Vichy France: An Independent Anti-Semitic State

Matt Blackwell, Fall 2017

     France is one of the most heavily discussed countries in the world with every part of their history put into great detail from many perspectives. France in World War II paints a small and concise picture of how the country is covered. The French narrative during the Second World War has changed at least three times since the 1940’s. The debate on what was the true France still permeates in historical discussion today. One important conversation being had is the role of Vichy France and their contributions to the holocaust. The argument falls between the Vichy government being a direct puppet, doing as Nazi Germany directed versus their policies being stemmed from popular opinion prior to the occupation. The focal point of this is in regards to Vichy France’s anti semitic policies and contributions to the holocaust. It is apparent anti-semitic sympathies existed long before the establishment of the Vichy regime and influenced many future Nazi policies as well. The Jews living in Vichy France suffered high levels of exclusion and dealt with a strong wave of anti-semitism with many having to relocate or get sent to camps. This is a subject hardly covered in discussion outside of academic circles and should be brought to light to the masses in order to point out how World War II was not some black and white conflict in history.

     Before getting any deeper into this topic some ideas will still need to be discussed to preface the larger argument and evidence. The Jews have been considered morally on a lower level in their communities in Europe, especially in the last 200 years. Concepts of nationalism have risen in those last 200 years many of which were intended to exclude the Jews. This, coupled with France’s anti semitism in the 20th century layed the groundwork for the eventual Vichy policies. Popular opinions varied and events going on throughout all of Europe contributed to the anti-semitism that covered France. All of these complex ideas fit together to build this narrative and shed light on France’s politics. In order to understand all of these ideas working together each will need to be explored. So the first idea to understand, what is nationalism?

Nationalism and Jewishness

    Nationalism is a complex topic that doesn’t have a uniform entirely agreed upon meaning. It has been constantly debated for the past two hundred years with different ideas stemming from different parts of the world, predominantly in Europe. While a quick search of the definition defines it as “patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts” this is very vague and open to much debate and interpretation. Two weeks of class debate between the multiple definitions of nationalism have delivered a handful of focal arguments. The concept of primordial origins versus modern origins is an unfinished argument so far. For around two hundred years now this confusing concept of nationalism has tried to have been answered by many different thinkers and historians across many walks of life. This debate has been seen throughout the readings we have had and will need to be discussed in depth to get to the root of the issue. Each bring in a new perspective and build the continuing discussion on what nationalism is.

     There is no one true definition for nationalism. The arguments presented can be refuted and dispute a score of others. For this case I will be defining nationalism as a more modern invention as an attempt to bolster unity among the majority when looking at France. This examination will be meant to look at the French national perspective from the French Revolution onwards. This will be meant to see how the state and the masses felt of those who they believed couldn’t assimilate into the French national identity, most notably Jewish people. The nation is a complex issue but for this  section Ernest Renan’s definition, one of the most important used in France during the 19th and into the 20th century. He argues “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Only two things, actually, constitute this soul…one is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is actually consent, the desire to live together.”01)John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 17. By this he focuses on the history of people living together and how they choose to live together in the now.  Renan did not see the nation requiring an ethnic component, living together did not imply people being related in order to live together. Going from here the focus on France will be to discuss further into this definition.The differences are noted in the Dreyfus affair for instance leading up to the 20th century. The Vichy government also shows the recent dissimilation between the French and Jewish residents of Occupied and Vichy France. This slightly resembles Renan in his idea that nations can rise and die and are not some static entity always around. The nation is a fluid, constantly changing identity that many have and many can be manipulated by in order to have certain opinions of outgroups. While this doesn’t perfectly match with his argument, it is a good basis to help understand how the perception of the French nation with other groups changed and affected those groups in France as the dynamics and mindsets changed with the regimes. One of the most notable times to examine is between the first and second World War. This can be examined through other lenses as well to truly flush out the internal relations of French citizens.

