The archives of Paris’ Shoah Memorial, an austere-looking complex flanked by a spacious parvis on the right bank’s Marais district, house the original draft of a bill the Vichy regime passed on October 3, 1940, the day before it moved to allow the internment of foreign-born Jews in France, most of whom had fled similar laws in Poland, Germany, and Austria.
The anonymous courtesy of a donor in 2010, the bill in question—more like an edict, parliament having been disbanded the moment Prime Minister Philippe Pétain was granted full powers in June—forbade from public office all Jews, regardless of origin, defined as having three Jewish grandparents, or two if married to a Jew. Scribbled away from the worn-out double page is a carveout exempting from the ban those born to French parents or naturalized before 1860. The agency behind this particular anti-Semitic decree bears retelling: The draft submitted by the regime’s chief Jew-baiter, Pierre Laval, spared French Jews the second-class status hoisted upon foreign-born ones, only for Pétain to erase that distinction when it came to signing the bill.
Whether or not that distinction matters has become, in France’s memory of the Shoah, the subject of seemingly endless scholarly dispute. The historians and pundits partaking aren’t wrangling over numbers. Those show beyond doubt that among the roughly 330,000 Jews residing in France at the time the armistice with Germany was signed on June 22, 1940, far fewer—only 25 percent—were deported relative to other occupied countries such as Poland, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and that being French-born meant an even lesser chance of ending up in that group. A whopping 90 percent of French Jews and 60 percent of the foreign-born survived the war, a far cry from the 3 million Polish Jews, the 55 percent of Hungarian ones, and the 50 percent of Belgian ones who perished in it. Native Jews amounted to a mere third of the 76,000 deportees from France, even though they were more than twice as numerous.
The contention among France’s scholars is whether, in today’s eyes, the comparatively lenient targeting of French Jews exculpates the Vichy regime of its overall unquestionably anti-Semitic record. That record includes a battery of laws and policies short of deportation, including the infamous “status of the Jews” mentioned earlier, passed between the summer of 1940 and November 1942, when Germany effectively abolished Vichy by occupying the heretofore “free” southern half of France. To “Aryanize” the trades and professions, a rigid set of numerus clausus capped the number of Jews allowed into them, while Jewish collectors, merchants and shop owners had their property seized by the infamous Commissariat géneral aux questions juives. In early 1942, the final solution launched Germany into demanding a ramp-up of deportations, which Vichy delivered on before collaboration ceased the year after—but until then, these policies were more often than not implemented on the regime’s own anti-Semitic volition, absent any Nazi pressure whatsoever, such as in the case of Pétain’s striking out the carve-out for naturalized Jews. One such policy, passed a few days after the status of the Jews, was scrapping the so-called Crémieux decree, an 1870 law that had naturalized as French citizens the Jews of Algeria, which remained a French territory until 1962.
And yet, amongst those claiming that Vichy’s overall bearing on Jewish lives was positive—that the regime saved French Jews by renouncing foreign-born ones—is Éric Zemmour. It is now but a foregone conclusion that Zemmour, whose Algerian Jewish parents would have found themselves stateless due to just this policy, will run for the country’s presidency come May next year. His claim that “Pétain saved France’s Jews,” first conveyed in his 2014 bestseller Le Suicide Français and uttered several times since in TV and radio, was the subject of a lawsuit brought by a plethora of progressive NGOs that cost the right-wing intellectual €10,000 in fines last year. One plaintiff group has appealed the ruling, hoping to see Zemmour convicted of Holocaust denialism. The writer was already found guilty in 2011 of “stoking racial hatred” for matter-of-factly claiming that “all drug traffickers are black or brown.”
Named after its sponsor, the communist member of parliament Jean-Claude Gayssot, the law providing these groups ammunition against Zemmour dates from 1990, and that’s no coincidence. Under Jacques Chirac’s presidency that decade, the French state launched an official effort to come to terms with its responsibility in the Holocaust, marked by a famous speech Chirac delivered in 1995 at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where the biggest roundup of Jews, or rafle, saw 13,000 of them deported to Auschwitz in mid-July 1942. In fact, if Zemmour’s alleged revisionism is found so reprehensible by bien-pensant historians and the thought police, it is partly because a shift in state policy embarked upon then and there made it look so. This shift was triggered by a historiographic revolution in the 1970s, launched with the publication of a bestselling history of Vichy by American historian Robert Paxton, who wrote recently that the right-wing intellectual looks at that regime “through a distorting lens.”
Zemmour’s historical argument—supported by a minority of professional historians such as the Israel-based rabbi Alain Michel—harkens back to an earlier, pre-Paxton conventional wisdom that credited in equal measure Vichy and Charles de Gaulle for sparing France the horrors that befell other occupied countries. Today deemed revisionist, this theory “of the sword and shield” was very much the French state’s official narrative of events as propagated under de Gaulle, who in the interest of reconciling the resisting and collaborating segments of French society had credited Vichy’s outwardly friendly posture toward Germany (the shield) for allowing his résistance movement to strike the common German enemy (the sword).
This Paxtonian revolution and the attendant obloquy heaped on Vichy have turned politically correct opinion against Zemmour’s otherwise well-argued defense of the regime’s stance toward French Jews, beginning with established Jewish organizations. Yonathan Arfi and Francis Kalifat of the powerful Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) have urged fellow Jews to “stay away from Zemmour,” clamoring that “not a single Jewish vote go to him,” whilst Ariel Goldman of the Fonds Social Juif Unifié tweeted his shame at sharing the writer’s Judaic faith.
To be sure, Zemmour is a particular ilk of Jew—not religiously observant, he is even less conspicuous in regards to Judaism’s cultural aspects. He sees himself as heir to the tradition of Israélitisme, a term connoting an assimilated form of Judaism that foregoes its particularistic worldview to happily embrace the French Republic’s values. Zemmour’s career-long crusade against the Islamic separatism that festers in the banlieues is in fact of a piece with his prejudice against the wearing of the kippah in public and special legal provisions for the ritual slaughtering of kosher meat.
For Zemmour, the admirer of Napoléon, one is a Frenchman before a Jew, and the French Republic ought to integrate individuals, not communities, to borrow from a famous speech delivered on the matter by Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre in 1789. But his feud with established Jewish organizations reached a fever pitch with the publication of his latest book, generally translated as France hasn’t said its last word, where a much-wrangled passage seems to draw a parallel between Mohamed Merah, the Islamist terrorist who shot dead seven people in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, and his three school-age Jewish victims. Zemmour, who has also called for the banning of foreign names in France, draws on anthropology to claim that both the killer and their victims’ choice to be buried overseas—the former in Algeria, the latter in Israel—underscores the crisis of national belonging at the heart of France’s social contract.
French law forbids the collection of electoral returns and polling data by ethnic background, so we will never know in what numbers the approximately 700,000 Jews left in France will heed their community organizations’ official cordon sanitaire on Zemmour. But among France’s less well-0ff Jewish electorate, some of whom still can’t afford to flee the rising anti-Semitism of the banlieues, their fellow Jew’s hawkish stances on immigration and Islamic separatism may well win them over.