Jews have lived in France since at least the early Middle Ages, although there is evidence that Jewish settlement there can be dated back to the Roman period. During the Carolingian Period Jews were employed as merchants and were considered the direct property of the crown. Following the First Crusade in 1096, the Jews of France were subject to a century of violence and blood libel accusations, culminating in their expulsion by King Philip Augustus in 1182. Jews were allowed to return 16 years later. Over the centuries, various repressive measures would be enacted against French Jewry, including arrests and property seizures, leading to another expulsion, this time by Phillip the Fair, in 1306. Nine years later, Jews were again allowed to return, only to be expelled again in 1394, although Jews continued to live in Provence. However, Jewish life only began to reestablish itself in the rest of France in the early 17th century.
Following the French Revolution, France became the first European nation to emancipate its Jews, a practice it followed as it exported its revolution across Europe, abolishing ghettos wherever its forces went. However, despite Jews’ new-found freedom, a debate raged in France regarding their integration into French society. Complaining that Jews were not integrating quickly enough, Napoléon Bonaparte convened an assembly of important leaders of the Jewish community first to clarify their political and religious allegiances and loyalties in 1806, followed up a year later by the so-called Great Sanhedrin, leading to the establishment of the Consistoire Central Israélite de France (Central Consistory of French Jews) as the representative body of the Jewish community.
While French Jewry began integrating into the mainstream of society over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, anti-Semitism remained a persistent problem. In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer, was arrested and convicted of spying for Germany on trumped up charges, leading to a massive, decade long scandal. This period was marked by intense anti-Semitic sentiment as well as by a well-organized campaign for Dreyfus’ release by figures such as the writer Emile Zola, who famously wrote “J’accuse!,” an open letter in which he accused the government of anti-Semitism. Although Dreyfus was eventually exonerated, his public shaming inspired Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodore Herzl to decide that assimilation was an inadequate solution to anti-Semitism and, as a result, to establish the Zionist movement.
French Jews have long been involved in their country’s political, economic and cultural life. Adolphe Crémieux, a vice president of the Consistoire Central Israélite de France, was Minister of Justice in 1848 and again in 1870-71. Louis-Lucien Klotz served as Finance Minister from 1910 to 1913, and from 1917 to 1920. In 1936, Léon Blum became France first Jewish Prime Minister. Subsequent Jewish Prime Ministers included Pierre Mendès-France and René Mayer. The French branch of the Rothschild banking family has been a major economic and financial force in France since the early 19th century. Baron David de Rothschild today serves as Chairman of the WJC’s Governing Board. French Jewish Nobel Prize laureates included Henri Moissan (Chemistry 1906), Gabriel Lippmann (Physics, 1908), François Jacob and André Michel Lwoff (Medicine, 1965), René Cassin (Peace, 1968), Claude Cohen Tannoudji (Physics, 1997), Serge Harouche (Physics, 2012), and Patrick Modiano, the son of a Jewish father (Literature, 2014).