     Another interesting perspective to look at is with Pierre Van Den Berghe’s sociobiological take on nationalism. This examination is very delicate and can be taken advantage of but does present some good points with it. He believes human societies are “organized on the basis of all three principles of sociality: kin selection, reciprocity, and coercion.”02)Hutchinson and Smith eds., Nationalism, 97. He further discusses how there are two types of human societies with the first being the basis for his discussion. He spoke about how human societies were “small in-bred populations of a few hundred individuals, prototypical ‘tribes’ that regarded themselves as ‘the people’.”03)Hutchinson and Smith, Nationalism, 98. Close ties came with groups who were together. In France the divide between French and Jewish citizens could be seen based off of this early division. This mindset was not paramount to the experience of all of France’s Jewish citizens though. The historian Marc Bloch is a great example of how his identity is not necessarily the most important aspect of himself. He was a Jewish soldier who fought against the Germans when they invaded in 1940 and managed to write a book with his take on why France lost the war. Nowhere did it ever mention his Jewish identity or his thoughts on the social divides between the two mentioned groups. Only after doing a search on his biography would one know about who he is and that he even fought against the Germans. This lack of distinction is an important piece in understanding the Jewish-French experience at this time.

     This wave of French nationalism in the 1800’s severely affected the country’s Jewish citizens. They faced marginalization from multiple parties, over the course of multiple years. Their experience helps show how the nation is not a static constantly existing idea but rather much more fluid and susceptible to manipulation from outside forces such as political parties and historiographical narratives presented. Opinions of peripheral groups can form and change based off of newer narratives and be construed as an issue that is long lasting. Understanding how Europeans view the nation can best be done by examining how groups in power interact with those marginalized and what is done to disenfranchise them as well as the rationale to defend the disenfranchising. The examination can best be done by looking into what events built up to this marginalization rather than just seeing the marginalization itself. Where did the French and Jewish divide come from? That is the question which will be discussed in detail and examined with all of the events that have happened in France for the better part of the 19th century.

Historical Overview of Jews in France

     Europe has had a very negative view of Jewish communities for a large portion of recorded history. Regions such as France developed different rationales for why they marginalized their Jewish populations. France was an area with a large population of settled Jewish people, many of whom were French citizens. Much of the history behind French marginalization of the Jews during World War II came largely from the events of the 19th century. This was a century of revolutions and early attempts to define the nation, and Jews in France didn’t exactly fit into most concepts of the French nation. This brought about many issues of questioned loyalty and conflicts in trying to figure out the position of Jewish people in 19th and early 20th century France.

     The story with French-Jewish relations begins in 1791. The French Revolution gave rise to Jewish emancipation in the country,04)Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944, (New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2001), 108. which lead to future debates on France as a nation. Nominally race wasn’t a factor in the French identity and concept of French nation. According to Julian Jackson “The classic formulation of nationhood was provided in Ernest Renan’s 1882 lecture, What is a nation?”05)Ibid. Renan saw the concept of racial identity as not important to the overall concept of the nation. This idea in theory worked but there were those in France that had different opinions on the matter, whether they wished to disclose it or not. The first real issue to rise was the infamous Dreyfus Affair, where a French captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of leaking information to the Germans in 1894. A torn up parchment resembling his writing was used as evidence to convict him.06)Elizabeth Nix, “What was the Dreyfus Affair?”, History Channel Site, accessed November 11, 2017. Dreyfus was also a Jewish man in France, which sparked conversation about ideas like anti-semitism. One of the main parts of this debate was the question of why him being Jewish factored into his loyalties to France. If they truly believed in Renan’s argument his religion and heritage would never have come up for debate. This trial divided the French on the concept of nationhood and a new wave of anti-semitism hit France. This was just the start of the growing anti-semitism in France that would take hold during the interwar period much more prominently.

