French Jewish History, 1650-1914

The Republic's liberal principles brought tolerance and opportunity.

Print this page Print this page

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.  

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.