The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Jews of France

France was the first of the European countries to emancipate the Jews. The revolutionaries’ promise of freedom and equality for every Jew was not always honored. The Jews suffered for it. This promise concerned not only the Jews, however: through this pledge, the men of the Revolution committed France to defend and embody a certain form of modern political existence. French Jews’ current hardships therefore compel France and French to reflect on this question: Are we willing to continue to defend an ideal that set France apart among the nations?


Law concerning the Jews of November 13, 1791. National Assembly edict of September 26, 1791.


“Glücklich wie Gott in Frankreich” (“Happy Like God in France”): this phrase has not ceased to resonate in the consciousness of French Jews for two centuries, but it has taken on opposite valences according to events. Sometimes it expressed the conviction explicit in the statement: a very real situation, a happy exception in France from the general condition of the Jewish diaspora where persecution was the dominant note. Sometimes, on the contrary, when the threat loomed, or was even carried out, it was tinged with bitter irony. Since the beginning of the 21t century, it is a fact that the balance has tipped more to the latter side. During this period, unprecedented murders have been committed, in France and by French people, against Jews; on a more mundane level, a violence of varying intensity has weakened the ordinary life of individuals and communities and made reinforced protection a commonplace, a condition to which one can accustomed, since one is accustomed to everything. In the end, no prolonged lull in the violence allows Jews today to say without irony: “Glücklich wie Gott in Frankreich.”

French Promise

This makes it all the more urgent to ask how we got here, and to dive into the well of French history. In this context, the deteriorating situation is always viewed in tandem with a dazzling promise, which France was the first in Europe to make to the Jews, and even the first to keep: the complete, immediate and irreversible emancipation of each individual Jew, promoted at once to the rank of citizen endowed with rights equal to those of any other citizen, and integrated as such into the body of the nation. Let us leave aside the Napoleonic voltes-faces which would quickly tarnish the event, without undermining the principle, since it is the principle which permeates people’s minds. The emancipation of the Jews came about on 28 September, 1791, by decision of the National Assembly, enlightened by the speeches of Mirabeau, Gregoire, Clermont-Tonnerre and a few others. In the other countries of Europe, such a gesture would have to wait until the second half of the nineteenth century – and even then, for Germany, in a less complete form (only the Weimar period would see the full removal of legal, social, and occupational disabilities).

What exactly was this French promise? Was it of the same nature as the one made to other religious communities (for example, the one made to Protestants a short time before)? Each case had its particularities, each one had obstacles that had to be exposed, carefully measured, and then removed with full knowledge of the facts. Even in the revolutionary enthusiasm, only those who could be integrated were integrated. As far as the Jews were concerned, the obstacles were not minor. They were even found to be particularly difficult to overcome. So much so that Clermont-Tonnerre’s famous statement – “Everything must be denied to the Jews as a nation and everything must be granted to the Jews as individuals” – challenged the Jews as much as it liberated them. The mistrust of a covenant-based collective that is considered to be resistant to the process – “obstinate,” according to an expression that remains in use from Bossuet to Montesquieu – pierces through the promise. But above all, it reveals another challenge, which this time turns on the emancipator: if an effort was required of the Jews, another effort, implicitly, was also required of France, from this decree of State. France, that is to say French society, had to practice seeing the Jews as equals, in an unambiguous sense.

Now France was also to be, in the European theater, one of the privileged foci of anti-Semitism as a typically modern pathology, affecting modern societies as an obscure and apparently irrepressible secretion of their evolution and progress. Let us say that the French ambivalence took the following form: the nation can only be truly itself when it fights anti-Semitism – this is the legacy of 1791, reactivated under this aspect at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. Let us specify: it is really France when the French state remembers itself as the State that emancipates individuals by detaching them from the groups to which they belong. The French state has done this in an exemplary way with regard to the Jews, that is to say, with regard to individuals for whom, a few years before the Revolution, the process was considered impossible. So that the challenge to the Jews was only an echo of the challenge which France had made to itself, and which it had to remind itself of regularly, each time it stumbled.

We all have in mind a recent instance of this reminder: it is when then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls, after the January 2015 terrorist attacks, said “France without the Jews is not France.” The statement shocked some. And yet, if you think about it, it is mostly shocking that it shocked. For he was simply restating this original challenge, constitutive of this historical form of emancipation and of the kind of political existence that corresponds to it, without there being any question of a privilege prejudicing any other community. A part of the history of freedom in Europe, in the face of a proven aggression, had suddenly surfaced in the words of a statesman (whether he was aware of it or not). Every citizen, whoever he may be, hearing this statement, could thus translate it: the Jews must be able to say that they are “happy as God in France”, without any irony whatsoever, if the nation is to pursue its ideal. What is at stake here is a national characteristic, quite different from terroir or regional color: what is at stake is the form given by the history of modern France to the experience of liberty, equality, and a solidarity expressly founded on these two pillars.

Before Emancipation, “Regeneration”

“Is there any way to make the Jews more useful and happier?” This sentence precedes the Revolution by two years. It was the question put to the competition of the Academy of Metz in 1787. Pierre Birnbaum, in a book published a few years ago, has brought together for the first time all the accessible pieces of this vast dossier[1]. And what he unearths is revealing. At this point, let us note that it is not a question of emancipation: it is a question of happiness, granted or not according to a utility that is still to be constructed. It is a question of improvement, for the Jews and for France, still conceived as two distinct parts of what does not have the structure of a pact, but that of a fundamentally asymmetrical relationship. We are, if you like, evaluating the obstacles to making Jews not citizens of a state, but actors in a civil society in motion, globally productive and aiming at the happiness of each and everyone.

