Show Notes for Episode 457: Jews in France: Trials, Triumphs, and Transformations

Category: French History

Jewish History in France

The history of the Jewish people in France goes back to the time of the Roman Empire when it was Gaulle. There has been a continued presence at least in some parts of France ever since, sometimes in difficult circumstances, sometimes in peace and prosperity. There has never been a large Jewish population in France, but in some regions, like Languedoc-Roussillon, part of Provence known as Venaissin County (or the Popes lands) in Champagne or in Alsace-Lorraine, there have always been a significant number who have marked society.

Before Talking about the History of Jews through some important dates, here is a list of some Museums or Memorials that you can visit.

Marmoutier in the Bas Rhin – A museum of Alsacian Jewish Heritage

Bouxwiller in the Bas Rhin – A synagogue

Izieu – A Memorial to the deported children

Colmar – A section of the museum is devoted to Jewish life in Alsace

Paris – The Museum of Jewish Art and History

Paris – The Shoah Memorial

Drancy – A Memorial to the Deported

Beziers – A Jewish Museum

Carpentras – The Synagogue and its buildings

Cavaillon – A Synagogue and Monument Historic with ritual bath and bakery

Synagogues in France:

As of the most recent count, there are 448 synagogues in France – not all of them are in activity, except for special circumstances. There is at least one in almost every city and, not surprisingly, there are still many in villages and small towns in Provence or in Alsace-Lorraine.

Many have been rebuilt or renovated since WW II like the synagogue in Reims.

The oldest synagogues in France are in Carpentras and in Cavaillon, both of which date from the Middle Ages, even though they were rebuilt first in the 1770’s and then again in the 1800’s. The OLDEST FUNCTIONING SYNAGOGUE IN FRANCE  is that in Carpentras. It has been in continuous use since 1367!

There are many that were built in the 1800’s such as the synagogues in Avignon, Paris or in Lyon.

None are open to the public without prior reservation for visits. (Carpentras, Cavaillon and Avignon can be visited on demand and reservation)

There are now in France more Jewish people from North Africa and from the Orient than those from Europe because of the events of WWII. They are called Sefarade and Mizrahim. The cities with the largest Jewish populations are Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice and Strasbourg. Several of these, like Lyon, Marseille and Strasbourg have a very long history of Jewish presence dating back 2000 years.

Some Important Dates and Events:

Roman Times: 50 to 400 ad

There is written documentation by Roman historians of the presence of small Jewish populations in the important Roman colonies of Lyon, Marseille and Narbonne and their surrounding areas including Arles and Uzès. They probably came, like other minority groups, to places where there was the possibility to do commerce and to live freely.  At this time the Jewish people had diverse occupations, and as with other groups, pledged their loyalty to the Roman administration. Until the fall of the Roman Empire, these small groups lived like other “minorities”. In fact during this time the Roman administration tolerated many religions and smaller ethnic groups as long as they paid lip service to the Roman gods and to the Emperor. In 212, the Emperor Carcacalla made a law that allowed all ‘free” men to become Roman citizens and live where they wished and practice any profession and this included the Jewish people  of the part of Gaule where they had settled. Among the Jews living then were many merchants who had ties to the Italian peninsula and to the eastern Mediterranean but there were also scholars and savants who prospered and contributed to the intellectual life in the Narbonnais colony called Septimanie

The Early Middle Ages: With the advent of Christianity as an official religion it became more difficult for Jewish people. In certain places, like in the Narbonne-Provence area, there was not a lot of persecution, but in other areas like in the north, there was, so many went south to Languedoc Roussillon and stayed especially fleeing the Wisigoths and the northern kingdoms

Under Charlemagne : 700’s-800’s 

In spite of being from  the north, Charlemagne and his court favored the presence of Jews who were his ambassadors, doctors and counselors. He sent them on missions to other countries and continued a practice begun earlier of having Jewish doctors.

At the same time in the early Middle Ages, Narbonne became a major site of Jewish studies and was a place where the three religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam all mixed together. It was the intellectual heyday of Provence and the region and the first medical schools there, were partially begun by Jewish doctors. This is where the first talmudic studies school was opened in France.

1100’s-early 1200’s: Flourishing intellectual times

All of the south of what is now France was where all the intellectual, artistic and scientific advances and activity were important. Toulouse and Beziers had important (small but important) communities at that time as well as Provence, Narbonne and all of Languedoc.

At this time also, the Counts of Champagne, a region with great riches and a flourishing intellectual court, had a small but important population of Jews, who were treated correctly. One city, Troyes, was the center of a large and important group of Jewish scholars, who often were also winemakers!

Persecution and Protection

Starting at the end of the 1100’s and the Crusades, there was more and more persecution. Jewish people had to identify themselves with a “rouelle”, a yellow circle on their clothing, or a pointed yellow hat. In some parts of France they were obliged to live in small, enclosed areas called “carriere” (for the word for square) and so, like in Venice, made houses higher than in other places in order for everyone to “fit” into the small enclosed areas.

Starting in the late 1100’s with Philippe Augustus, the Jews were either forced out of the kingdom or were assigned to small areas and had to pay enormous sums to stay there.

Louis IX, and his son and grandson were largely responsible for the beginning of enormous persecution and harm to the Jews, because of their religious fervor and their hatred of all but Christians.

But in the Compté Venaissin (Avignon and its surroundings like Cavaillon and Carpentras) which belonged to the Pope, the Jewish population was not persecuted and among them were doctors, and advisors to the popes as well as merchants. They were called “The Pope’s Jews” by the other nobles of France and were protected. But by the early 1300’s, in spite of the pope having Jewish doctors and ambassadors, they were blamed by the other French nobility, for all the bad things happening, plaques, droughts, wars.