     The interwar years were a tumultuous time for France dealing with rebuilding from the first World War. This time also had a huge exodus of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Germany  that ultimately arrived in France. There was a big divide between opinions of assimilated French-Jewish citizens and new arrivals from Eastern Europe. While most native French people took more white collar jobs in the urban areas these refugees were stuck with low paying labor jobs coming from nothing. In France one of the biggest stereotypes was all Jews were wealthy, but in the case of the refugees, according to Renée Poznanski, “they had to depend almost exclusively on the financial resources that they had managed to gather in their rush to flee.”07)Renée Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1997), 67.  Native Jews even tried to distance themselves from the newer arrivals. In 1931 France’s foreigner population tripled from twenty years prior.08)Jackson, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944, 104. Many of these people came from states of the former Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire on the basis that “the new states were keen to assert the hegemony one dominant nationality over national minorities.”09)Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 211. This would lead to a large number of conflicting interests with the people living in France during the 1930’s. The depression was a time where tensions between the French citizens and Jewish refugees rose drastically. Jobs were tight and many Jewish people were accused of taking jobs from the French citizens.10)Jackson, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944, 104. This coupled with a second wave of refugees in 1939 coming from Spain drew public opinion into a deep negative look at foreigners in France, most notably Jews for the large percentage of  Jewish refugees coming in. From there, popular opinion remained low until and through the outbreak of World War II. The effects would show themselves with Vichy policies and public opinions of many of the refugees.


Vichy France and Anti-Semitic Policies They Created

     The Vichy regime under the leadership of Marshal Philippe Pétain was nominally a puppet state under the Nazi government but they acted largely autonomously from the small retreat town of Vichy. They would go and butt heads with the Nazi leadership many times when Germany had control of the larger, more populous, and more economically strong north. They had an agreement on one major issue, their treatment of the Jews.  One of the first Vichy policies dealt with what to do with their Jewish population. In September of 1940 the first idea drafted was to deport around 2,000 of them to Madagascar.11)Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 355. This was thrown out not long after it was conceived, but the issue still remained on what the new government would do. By September 27th the occupied zone had established a Jewish ordinance in tandem with the Vichy government that would impose their Jewish statue three days later.12)Ibid. This ordinance “defin[ed] a Jew as a person belonging to the Jewish religion or having more than two Jewish grandparents (in other words, who also belonged to the Jewish religion).”13)Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, 31. Vichy laws against the Jews would grow out of hand within the next twelve months. In that time span they issued twenty six laws and twenty four decrees on the Jews.14)Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 355. Some french historians argued that this was from Nazi pressure, but a lack of documentation has revoked this theory with the predominant belief being these policies were made on the Vichy regime’s own volition. This was only the first phase of the Vichy policies to come.

     By 1941 many Jews had been barred from high influence positions. They were not allowed to work as middlemen “from professions involving financial activity, and from subordinate positions in public administration.”15)Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, 69.  The idea was to entirely phase Jewish people out of the political process and out of France’s economy and remove any cultural impact a Jewish person may have on the French nation. Vichy’s government had some different goals from the Nazis in the occupied zone with these policies. The Nazis wanted to ‘aryanize’ the economy and government turning over Jewish resources like businesses and investments over to German officials whereas the Vichy government hoped to capitalize on these resources by redistributing them to their French citizens.16)Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, 71. This had active competition between the two governments over who would get French economic resources for dominance of the region. While the economic and political disenfranchising was taking place the Vichy government also was working on changing the cultural landscape of France.