Front page of Zalkind Hourvitz’s contribution responding to the question: “Is there any way to make the Jews more useful and happier?” put to the competition of the Academy of Metz in 1787.

What can and will be done with them? This is the question that underlies the contest, even when it is a Jew, like Zalkind Hourvitz, who answers it and argues fervently for real improvement. The question, as can be seen from the course of the competition, was particularly thorny. Unsatisfactory in the eyes of the jury, the first round was followed by a second. In 1788, three memoirs were finally awarded prizes; among them, the famous text of the Abbé Grégoire, the Essay on the physical, moral and political regeneration of the Jews, which we are accustomed to read as the first stone of the emancipatory speeches to which Grégoire would contribute in the first years of the Revolution.

One of the merits of the close exegesis that Pierre Birnbaum applies to all of these texts – the two essays of Grégoire, from the first and second rounds, but also the successive essays of the other candidates, as well as the reports of the secretary of the academy – is that it disrupts this continuity, and thus restores the uncertainties and alternatives from which emancipation ultimately emerged. This is a significant contribution to a debate that is far from being confined to historical scholarship. For a new way of seeing what happened on the scale of the whole of Europe with the entry of the Jews into modernity is taking shape. Our present, at the same time, is better enlightened as to the dilemma it entails, when a sub-group which is now integrated sees the stigma of a condition which it thought it had left behind resurface under new and differently-tailored garments.

Abbé Grégoire, anonymous engraving © mahJ

Let us take a closer look. In 1787, the search is for happiness and utility. This also means that, in the initial situation, the unhappiness of the Jews is self-evident, as is their uselessness, even their nuisance. The virulence with which one denounces the latter obviously influences the way in which one hopes to correct the former. Indeed, do they not deserve their misfortune, if they are harmful? The deportation and confinement in French Guiana, their exclusion from commerce, their conscription in duly-controlled agricultural tasks not subject to enrichment, are found in the most hostile arguments, while the most favorable ones point to the external historical conditions that reduced the Jews to what they are, in spite of themselves. It is, however, to force the reading, and especially to take the remarks out of context, to see in them the premises of emancipation taken as a question of political right, that is to say as the active participation of the Jews in the formation of the nation itself. No doubt the French situation, centered more on agriculture than on trade, did not allow access to politicization through the game of exchanges to which the Jews would be called to contribute, as was the case in England. The State, in this case, stands at a distance which sovereignly appreciates what it can and must do with its population. To use Gregoire’s words, the goal is to “regenerate” individuals who are previously perceived as degenerate. It is to remake in a different way subjects that history and tradition have left maladapted to the requirements of a well-constituted society.

In 1788, Grégoire reasoned in this way about the Jews, and the comparison of the texts shows how badly we read this second essay, for want of having compared it with the first, and especially of having placed it in a network of arguments, some of which are much more favorable to the Jews than his own. But everything accelerated the following year. As soon as one passes the milestone of 1789, Gregoire speaks differently. It is thus that the emancipation which he advocates with fervor does not take its impetus from the French Enlightenment, if at least one restricts it to the dominant motives of individual regeneration, and of the combination of utility and happiness regulated by an abstract universal reason.

Manuscript written by Abbé Grégoire, Académie de Metz, 1787 © MahJ

In short, “Happy like God in France” implied something other than a positive answer to the question: “Can the Jews be more useful and happier?” Something else, but what? An idea of regeneration, not individual, but collective, a regenerated nation, the necessary basis for Jews to be free – happy and useful, insofar as they are free and equal to other citizens. It is this passage to modernity that we see emerging on the outer edge of this controversy. It is an ambivalent passage, since it carries with it all the unresolved specters of the 1787-1788 case, about the true aptitude of the Jews to become what one wishes them to be. From the point of view of the newly conceived state, strengthened by its new legitimacy, these questions are not so much resolved as suspended, as if put on standby. They do not cease to be posed in a muted way at the level of real society, the weft of fantasies about the compact body of the “obstinate” being rewoven with new threads and on new themes.

Pierre Birnbaum, writing in 2017, has had the tact to end his work as editor and interpreter on a question mark: does the French path, that “of the state, of politics, of universalism, inconceivable in the eyes of most of the candidates in the Metz competition, erase, by its regenerative ambitions, all traces of Jewish misfortune?” Judging by the present situation of the Jews of France, it is to be feared that the question is entirely rhetorical. Jewish misfortune is a hard thing, it can only be erased by repeated efforts, during the ups and downs of the universalism which serves as the lodestar of the French way. On the contrary, what we see is that this very universalism can, if not foment, at least welcome the resurgence of persecution. From then on, it remains for us to get back to work, to know how this path, whatever the undeniable brilliance of the promise that opened it, is still worth pursuing today.

Bruno Karsenti


1 Pierre Birnbaum, “Est-il des moyens de rendre les Juifs plus utiles et plus heureux ?” Le concours de l’Académie de Metz (1787), Seuil, 2017. Not Translated.

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