponsored an essay contest on "the means of making Jews happy and more useful in France." One of the submissions, the Abbot Henri Grégoire's "Essay on the Physical, Moral, and Political Regeneration of the Jews," became the principle text of the emancipation debate."

Grégoire, focusing on Alsace (which hosted the largest Jewish community--roughly 20,000 at the time), argued that Jews had a degenerating influence on rural Alsatian society. Jews were parasitical, prone to illness, and indoctrinated by their religion to hate gentiles. Their rabbis, he claimed, had perverted biblical morality. However, Grégoire was confident that persecution was the root of Jewish degeneracy, and that granting the Jews more right would "regenerate" them. "Let us make Jews into citizens," Grégoire declared, "regenerated both physically and morally, they will acquire a healthier and more robust temperament, enlightenment, probity: their hearts corrected by virtue, their hands hardened by labor, they will come to profit all society."

Soon after Grégoire published his essay the Revolution broke out and forced the issue. In late July and August 1789, Alsatian peasants who saw the Revolution as an opportunity to rid themselves of debts sacked Jewish homes and injured an estimated 3,000 Jews, which placed pressure on the government to take action to protect them. Moreover, on August 4, 1789, the National Assembly ended feudalism by ordering dissolved the corporate and provincial privileges that characterized Old Regime France, making Jewish communal autonomy untenable.

Grégoire quickly introduced the question of Jewish emancipation to the National Assembly. He was followed by a Jewish delegation that presented a petition requesting civil and economic liberties as well as the preservation of Jewish autonomy. On December 31, 1789, the Assembly granted emancipation to the Sephardic Jews, who had not asked for continued autonomy. However, Christian delegates from Alsace and Lorraine held up emancipation for the eastern Jews over the autonomy issue. The Assembly finally granted them full liberty--at the price of their autonomy--on September 27, 1791.

Emancipation changed daily life very little, though it initiated a trend that eventually had enormous consequences on Jewish life: migration to cities that had not previously had Jewish communities, above all Strasbourg and Paris. By 1871, when Germany annexed Alsace and Lorraine following the Franco-Prussian War, Paris had become France's largest and most important Jewish community. Otherwise communal life went on unchanged. The usury problem also continued, and even got worse. The rush by peasants to buy land confiscated from the Church, and sold off by the state, greatly increased peasant indebtedness to Jews.  The resulting political pressures prompted Napoleon to intervene.

In 1806, Napoleon convened an Assembly of Jewish Notables from the Jewish communities of France and newly-annexed portions of Germany and Italy to discuss ways to end usury and hasten Jewish "regeneration." The Assembly responded to questions regarding Jews' relationship to non-Jews and the state and the Jews' stance on usury, and proposed a plan to reorganize the Empire's Jewish communities so that they would be run by a hierarchical and centralized system of consistories led by a Central Consistory in Paris.

Napoleon--not one to set low ambitions--convened a full rabbinic Sanhedrin with the notion that it would convert the Assembly's responses into doctrine and law binding for all Jews under French rule. The Sanhedrin convened in 1807 and, citing the rabbinic principle that the law of the kingdom is the valid law for Jews, declared that Jews had to accept the state as their fatherland and embrace its laws as their own. The Sanhedrin ordered Jews to take up trades or farm and to renounce those professions that made them "odious" and "despised" in the eyes of their fellow citizens. Napoleon adopted the consistory plan and made it law on March 17, 1808, but he was not convinced the consistory plan would be enough.

The Infamous Decree

On the same day, Napoleon issued a second law to be known as the "Infamous Decree," draconian measures aimed at stamping out Jewish money lending among the Alsatian Jews. The decree restricted Alsatian Jews' ability to move within the province and banned Jewish army draftees from paying substitutes, a common practice at the time. Alsatian Jews required special authorizations to conduct business, and loans to Christians had to be conducted under the eyes of notaries at an interest rate that could not exceed 5 per cent.

However, usury remained a fact of life and a lightening rod for rural discontent in Alsace until the 1860s, as evidenced by massive pogroms in 1832 and 1848.

Change came for the Jewish community through the Guizot Law of 1833, which eventually broke the back of the traditional Jewish education system. The Guizot Law required municipalities to open public primary schools and charging the state with closing down all "clandestine" schools run by unlicensed instructors.

The rapid growth of the public school system brought Jewish children into modern primary schools run by government-trained and licensed instructors who taught such topics as math, geography, French history, and perhaps most important, the French language.

On balance, Jewish life in France until the First World War was very good. The Restoration government that followed the Empire voted in 1818 to let the Infamous Decree expire, ending legal discrimination against French Jews. It did so in the name of liberal principle and every regime that followed until Vichy in 1940 recognized that same principle and steadfastly defended the rights of French Jewry. The government's response to the 1832 and 1848 pogroms was vigorous and not without serious political risk, and both the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1880s and the controversy surrounding the Dreyfus Affair during the 1890s and early 1900s--during which Jewish Army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of passing secrets to Germany--obscures the fact that the French establishment admitted Dreyfus (and other Jews) to the country's most elite educational and military institutions, repeatedly promoted him and given him prestigious assignments.  

Flourishing Jewish Life

Few--if any--countries boasted such a record, and in such a climate Jews flourished. A large Jewish middle class quickly developed, and many had extraordinary careers in everything from banking (the Rothschilds, for example) to the theater (the actress Rachel), from academia (Emile Durkheim) to opera (Fromental Halév). A Jewish lawyer, Adolphe Crémieux, made his name in the 1830s defending liberal causes and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1842, where he was a major political player. After the 1848 Revolution, Crémieux was named to the committee that ran France's provisional government and served as Minister of Justice; in 1870-1 after the collapse of the Second Empire, he sat again in a provisional government as Minister of Justice.

Beginning in 1881, a new force in French-Jewish life began: immigration, primarily from Russia but also from the entire Mediterranean basin. America was always most Jews' destination of choice, but the Yiddish phrase Leben vi got in Frankraych (to live like God in France) makes it clear that few were disappointed to immigrate to France. Thousands ended up in Paris, where large numbers packed into the Marais Saint-Paul neighborhood, which became known as the "Pletzl" (little square). With them came Leftist radicalism, union activism, Zionism, and Yiddish culture in all its forms.

When the First World War broke out, French Jews, immigrants and natives alike, enthusiastically rallied to their beloved flag. Aging Alfred Dreyfus reported for duty in 1914 and served for the entire length of the war, as did his sons. Two of his nephews died on the front.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Michael Shurkin received a Ph.D. from Yale in 2000 in French and Jewish history and wrote his dissertation on state intervention in Alsatian and Algerian Jewish communities in the 19th century. He lives in Washington, DC.