Old Wells of Hatred

Anti-Semitism in France

France is the home to the largest Jewish population in Europe. Just how welcome does it make them feel? 

In 2001, a Frenchman, attending an upscale party in London, blurted out a few anti-Semitic remarks concluding that Israel was a “shitty little country” and asking expansively: “Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?”

So far, so ordinary. France’s history of anti-Semitism is long and ugly, and more than a few smart, modern Frenchmen have no qualms voicing it in cocktail chitchat. What makes this anecdote more significant was the speaker: His Excellency M. Daniel Bernard, the Ambassador of the French Republic to the United Kingdom.

It so happened that his host owned a newspaper and next day, the headlines were full of the ambassador’s gaffe. Rather than apologising, Bernard claimed he could not remember making the remark. The French foreign ministry stood by him, blaming the story on vague "malevolent insinuations”. Two months later he was quietly removed from his post. A month after that, he was appointed French ambassador to Algeria.

Middle Ages

France’s relationship with its Jewish population has never been easy. Like other European countries, its Middle Ages were marked by racial and religious persecution of any group the majority hadn’t previously expelled, impaled or burned at the stake. Any excuse would do. Jews were blamed for spreading the Black Death by deliberately contaminating wells. In 1349, such suspicions were enough to trigger a massacre in the town of Strasbourg. On St. Valentine's Day, in a carnival atmosphere, the two thousand Jews of the town were brought together on a huge platform and burned alive. The good townsfolk were not motivated only by religious hatred. All debts owed to Jews were cancelled as part of the festivities.

The lucky ones were those who got – or were pushed – out of France. Jews were expelled from Paris by Philip Augustus in 1182, from France entirely by Louis IX in 1254, by Charles IV in 1322, by Charles V in 1359 and by Charles VI in 1394.

Revolution and Napoleon

The dawning of the Enlightenment in the 1700s brought an easement to Jewish persecution almost everywhere except France. Famous philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot, now acclaimed by the French for championing the civil and moral liberties of man, did not oppose intellectual anti-Semitism, they led it.

Come the Revolution, Jews that had somehow survived French history only found themselves covered by the Declaration of the Rights of Man after frenzied argument in the National Assembly, quite out of proportion to the miniscule role they played in national life. Even then, observing Jews were not considered to be protected under the law. One issue used by a prefect in Lorraine to avoid relaxing the harsh conditions of Jewish communities in his own district was circumcision: "It is the inhumane law of these people that the new-born male infant is to be bloodily operated upon as if nature herself were imperfect”.

A brief period of toleration followed under the Emperor Napoleon. He did not know much about Judaism (the first question he asked a rabbi presenting him with a petition was how many wives he had) but did know he needed manpower for his armies rampaging across Europe and that included Jews who, because they were excluded from so many other laws, had also been excluded from the draft. After Waterloo, the situation in France returned to grim normality. 


The ”Damascus Incident” is typical of the Jewish-French experience. In February 1840, the Jews of Damascus in Syria, where France had an overwhelming colonial interest, were accused of murdering Father Thomas, the superior of the Capuchins, a Catholic monastic order, slaughtering him and his acolyte to obtain blood for a Passover ceremony (he had been robbed and killed by some renegade Turkish soldiers). The French consul, Count Ratti-Menton, rounded up the nearest Jews, tortured them to extract confessions and eventually accused one of them, Isaac Picciotto, of the murder almost at random. 

He was only prevented from ordering French troops to conduct a general massacre of the Jewish ghetto in Damascus by a strong note from the British Foreign Office reminding Paris that such actions would not win over the natives to France’s “civilising presence” in the area. To this day, the French government has always refused to declassify the files bearing on the incident, specifically, those entitled "Affaire du Pere Thomas assasiné par les Israelites indigenes" (The Affair of Father Thomas murdered by the Jews). Perhaps the title says why. 

During the Victorian period, a horrible evolution of anti-Semitism occurred in France. Traditionally a prejudice of the Catholic right, it became a key theme of the Socialist left who taught that hating Jews for being successful business people and bankers was a class duty.