     The Vichy regime believed Jewish people were infesting French culture and subsequently worked on removing their influence from French society. One of the first ways they attempted this was in 1940 Vichy lawmakers began focusing on removing Jewish teachers from France’s education system. One such instance was when “seventy-nine Jewish men and thirty-eight Jewish women lost their teaching positions in the prestigious lycée system by mid-March 1941.”17)Donna Ryan, The Holocaust & The Jews of Marseille, (USA, Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1996), 25. This policy was largely blanketed targeting both native and foreign Jews in France. Their policies would become more extreme depending on if one was a foreign Jew or not. For instance by October 4th 1940 the Vichy government “authorized departmental prefects to intern all foreign Jews in camps or confine them to ‘forced residences’ in remote villages where they remained under the watchful eyes of the local police.”18)Donna Ryan, The Holocaust & The Jews of Marseille, 26. The Vichy opinion of Jews was abysmal and they made sure to make it known with policies like these to ostracize them from the rest of society. The interwar years took a huge hit on the refugees coming from the east. Despite this the Vichy government openly volunteered to deport their Jews from the unoccupied zone to German control.19)Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 362. About 80,000 Holocaust victims came from France as well.20)Ibid. The Vichy government worked hard under their own volition to to marginalize the Jews from society with a large focus on excluding them from French culture and education, specifically targeting the refugees from the post imperial states of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Government opinions were very obvious but some form of public support would help these policies come into effect. How did the public opinion compare to the government’s and how they influenced each others are important ideas that will need to be further explored.


Popular Opinion of Jews Among the Masses

     The opinions of the masses were still paramount with policy making. The young, uncertain Vichy administration couldn’t do whatever it wanted from fear of retaliation from either other governments like Germany’s or their own people. The anti-semitic buildup in 20th century France had permeated into the war and occupation. There are accounts of French POWs calling out which French soldiers were Jewish. This happened to Levy Tennenbaum when “one of the French soldiers denounced [him] by telling the Germans that he was Jewish.”21)Robert I. Weiner and Richard E. Sharpless, An Uncertain Future: Voices of a French Jewish Community 1940-2012, (Toronto, Ontario, University of Toronto Press, 2012). 62. Luckily he was able to escape before serious harm came to him but he soon changed his name to Lefebvre once he escaped to Lyon (then a part of Vichy France). This was a real fear he had of fellow Frenchmen betraying him once again to the German occupiers, something that really shouldn’t have been an issue for anyone. This would idea would grow with increased migration.

     The unoccupied zone saw a new wave of refugees trying to escape Nazi occupied France with the hopes of safety in the new Vichy regime. This was not entirely the case. Many of the people who came from the north were already refugees from the post imperial states, the French citizens weren’t very accepting of them in the first place. In 1940 this was no different when “the local inhabitants of these areas were often irritated by this influx of refugees, who were for the most part foreigners.”22)Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, 67. Xenophobia was a large reason that many of the French citizens had these anti-semitic responses, the evolution of how the refugees were presented gave off an entirely different perception of who these people actually were. The masses were an important part on seeing how Jews were treated but this is a broad take that can be compartmentalized into different groups, one of the most notable groups being resistance members.


The Resistance and the Jews

     The resistance was not one unified force but rather a network of separate cells across France fighting to be free from a German controlled country. A large portion of the movement were recent immigrants to the country. One of the most notable groups were the Spanish. Many had crossed the Pyrenees after the Spanish civil war and tried to take refuge in an, at the time, democratic state.  This foreigner status had the resistance be more accepting of the refugee Jews in a country that used them as a scapegoat for their own insidious designs.

     The dichotomy with the Vichy regime and resistance fighters across France can help show the French outlook on how they felt about Jews who were citizens and refugees. The resistance was relatively more supportive of Jews and had the Jews part of a large liberation effort. Many of the resistance fighters working with the Jews were foreigners themselves, many of them being Spanish republicans and Italian anti-fascists.23)Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, 223. Much of the resistance cooperation came from refugees and foreigners stuck in France otherwise at the mercy of Nazi or Vichy authorities. There was a handful of Spanish Civil War veterans who were also Jewish that pushed to help the refugees.24)Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, 224. The Jewish resistance fighters worked very closely across all of France but they tended to concentrate in a couple of areas, “for those who wanted to engage in resistance the main centres were Lyon and Toulouse.”25)Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, 233. Both of these town were within Vichy France’s territory. The opinions of the foreign resisters is clear now but the citizen opinions aren’t as clear.