The only other areas where the Jewish population (at this time) were protected was in the Alsace-Lorraine area, vestige of the empire made by Charlemagne.This too was because Alsace and Lorraine were not part of France and so could make their own laws. It was ironically, the only part of France where there were Jewish farmers and where they could own land.


In 1306 Phillippe le Bel, grandson of St Louis, decided to expel all Jews from France.He want to have their money (they were bankers and merchants) and confiscated all of their goods and property. As he made alliances by marriage, regions like Champagne which had been independent, came under his control and were forced too, to expel all of the Jewish population

For the next several hundred years, the only two parts of what is now France that had Jewish populations, that were mostly left alone, were the Compté Venaissin and its surrounding area, and the region of what is now Alsace-Lorraine. Even there, they had to wear “markers” and live mostly in enclosed areas, but they were allowed to practice their religion and were in contact with the Christian populations with no animosity

In the Basque country where many Ladinos had fled after being forced out of Spain and then Portugal, there was an important population of Jews especially in Bayonne, but many were conversos, descendants of those who converted to not be killed or expelled. This led to a large population in and around Bordeaux, which gradually reaffirmed its identity.

French Revolution and Napoleon

It was finally in 1791 as part of the politics of the French Revolution, that the Jewish population of France was given fully citizenship with all the rights, privileges and duties of the general population. This was done after much debate, several votes, and the stipulation that the Jewish population had to assimilate and consider that the first loyalty was to the State, and tnhis began the real process of assimilation for the Jewish people in France

This was followed by the decree signed by Napoleon reaffirming the place of the Jewish population as equal to that of those of other religions, with the clear stipulation that the first allegiance must be to the State and not to the religion.

It was under Napoleon that the idea of a Consistoire, an umbrella organization or all Jewish groups was created. Since this already existed for the Protestants, it was considened important that this exist also for the Jews. The idea of a centralized “policy making” institution, which is very different from the normal functioning of Jewish centers, is unique to France to this day.

1870 – Adolphe Crémieux

Adolphe Crémieux was a statesman and politician who was Jewish. A very important and influential politician, h.e became Minister of Justice during the 2nd Republic. He was responsible for several important laws that concerned the Jews.

Firstly, he had abolished the ancient special sermon called “mordecai judeica” that Jews had to take since the early middle ages, because their word was not considered to be as good as the word of a Christian. This was often considered to be humiliating and showed the general belief that the word of a Jew was not to be trusted.

Then he helped pass a law with the aid of Jean Jaurès and a few others that gave full French citizenship to Jews living in Algeria whether they were originally from there or not. It was thanks to him that the last of the “official” stigma attached to being Jewish was eliminated


There was however a huge rise in antisemitism during the 1870’s : this was partly due to the war with the Prussians, as many Jews were seen as being German because of Alsace. And several newspapers and politicians, especially keen to not see the Alsacian Jews who were numerous, enter into French life, or become citizens and vote, pushed theories that were reminiscent of the early Middle Ages. Disloyalty, plotting behind the government’s back, basically dishonest: all the old tropes from the Middle Ages came out again.

The Dreyfus Affair

This led, finally, to the infamous Dreyfus Affair when an Alsacian-Jewish captain, a brilliant soldier in the army, was accused of treason.  He was, of course, Alsacian. And Jewish.This was in 1894 and became a “cause-celebre” with most artists, intellectuals and politicians taking one side or the other. Emile Zola wrote his famous ‘J’accuse” to defend him, while other writers and artists assumed he was guilty because he was Jewish. The Dreyfus affair brought out the latent anti-jewish feeling that had always been there. And his condamnation and then exoneration by re-trial,in 1906,were both extremely important events in French history and showed the polarization of the population.

The 1930’s and WWII

During the 1930’s, there was a large social movement, and there was even a Jewish president, Leon Blum, who lasted in office for just a short time. But the social and political divisions were as strong as ever.

The rise of Nazism and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of European Jews, added to whatever tensions were already there, and so by the time the Germans, perpetual enemies of France, occupied the country, half of the population did not care what laws the German and Vichy governments promulgated.

The results were, as in most of Europe, the deportation and death of a majority of the Jews in France. Although French Jews accounted for about 76000 people, the Jewish population tripled because of so many people fleeing from the East, and of this population, a majority were killed.

The French Vichy government was, unfortunately, as anti – Jewish as the Nazis, and did their best to help ‘get rid of the Jewish’ population

Happily, there were many people, especially in rural areas and in the churches, who did help hide and save people, often children. But it was a dark period in France, as elsewhere


The Jewish population of France is now estimated at about 650,000 people which means that it is the same proportion, 1%, as it was almost 1500 years ago.

But the biggest difference is that now the majority of the Jews who are French are from families that come from North Africa or from  the Middle East, because of the massive elimination of European (Ashkenaz) Jews during WW II.

It is also true that the European Jewish population prior to WW II was very assimilated, and not particularly very religious, whereas the more recent arrivals (since the 1960’s especially) are more religious. This has changed the nature of what I can call Jewish “visibility” and has made them, again, easy targets for hateful acts.

But now, as in other countries, there is also a move to make the religion more ‘contemporary” and although a minority, there are now Reform and Liberal synagogues and even a few women rabbis in France

it is a fact, that here in France, people do not easily talk about their religion or their beliefs, and so it is not always easy to know who is what religion unless they wear clothing or have other signs that say what their religion is.

Judaism has a long and rich history in France. The famous Rachi of Troyes, who was a rabbi, philosopher and writer in the 11th century, was considered to be one of the most important intellectuals of the Middle Ages. There were many others up through the ages who have contributed to the rich cultural heritage of France. Interestingly there are now actors, singers and writers who will talk a little about their Jewish heritage, all part of an opening up of French society to all cultures and religions.

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Category: French History