France has the largest Jewish population in Western Europe, at between 500,000 and 600,000 members. France also has a large population of Sephardic or Arab Jews, a result of a massive influx of Algerian Jews—who had been granted full French citizenship during the French colonization of Algeria—and substantial communities of other North Africans from Morocco and Egypt.
The Jewish community has been a small but important part of French society since prior to the French Revolution. Jews, seeking greater political representation in a Catholic monarchical society in which religious minorities lacked any voice, supported the Revolution and have since strongly supported Republican values. During the 18th century, French Jews were forced to negotiate their residential status with various authorities, as was the case with Jews in other parts of Europe, and paid additional taxes. As they were limited in the scope of what roles they could play in society and were generally barred from owning land, many served as merchants and bankers.
In 1791, the French Jews were “emancipated” as part of the revolutionary reformulation of French citizenship—encapsulated in the three guiding principles of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” and consistent with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—the first time in Europe that Jews were granted equal citizenship. However, to become fully French, Jews were expected to discard public manifestations of religious and cultural difference, and were required to dissolve independent community autonomy.
Despite the integration of French Jewry, anti-Semitism has remained a problematic issue both historically and today. Politically, the Jewish community’s position vis-à-vis the Revolution, monarchy, and the political role of the Catholic Church contributed to their vilification by Royalists during the 19th century, crowned by the Dreyfus Affair. Anti-Semitism also framed the stance of the Vichy Regime towards French Jews during World War II, which actively collaborated with the Nazis and sent tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths in concentration and extermination camps. Finally, anti-Semitism continues to manifest in contemporary France, with discrimination and occasional acts of violence against the Jewish community, and prominent members of conservative nationalist groups such as Le Front National have publicly made anti-Semitic remarks.
Paula E. Hyman, The Jews of Modern France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
Cathie Lloyd, “Race and Ethnicity,” Modern France: Society in Transition, eds. Malcolm Cook and Grace Davie (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 34-52.
Jean-Yves Camus, “The French extreme right, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (1945-2009),” Varieties of Right-Wing Extremism in Europe, eds. Andrea Mammone, Emmanuel Godin and Brian Jenkins (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 121-133.