     For the most part the resistance was spearheaded by the refugees and immigrants. According to Robert Gildea “the French Resistance mobilised only a minority of French people. The vast majority learned to muddle through under German Occupation and long admired Marshal Pétain.”26)Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, 238. This helps show how the popular opinion affected the state of the country. A lot of what happened in Vichy France was from the actions of a small number of people across the country. A complacent population allowed for this regime to exist and had an even smaller group of people fight against it. This resistance alone couldn’t get the job done unfortunately.

The Liberation Aftermath

     By 1942 Germany had taken direct control over Vichy France and the government truly became an extension of Nazi policies. At this point all acts and edicts passed had little input from the French government until the liberation. About 80,000 of France’s Jews were victims of the holocaust largely because of  the Nazi policies.27)Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 363. Once the liberation happened, there were many revelations about the government’s prior policies and a movement to change the public image. Once the allies reclaimed France the push for the first narrative began. This was the cult of resistance where much of French history publications of the occupation was focused on the resistance. Many of these policies did not come to light until the 1970’s where many collaborators were revealed and the acts against the Jews had been uncovered to the degree of how marginalized the Jews were.

Final Verdict

Vichy France from 1940-1942 operated relatively independently from Nazi control. Their anti-semitic acts passed and their popular opinions came from a latent distrust towards the country’s Jewish population. While nominally there was no specific French nation that relied on an ethnic background, there were still anti-foreign resentment to even native Jews of France but more notably, the refugees from Eastern Europe. The masses were very apathetic  to the plight of the refugees before and during the occupation. This study is important in seeing how a society deemed as tolerant publicly does not necessarily suffer from problems of nationalistic pride consuming people. This is a lesson on how to notice real warning signs of scapegoating and ostracizing fellow people. With this deep look and over 70 years of research, the story of this minority group’s marginalization can be a look into stopping future conflicts like this again and acting before a whole group are wrongfully marginalized in their country, regardless of how long they’ve been there or where they’re from.



Works Cited

  1. Gildea, Robert. Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2015.
  2. Hutchinson, John and Smith, Anthony D eds. Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  3. Jackson, Julian. France: The Dark Years 1940-1944. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  4. Nix, Elizabeth. “What was the Dreyfus Affair?” History Channel Site. accessed December 17 2017.
  5. Poznanski, Renée. Jews in France during World War II. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1997.
  6. Ryan, Donna. The Holocaust & The Jews of Marseille. USA: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1996.
  7. Weiner, Robert I. and Sharpless, Richard E. An Uncertain Future: Voices of a French Jewish Community 1940-2012. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

References   [ + ]

01. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 17.
02. Hutchinson and Smith eds., Nationalism, 97.
03. Hutchinson and Smith, Nationalism, 98.
04. Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944, (New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2001), 108.
05. Ibid.
06. Elizabeth Nix, “What was the Dreyfus Affair?”, History Channel Site, accessed November 11, 2017.
07. Renée Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1997), 67.
08. Jackson, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944, 104.
09. Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 211.
10. Jackson, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944, 104.
11. Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 355.
12. Ibid.
13. Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, 31.
14. Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 355.
15. Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, 69.
16. Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, 71.
17. Donna Ryan, The Holocaust & The Jews of Marseille, (USA, Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1996), 25.
18. Donna Ryan, The Holocaust & The Jews of Marseille, 26.
19. Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 362.
20. Ibid.
21. Robert I. Weiner and Richard E. Sharpless, An Uncertain Future: Voices of a French Jewish Community 1940-2012, (Toronto, Ontario, University of Toronto Press, 2012). 62.
22. Poznanski, Jews in France during World War II, 67.
23. Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, 223.
24. Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, 224.
25. Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, 233.
26. Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, 238.
27. Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 363.