Antisemitism in France: Deja Vu?

By Millman, Richard | Midstream, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Antisemitism in France: Deja Vu?


Millman, Richard, Midstream


France is well known for a long and continuing involvement in antisemitism. The late and eminent historian George Mosse was asked (with Germany and Austria in mind) if the Shoah could have been possible in 1913. Without hesitation he responded: "Of course, one could never know what the French are capable of doing." According to Mosse (and others) pre-Holocaust or at least pre-1914 antisemitism proliferated in and was more characteristic of France than Germany. Summing it all up, Mosse wrote: "Before the First World War, it was France, rather than Germany or Austria, that seemed likely to become the home of a successful racist and national Socialist movement. Germany had no Dreyfus affair." (1)

Despite the harshness of the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906) and the 1930s, for that matter, French antisemitism has been exaggerated by many. For in reality, in France, not one Jew was reported murdered for antisemitic reasons between the years 1833-1940. On the other hand, non-Jewish foreign workers in France (Italians were the most numerous) were the targets of fatal attacks by the local populace, despite the fact that they were usually Catholic and of Latin stock. (2) In addition, during the Holocaust, three out of four French Jews managed to survive. Among Nazi-occupied countries, only Denmark and fascist Italy had higher percentages of Jewish survivors. (3)

Not surprisingly, a certain number of French people who had collaborated with Nazi Germany were punished. Some, however (with or without punishment), went on to lead normal lives, despite their previous antisemitism. One case in point was the Judeophobic Pierre Gaxotte, who was an editor for venomously antisemitic journals such as Je suis partout and Candide. Nevertheless, he was awarded his country's highest academic honor by being inducted into the Academie Francaise in 1953.

Generally speaking, at this juncture, the extreme right prudently avoided major confrontations as a result of its recent Vichy disgrace. However, in the 1950s, it began to reassert itself around the figure of Pierre Poujade, a flamboyant extremist with tendencies towards populism, antisemitism, and, according to some, fascism. What helped Poujade gain support was that individual French leaders, who happened to be Jews, took courageous stands on highly controversial, even emotional matters.

One such case was that of the Jewish politician Pierre Mendes-France (1907-1982). While Mendes-France was prime minister in 1954-1955, he embarked on just such a path when he dealt with the decolonization of the French Empire; this included the granting of independence to Tunisia and the withdrawal from Indochina, which was rich in natural resources. While many agreed with this policy, Poujade and others violently objected: "Who is this Jew to sell-out our France?"

The young paratrooper and former "Poujadiste" deputy in the French National Assembly, Jean-Marie Le Pen wrote: "Mendes agreed to withdrawing from Indochina under the most detestable conditions.... Like all the soldiers of my unit, I had the sensation of being deceived and betrayed." (4)

Nevertheless, the Poujade phenomenon was to recede when De Gaulle returned to power (1958-1969). De Gaulle, too, was suspect when he called the Jews "an elite people, self-assured and dominating." He tried to explain away his phrase to Chief Rabbi Jacob Kaplan, but the rabbi argued that setting the Jews apart from other French people is in itself a sign that the Jews are not considered the same as other citizens and that the choice of words was disturbing. (5) The highly assimilated sociologist and patriotic political writer Raymond Aron was upset with the remarks made by the man in whom he had believed for so long. He was equally disappointed that non-Jewish Gaullist luminaries didn't protest the remarks. (6)

A somewhat similar situation developed in 1980. At that time, a bomb was planted by terrorists in a liberal synagogue on Copernic Street in the "haute bourgeoisie" Parisian 16th district, killing and wounding Jews and non-Jewish passersby. …

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