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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - France : Jews

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - France : Jews, 2008, available at: [accessed 1 June 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


There are an estimated 600,000 Jews living in France. The main centres are Paris (300,000), Marseilles (80,000), Lyons (30,000), Nice (20,000), Toulouse (20,000) and Strasbourg (12,000).

It is estimated that only 15 per cent of the community attends synagogue.

Historical context

Jews first settled in the area that is now France in Roman times. In the eighth century they became established in agriculture, medicine and trade and were accepted at the highest levels of society. Returning Crusaders justified their persecution of the Jews throughout Europe in the eleventh century. In the twelfth century persecution intensified, including ritual violence and killing, imprisonment, confiscation of property and expulsion. But after being expelled, they were often allowed to return only for their property to be confiscated again and to be expelled again. In 1305 100,000 Jews were expelled but they were allowed to return in 1315. The Jews were scapegoats for the Black Death later in the fourteenth century. After vicious pogroms they were expelled in 1394. In the sixteenth century Sephardic Jews fled from Spain and Portugal to France where they converted to Christianity and were allowed to remain. They became wealthy. In the seventeenth century Ashkenazi Jews fled from Poland and Ukraine to Alsace, Lorraine and Savoy, but here Jews remained poor and persecuted. In the eighteenth century Jews returned to Paris, the Sephardim settling on the left bank of the River Seine and the Ashkenazim on the right. Anti-Jewish laws were repealed in the 1780s and the first synagogue opened in 1788.

In 1790 the revolutionary government granted the Jews citizenship. From 1793 to 1794 all religious institutions and community organizations were closed. In 1806 Judaism became a recognized religion with a state-approved structure covering the whole of France. This structure is the basis for the present consistorial system. Despite this progress, in 1808 laws were passed restricting the areas where Jews were allowed to live and cancelling debts owed to Jewish money lenders. In 1818 Jewish schools opened in Strasbourg, Metz, Colmar, Paris and Bordeaux. Jews became prominent in business, finance, science, the arts and, to a much lesser extent, in politics. But anti-Jewish violence broke out in 1848 and again in the 1880s when anti-Jewish newspapers and books appeared. Jews were accused of causing the collapse of a Roman Catholic bank.

The Dreyfus Affair

In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian and the first Jewish officer on the French Army's General Staff, was wrongfully accused and convicted in a secret military trial of spying for the Germans. The case caused a scandal in its abrogation of human rights and its disregard for the law. French opinion was divided for and against Dreyfus, with socialists, republicans and anti-Roman Catholics generally supporting Dreyfus and conservatives, royalists and the Roman Catholic Church using the case to justify anti-Semitism. Dreyfus was pardoned by the President in 1898, following a retrial in which the military judges upheld their previous verdict despite new evidence clearing Dreyfus. The case eventually led to the 1905 Act which disestablished the Roman Catholic Church and created the secular state. It also polarized French politics, with divisions that remain to the present day.

The case gave impetus to the Zionist movement. The Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl, who covered the case, wrote The Jewish State in 1896 and founded the Zionist Organization in 1897, convinced that Jews would never obtain justice in Europe.

From 1881 to 1914 over 25,000 Jews came from Eastern Europe to France, mostly en route for the USA. Between the First and Second World Wars immigration soared from Russia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, then from Germany to escape Nazi repression in the 1930s. The USA called a halt to free immigration in 1924, putting extra pressure on France. The Fédération des Societés Juifs de France was set up in 1923 to take care of the growing community. When the Germans invaded in 1940 there were an estimated 300,000 Jews living in France.

The wartime Vichy government introduced anti-Jewish legislation, and 76,000 Jews were deported from France, 73,500 of whom died in the concentration camps. Over two-thirds of those deported were stateless immigrants, whom the Vichy government readily handed over to the Germans.

Between 1945 and 1951 the Jewish population rose from 180,000 to 250,000 with immigration from North Africa. Anti- Semitism was ever present. Following the Six Day War between Israel and the neighbouring Arab countries in 1967, left-wing student protestors in 1968 supported the Palestinian cause, as did the government of the time. There were clashes between Jews and new Muslim immigrants.

