Anti-Semitism in France: A prejudice that hardened in 1789 and which has come in waves ever since

Just look at how one  periodical described the country’s first Jewish prime minister

Andreas Whittam Smith
Wednesday 14 January 2015 19:25 GMT
Mourners gather in Israel for the funeral of 4 of the victims of the attack on a Paris kosher grocery store
Mourners gather in Israel for the funeral of 4 of the victims of the attack on a Paris kosher grocery store (Getty Images)

It pains me to say this of a country that I admire and love, but anti-Semitism sometimes seems to be part of the warp and weft of French life. Even President de Gaulle once described the Jews as “an elite people, self-assured and domineering”.

The French Revolution, despite its proclamation of liberty, equality and fraternity, gave a boost to anti-Semitism. This is because there was such a contrast between the treatment of Catholics and the treatment of Jews. As Manual Valls, the Prime Minister, said recently: “The choice was made by the French Revolution in 1789 to recognise Jews as full citizens…To understand what the idea of the Republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle.”

But it was this same Revolution that dispossessed the Catholic Church of its wealth and then four years later, banned public worship and insisted that all visible signs of Christianity be removed. Admittedly the ban was lifted in 1795, but the damage had been done. I don’t think for a moment that the difference was planned to come out the way it did. From then onwards, however, Catholic, Royalist, conservative, rural France was hostile to the Jews.

The next major episode was the Dreyfus case. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian and Jewish descent, was convicted of treason in December 1894. Then in 1896 evidence came to light that perhaps Dreyfus was innocent. A non-Jewish fellow officer was the real culprit. The French army mounted a massive cover-up. Eventually Dreyfus was exonerated and re-instated.

Two historians who have recently published accounts of the case, Ruth Harris and Louis Begley, both emphasise the almost sacred position that the army held in French society. For men and women on the right, the it embodied the nation in a way that the Republic could not. Dreyfus’s problem was that he was not a typical officer – a Catholic and an offshoot of a military or aristocratic family or a member of the Catholic or Protestant bourgeoisie. He was seen as an interloper, to be ejected when the first opportunity came up.

In the 1920s and 1930s anti-Semitism in France was more virulent than ever before. The treatment of Léon Blum, who became the first Jewish prime minister in 1936, exemplifies this. In 1937, in the respectable and widely read periodical Candide, Blum was described thus: “The prime minister, coming from a wandering race, dumped in the Ile-de-France by a chance that might as easily have deposited him in New York, Cairo, or Vilna, feels put out at being the leader of a people foreign to his flesh.”

Next comes the episode of Vichy France, set up by Marshall Pétain in the southern half of the country after the German invasion of 1940. In his biography of Pétain, Herbert Lottman put the anti-Semitism of Vichy succinctly. He writes that it had become customary to blame the Germans for Vichy’s anti-Jewish policy. The paradox, he emphasises, is that Pétain’s entourage refused to blame the Germans: “The anti-Jewish decrees, they insisted, were devised and enforced by Pétain and his government.”

Finally, there is the experience of the deportees, those who had survived the concentration camps, when they came back to France in 1945. Out of 78,000 deported French Jews, there were 2,500 survivors. Simone Veil was one of them. She later became a French Government minister and President of the European Parliament.

She wrote of returning to France: “People looked straight past us as though we were invisible.” She added that “we felt around us a kind of general and nameless ostracism”. On the other hand, returning Resistance fighters were treated as heroes. Their combat covered them in glory that was heightened by the imprisonment it cost them. “They chose their destiny…but we, we chose nothing. We were nothing but shameful victims, tattooed animals.’”

Anti-semitism comes in waves. Recently in France it has intensified, what Valls describes as the “new” anti-Semitism. The old anti-Semitism came from the extreme right; the new anti-Semitism “comes from the difficult neighborhoods, from immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous. Israel and Palestine are just a pretext.”

Thus, according to the European Jewish Congress, France suffered more anti-Semitic incidents in 2013 than any other western country and the number of such acts has risen sevenfold this century. There were 527 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of 2014 alone, compared to 423 for the whole of the year before. (Britain has also experienced an increase). Stephen Pollard, the editor of Britain’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper, says that Jewish community leaders expect France’s Jewish population to fall from 500,000 to 400,000 within a few years.

If the Jews cannot live in France any longer, it would be an incredible disaster. The French Republic would have spectacularly fallen short of its ideals. Fortunately Francois Hollande, and Manuel Valls, well understand this and are taking significant actions to buttress the self-confidence of Jewish citizens. Valls also said: “If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” Exactly right.

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