antisemitism in France: an overview

ORIGINS 

The earliest records of Jews residing in what is now France date back to the year 6 CE. There is evidence of antisemitic discrimination taking place as early as the 300s-400s CE.

More Jewish communities were established in the sixth century. 

In 629, Jews were expelled from France for the first time, though some remained in the south, which was then under the rule of the Visigothic kings of Spain.  

 

EXPULSIONS 

Since then, Jews in France experienced periodic expulsions: in 1182, 1289, 1306, 1321, and 1394, though there might have been more.

Jews also experienced various forms of systemic discrimination and pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). There are accounts of persecutions that were so horrifying that Jewish women jumped into the river and drowned, rather than risk torture, captivity, and/or sexual violence. 

It was also common practice to burn Jews at the stake. 

 

17TH & 18TH CENTURIES 

Jews returned to France in the 17th century, which prompted more antisemitic discrimination. By the 1780s, 40,000-50,000 Jews lived in France. 

 

EMANCIPATION & ASSIMILATION 

Jews were brutally attacked by peasants during the French Revolution. However, it was also the French Revolution that finally emancipated the Jews of France.

During this time period, there was fierce debate over what the fate of European Jewry should be, a concept known as “the Jewish Question” (the Nazis later addressed this “Jewish Question” in their Final Solution to the Jewish Question, their plan for the complete genocide of the Jewish People). Could Jews be “de-judefied” (assimilate) or should they be resettled or expelled?

 

THE DREYFUS AFFAIR 

In 1894, a French captain of Jewish origin by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of spying and was arrested and convicted to life imprisonment (invoking antisemitic tropes of dual loyalty). In 1896, evidence came forth that should have acquitted Dreyfus of those charges. The French military, however, suppressed that information and even accused him of extra charges based on fake evidence. 

Rumors of the coverup and false accusations spread and Dreyfus was given a new trial — and a new conviction. In 1906, he was finally exonerated.

The Dreyfus Affair had a massive impact on French and European Jewry. No matter how much Jews assimilated into European society, it became clear that they would always be persecuted. 

 

THE HOLOCAUST 

By 1940, when France came under German occupation, 330,000 Jews lived in France (and another 370,000 in French North African colonies). After signing an armistice agreement, parts of France came under German control. The other areas were under the jurisdiction of the antisemitic and collaborationist Vichy Regime.

French Jews were deported to concentration camps starting in 1941. The Vichy Regime passed antisemitic legislation and forced deportations of their own accord, without any input from the Germans. It wasn’t until 1995 that France admitted to any wrongdoing. 

Around 72,500 French Jews died in the Holocaust (for what happened to the Jews of French North Africa, see my post THE HOLOCAUST IN NORTH AFRICA). 

 

21ST CENTURY ANTISEMITISM 

Today, France has the third largest Jewish population in the world, after Israel and the United States. Around half a million Jews live in France, many of them immigrants from North Africa. 

France has a serious antisemitism problem, coming from both the right and left wing and the Muslim world. 

In 2006, a Jewish man named Ilan Halimi was mutilated and tortured to death. In 2012, a mass shooting took place at a Jewish school, murdering 7 people, including 3 children. In 2016, a Jewish teacher was attacked with a machete and a 73-year-old Jew was murdered in his home. In 2017, a 65-year-old Jewish woman named Sarah Halimi was brutally tortured and thrown out the window of her apartment. There were concerns that the investigators were trying to cover up the antisemitic motives. In 2018, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor was set on fire in her home. 

Since the early 2000s, the situation for Jews in France has become so severe that there has been a mass exodus of Jews leaving the country. Many Jewish groups recommend not wearing any Jewish garb for fear of violence. In addition to the murders in the previous slide, there’s been hundreds of other incidents, including vandalism, assaults, and more. Government coverups have been a legitimate concern, and the police has often hesitated to call hate crimes antisemitic, even when all the evidence points to antisemitism. In 2020, an American Jewish Committee survey found that 23% of Jews in France have been victims of physical antisemitic attacks.

In 2014, an ADL survey found that 37% of French people harbor antisemitic attitudes.