The two kinds of anti-Semitism came together during the “Dreyfus Affair” of the 1890s, in which an innocent Jewish officer was accused of treason and sentenced to life in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. The cheerleader for the violent riots and social persecution was Edouard Drumont, whose 1886 book La France Juive (Jewish France) was a smash best seller, going through 114 editions in one year. He became a leading light in the newly organised Ligue Antisemitique Français (French Anti-Semitic League) which attracted 15,000 people to its opening meeting and 30,000 new members in its first month.

The long-lived League’s stock in trade was to find the newest scandal rocking France’s endemically corrupt public life, ranging from the Panama Canal bribery case of the 1880s all the way to the Stavisky Affair of the 1930s and then accuse a shadowy conspiracy of Jewish capitalists as being its cause. Its legacy was a suspicion of all things Jewish amounting to a brooding hatred that erupted during the Second World War.

The Second World War

Of the 120,000 French Jews enthusiastically deported by France to Nazi death camps during the Occupation, only 3000 ever returned. 

The intellectuals caved in immediately after the invasion. In September 1940, the association of French publishers signed an agreement with the German ambassador to suppress works by Jews. To show the “decadence” of Semitic art, an exhibition of Jewish painters was mounted in the Palais Berlitz entitled Le juif et la France (The Jew and France). Not one of the 200,000 visitors murmured a word of protest.

Much worse was to come. Without German prompting, the Vichy government passed the Statut des Juifs, (State of the Jews) banning Jews from public office and professions, and forbidding them even to stand in the food queues or use public telephones. By 1942, the yellow armbands were issued and the deportations began. “The enterprise would have been impossible to carry on without the assistance of the French administration”, admitted native writer Jean-Paul Cointier.

As the war progressed, the repression slid from the hands of the Germans, who needed their own troops to fight in the east, and into those of la Milice (The Militia), the purely French-run police under the command of people like René Bousquet, the General Secretary of the Police, and Maurice Papon, who commanded the police in the Gironde. They relied on délations (denunciations) of Jews in hiding by their French neighbours to make up their quotas. One of thousands betrayed in this manner was a young woman arrested in her apartment after a tip off by the concierge who had known her family for years. She was Madeline Dreyfus, grand-daughter of Alfred Dreyfus, and she died in Auschwitz in 1944 weighing just 70 lb.

After the war, many of the Frenchmen most guilty of crimes against Jews were not prosecuted. Bousquet became a director of the Indochina banking company and UTA airline while Papon began a thirty-year ministerial career in politics. Paul Touvier was head of the Milice in Lyons. Amongst his crimes were the kidnap and murder of an elderly Jewish couple; a grenade attack on Jews as they left a synagogue; and the murder of seven Jews on Nazi orders in retaliation for the Resistance's killing of a Vichy official (the eighth captive was allowed to escape because he was a gentile). After the war, he was hidden by an order of Catholic monks for thirty years until 1971 when he received a presidential pardon. After an international outcry, he was re-arrested in 1989 and this time sentenced to life in prison where he died in 1996. A Gaullist member of parliament was amongst those attending his funeral. 

It was suspected that men like these were protected by figures high up in the new French establishment who did not want their own collaboration revealed, including François Mitterrand, himself a high-level member of the Vichy government. Between 1981 and 1995, Mitterand was also a two-term Socialist president of France.


Is anti-Semitism alive and well in France today? Ariel Sharon, the pugnacious former prime minister of Israel, thought so. In 2004, he commented on the spreading rash of anti-Semitic incidents in France and encouraged French Jews to come to Israel "immediately”. The French government responded by withdrawing a previously issued invitation for Sharon to make a state visit.

Today, there are only 600,000 Jews living in France (before the war there had been 1,500,000), less than 1% of the population. Since January 2004, they have filed over 600 complaints of “serious” attacks against Jewish persons and property. Even the government recognises a newly resurgent anti-Semitism. After the repeated vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, the interior minister Dominique de Villepin was forced to acknowledge that "the increase in racist and anti-Semitic acts is a reality in France.”

