After the Great War, Pope Pius XI did his best to continue improved relations between Catholics and Jews when in 1928 he issued a holy decree that formally condemned hatred of the Jews. Interwar French clergy followed suit and rejected anti-Semitism and as a result, “populist and religious Jew-hatred fell distinctly out of favor” (Zuccotti, 23). Unfortunately, France, along with the rest of Europe, was about to enter yet another period of political and economic unrest that would eventually rock the seemingly amiable feelings about the Jews.
|Pope Pius XI (Photo: Wikipedia)|
Between 1906 and 1939, an estimated 200,000 foreign Jews entered France, approximately 82 percent of which were Eastern European Jews escaping Russian pogroms (Zuccotti, 19). These working class Jews settled into distinctly segregated Jewish neighborhoods in France, such as the Marais, where they spoke Yiddish and could not have seemed any less French.
|Paris, Jewish Quarter (ca. 1933-1939) Photo Courtesy of USHMM|
Even though the French societal exterior suggested that anti-Semitism was out of fashion, it was never far from the surface of the French psyche. Medieval thoughts of blood libel and host desecration were still told like boogeyman stories to children as is recalled by French historian Pierre Pierrard, who lived in Lille in between the wars:
…For me, as for many young pupils in the religious schools, the synagogue on the rue Auguste-Angellier was a strange and forbidden place that our imagination associated with the big (Freemason) lodge on the rue Thiers of which we knew that its heavy walls, perpetually closed, hid horrible mysteries where profaned hosts played an essential role (Zuccotti, 24).
As more and more foreign Jews entered France in the 1920s and 1930s, France, like the rest of Europe and America, suffered from hyperinflation during the Global Depression. The middle class was hardest hit as they resorted to selling personal belongings and treasured heirlooms that had been in their families for generations. Devastated, they again looked for someone or something to blame for their misfortune.
|Rosiers Street, Jewish quarter, pre-World War II. Paris, France (date uncertain) Photo Courtesy of USHMM|
Initially, the French blamed their existing government, The Third Republic. As a response to the economic crisis, there was a strong political reaction all over Europe that pitted an extreme right against a radical left. The far right in France was an alliance between, Action Française, the Parti Populaire Française (PPF) and the Croix de Feu.
|Croix-de-Feu Insignia (Photo: D. Laurent, Dickinson Univ)|
These groups exuded an aggressive nationalism and hated parliamentary governments, Communists, and were overtly anti-Semitic and xenophobic (particularly against Eastern Europeans). The goal of the fascist right was to re-establish a "True France" - one in which each individual was Catholic, and of French soil, and preferably had been for generations. By the 1930's, 7.5% of France's population was immigrants (the highest percentage in Europe), while the population of the "True France" was on the decline. These statistics certainly fanned the flames of the xenophobic right's fire (Zuccotti, 26).
In February of 1934, tensions came to a head as a result of a scandal known as the Stavisky Affair. An Eastern European Jew immigrant, Serge Stavisky, had embezzled millions by selling fake municipal bonds.
|Alexandre Stavisky, 1926 (Photo: Wikipedia)|
When some officials from the Third Republic were allegedly linked to the scandal, Stavisky wound up dead and the far right was in an uproar and held violent riots in the streets of Paris. One failed coup d'état, fifteen dead people, and one resigned Prime Minister later, the left stepped in to save the Republic.
|An Attempted Fascist Coup in the French Newspaper, Le Populaire|
The left, which became known as The Popular Front, was an alliance of Socialists and Communists who were predominately middle and working class. Their goal was to save the Republic from the fascist right. Their leader, Léon Blum, was a Socialist and a Jew. The Popular Front won the 1936 elections, and Blum became Prime Minister. Although its tenure was short-lived, they did legislate improvements for the working class, a sector of the French population to which foreign Jewish immigrants belonged and benefitted.
|Supporters of the Popular Front, 1936 France|
With growing concerns regarding immigration – especially now that the Nazis were in control in Germany and 50,000 Germans, about half of which were Jews, sought asylum in France – the French government tightened immigration laws (Zuccotti, 25). The French Right was steadily feeding xenophobic propaganda to the public, and on November 12, 1938, a law was passed to set forth parameters by which naturalized French citizens deemed “undesirable” by the Minister of the Interior could be denaturalized and expelled from France (Zuccotti, 26). With the political right making such progress, by 1939, the Popular Front was alive in name only.
|Édouard Daladier, 1924 (Photo: Wikipedia)|
Prime Minister Édouard Daladier made one final attempt to protect foreigners and Jews when he issued the Marchandeau Decree on April 21, 1939. This decree prohibited attacks on individuals in the press based on race or religion, and was supported by many clergy who publicly condemned anti-Semitism and racism (Zucotti, 27). Nevertheless, by September 3, 1939 France was at war and moments away from Nazi Occupation. Leaders of the right would find camaraderie with the Nazis.
Source: Zuccotti, Susan. The Holocaust, The French, and the Jews. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,1999).