The number of ultra-Orthodox Jews rose in the 1980s, especially Paris.

In July 1994 President Mitterrand inaugurated an official monument in memory of the 13,152 Jews rounded up by French police in 1942, the first official acknowledgement of French complicity in the Holocaust. However, that same year Mitterrand was criticized by Jewish leaders for saying that it was too late to try Nazi war criminals. In 1995 President Chirac recognized the active participation of Vichy France in the Holocaust, but proponents of Holocaust denial were already attracting attention and openly flouting the Gayssot 1990 law banning such denial. In 1997 an extreme right Roman Catholic publication criticized the Roman Catholic Church for its apology for collaborating with the Nazis.

The extreme right party Front National (FN), which was founded in 1972 and is led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, gained more votes than expected in the 1995 presidential elections, and forced the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin out of the second-round ballot in 2002, resulting in the re-election of Jacques Chirac when many had expected Jospin to win. Le Pen has dismissed Hitler's gas chambers as a mere detail of history.

Current issues

The number of anti-Semitic incidents, including desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, rose following the events of 11 September 2001 and the escalation of the conflict between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Incidents reached a peak in 2004. Although incidents reported to the police and the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) fell significantly in 2005, the first anti-Semitic murder in 10 years took place in February 2005. A young Jewish man was kidnapped, tortured and killed by an Islamic gang in Paris. Several attacks on Jews by Africans and an attack on a Jewish school in Paris followed this murder. An Islamic organization was accused by CRIF of selling anti-Semitic cassettes at a fundraising event for Palestinians in April 2005. A gang of Africans shouting anti-Semitic slogans in the Jewish quarter of Paris in May 2006 was accused of intimidation by the Jewish community.

The government has taken several steps to promote awareness of inter-faith and racial problems in schools, and to improve monitoring of hate incidents by the police. Following the report of an inter-ministerial commission set up by President Chirac to study secularism, integration and the role of religion, in 2004 the government banned the wearing of overtly religious symbols, such as the Jewish skullcap, Islamic headscarf, Christian cross and Sikh turban, by students and staff at schools. Although the measure was aimed at reducing inter-faith tensions, some believe it has had the reverse effect. Some Islamic and Sikh students were expelled from state schools for defying the ban, and the law is being tested in headline-catching court cases.

Extreme right political parties polled slightly less of the vote in the 2004 regional elections than in the 2002 general and presidential elections, but they have maintained strong support. Incidents of Holocaust denial by leaders of the Front National and others continue.

The Consistoire Central is the main religious organization and main link with the government for the Jewish religion. It mostly represents the Orthodox synagogues. It trains and appoints rabbis, provides religious instruction for youth, and applies Jewish law in personal matters. It has 16 regional branches. The Mouvement Juif Libéral de France (MLJF) represents the liberal synagogues.

The CRIF, a federation of over 60 Jewish associations, campaigns against anti-Semitism, preserves the memory of the Holocaust, asserts solidarity with Israel and seeks to promote a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has a regional network and publishes a journal, Les Etudes du CRIF, and study reports.

The Fonds Social Juif Unifié (FSJU) provides funds community programmes in education, to fight social exclusion and poverty, and for cultural activities. It has a network of community centres.

There are over 40 Jewish weekly and monthly periodicals.

Most Jewish children attend state schools, but there is increased attendance in Hebrew day schools. About one-quarter of school-age children attend full-time Jewish schools. Hebrew is offered as a foreign language in several state high schools. The library sponsored by the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), which opened in 1985, is the largest Jewish library in Europe.

In 2005 15 out of 147 Jewish associations had tax exempt status under the 1905 law recognizing religious associations. Only associations whose purpose is solely religious ritual qualify for this exemption, except in the German-speaking provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, where followers of certain faiths, including Jews, can opt to pay part of their income tax to their religion.

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