To tell the truth, anti-Jewish violence did not die with the war. It has erupted regularly over the last fifty years. In 1980, a motorbike parked outside the synagogue on the Rue Copernic in an upscale section of Paris blew up killing four passers-by and wounding eleven. It was the sixth and most serious attack on a Jewish target inside a week. Four years later, gunmen attacked the patrons of Jo Goldberg's restaurant in a Jewish neighbourhood in the heart of Paris. After throwing a grenade through the window, the gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons killing four and wounding another thirty, many of them seriously.

What is new is that the attackers did not come from either the left or the right of French politics. They were drawn apparently from the five-million-strong community of French Muslims, the largest in Europe, the legacy of France’s colonial empire. While almost the entire majority are decent and law-abiding, strong hostility to Israel has turned to pure hatred of their Jewish neighbours in some of them. In the autumn of 2002, for instance, two hundred Maghrebiens attacked Jews in the Champs-Elysées during the religious festival of Rosh Hashanah. 

Despite the almost systematic disregard of growing anti-Semitism in the French press (in 2002, not a single one of the 510 officially-listed attacks on Jews were reported in any of the national newspapers), the French government does recognise that something is going seriously wrong within the country. When French president, Jacques Chirac, learned on Nov. 15th that a Jewish school had been set ablaze in the Paris suburb of Gagny, he flew to the scene of the fire announcing a new set of security measures for Jewish schools and businesses. "When one attacks a Jew in France, it's France in its entirety that is attacked," he told reporters, "Anti-Semitism is contrary to all the values of France.”

Not only France’s history but its present makes that claim seem very hollow.


Religious Hatred or Commercial Realities?: "The Jews had already been settled in France for over a thousand years when Phillip Augustus came to power in 1179... Four months after taking over the reigns of government he imprisoned all the Jews in his lands and released them only after a heavy ransom had been paid (1180). The next year (1181) he annulled all loans made to Christians by Jews, taking instead a comfortable twenty per cent for himself. A year later (1182) he confiscated all the lands and buildings of the Jews and drove them out of the lands governed by himself directly... Several years later (1198) Phillip Augustus readmitted the Jews and carefully regulated their banking business so as to reserve large profits to himself through a variety of taxes and duties. He made of this taxation a lucrative income for himself." Jacob R Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World (1960)

The Race of Brigands”: "It is but with regret that I cite that wretched little Jewish people, who should assuredly not serve as a rule for anyone, and who (putting religion aside) was never anything but a race of ignorant and fanatic brigands.” Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer, philosopher and toady to tyrants, Dictionnaire philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary, 1764)

The Jews Are to Blame for Everything: “The only one who has benefited from the Revolution [of 1789] is the Jew. Everything comes from the Jew; everything returns to the Jew. We have here a veritable conquest, an entire nation returned to serfdom by a minute but cohesive minority, just as the Saxons were forced into serfdom by William the Conqueror's 60,000 Normans. The methods are different, the result is the same... Immense Jewish fortunes, castles, Jewish townhouses, are not the fruit of any actual labour, of any production: they are the booty taken from an enslaved race by a dominant race.” Edouard Drumont, Jew-hating maniac, journalist and author of La France Juive (Jewish France, 1886) 

Plucky Little... Italy?: “The number of [Jewish] dead would have been far higher if the Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, had not ordered troops in France to defy German-French plans for mass round-ups in Italian-occupied south-eastern France. Thousands were smuggled into Italy after Italian generals said that “no country can ask Italy, cradle of Christianity and law, to be associated with these (Nazi) acts”. Paul Webster, The Vichy Policy on Jewish Deportation,

Thoughts of a Future President: "If France doesn't want to die in the mud, the last French people worthy of this name must declare a merciless war against all who, here or abroad, are preparing to open floodgates against it: Jews, Freemasons, Communists... always the same.” François Mitterrand, minister in the Vichy government and later president of France writing in Revue de l'État Nouveau (New State Review, 1942)


This is a web preview of the "50 Reasons to Hate the French" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App