Napoleon I and the integration of the Jews in France: some points of interest

Author(s) : DELAGE Irène, PAPOT Emmanuelle
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Whilst the Catholic and Protestant (reformed and Lutheran) religions  in France saw their relations with the State reorganised during the Consulate period, with the signtaure of the Concordat (1801) and the addition of the Organic articles (1802), Napoleon took but little interest before 1806.

The Empire at that time included 170,000 Jews, a third of which in France. No specific general authority provided a framework for the different communities. When faced with mounting hostility to the Jews, known as anti-judaism (the term ‘antisemitic’ was not to be invented until the late 19th century), in France and the risk of pogroms the east of France (Alsace), Napoleon took his first decisions, concentrating much more on public order than on religion.


The reflection and then the first decree

> Napoleon I submitted several questions to the Conseil d’Etat. In a first letter, dated 6 March, 1806, addressed to the Justice Minister Régnier, he asked the Legislative Section of the Conseil d’etat to examine the question of the anulment for ten years of loans taken by Jews, or the obligation of a licence  for Jews who were not land owners starting on 1 January 1807. (Correspondance générale de Napoléon Ier, vol. 6, éditions Fayard: letter 11,612)

> An initial decree dated 30 May 1806 (n° 1,631) regulating credit (in French), a business largely practised by Jews at this time. Many land owners in Alsace faced large debts – a source of great tension – Napoleon decreed (inter alia) a moratorium of one year on debts contracted  with Jews in the east of France. (Bulletin des Lois, 1806, tome 4, 4e séries, p. 582-4).

> In the same decree, Napoleon decided to to create an assembly of Jewish notables who would represent the Jewish community (in French) and be a consultative body with the aim of bringing Jews over to his policies.

«According to a report which I have received, certain Jews in several northern départements, whose only profession is that of money-lender, have, by the accumulation of the most immoderate interest, put many farmers in these lands in the greatest financial straits. […] On 15 July, in our fair town of Paris, an assembly of individuals professing the Jewish religion and living in France shall be formed.» «The members of this assembly shall number [111], taken from the stated départements and selected by the Prefects from amongst Rabbis, householders and other Jews distinguished by their probity and enlightenment.»
(Correspondance of Napoleon I, [Second Empire edition] n°10291)

A decree dated 22 July 1806 appointed Messrs Molé, Portalis and Pasquier, maîtres des requêtes in the Conseil d’État as commissioners to the said assembly

Directed by Abraham Furtado, one hundred and eleven nobles from all the départements in the Empire (amongst which only 15 Rabbis) met for the first time on 26 July 1806 so as to answer the 12 questions (listed here below) related to the Jewish positions and engagement with respect to the State and the Code Civil.


1 Is it lawful for Jews to marry more than one wife?

2 Is divorce permitted by the Jewish religion?

3 Can a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Christian woman a Jew? Or does the law only allow Jews to marry amongst themselves?

4 Do Jews regard Frenchmen as brethren or strangers?

5 In any case, what duties does their law prescribe to Jews towards Frenchmen who are not of the Jewish religion?

6 Do Jews who were born in France, and who have the legal status of French citizens, regard France as their fatherland? Is it their duty to defend it, to obey its laws, and to accommodate themselves to all the provisions of the Civil Code?

7 Who nominates Rabbis?

8 What police jurisdiction do the Rabbis exercise over the Jews? What kind of police magistracy do they recognise among themselves?

9 Are the forms of election and jurisdiction of the police magistrates laid down by the Jewish law, or merely consecrated by custom?

10 Are there any professions prohibited by Jewish law?

11 Does the law forbid Jews to practise usury in dealing with their brethren?

12 Does it forbid or does it allow them to practice usury in dealing with strangers?”

(Letter from Napoléon to his Interior Minister Champagny dated 22 July 1806, Correspondance générale de Napoléon Ier, vol. 6, éditions Fayard: letter n° 12,557)


>At the same time, Napoleon I wrote a note dated 29 November 1806 to his Interior Minister Champagny, related to a project for the organisation of the Jewish Nation (in French) in which he asked for the convocation of a Great Sanhedrin. This decision to resuscitate this assembly, with its clear resonances (the council which in ancient times met in Jerusalem but which had not met for 1,700 years), can be explained by the absence of a general legal and accepted authority able to emit rules for all.

The Great Sanhedrin, comprising 71 members (including 45 Rabbis), met in Paris from 9 February to 9 March 1807, under the presidency of the Chief Rabbi of Strasbourg, David Sintzheim.
After validation (and development) of the remarks made by the Assembly of Notables, the Great Sanhedrin emitted an ensemble of doctrinal rules and pronounced the disbanding of the Sanhedrin. The Assembly of Notables then prepared the report of the rules created by the Sanhedrin and then disbanded itself officially in April 1807.


The principal Napoleonic decrees

> The decree of 17 March 1808, n° 3,237, ordering the execution of the rules “deliberated in the General Assembly of Jews, held in Paris on 10 December 1806” (in French) (see the Bulletin des lois, 1808, tome 8, 4e séries, pp. 217-220).

A synagogue and a consistory were to be established in each département containing at least two thousand Jews, or in an ensemble of départements united so as to make at least two thousand Jews. Each consistory was to be headed by a Chief Rabbi, assisted by another Rabbi and three lay people, elected by 25 Jewish Notables approved by the authorities. The consistory had also to be approved by the authorities. Rabbis were not to be paid by the state. A Central Consistory was to be sited in Paris, comprising three Rabbis, taken from amongst the Chief Rabbis of the departmental consistories, and two other Jews. The consistories were to be responsible for enforcing the regulations, verifying that the Rabbis taught religion in accordance with the doctrinal decisions of the Great Sanhedrin, supervising the proper management of synagogues, and communicating the number of Jewish conscripts to the authorities. The salaries of the Rabbis of the Central Consistory (6,000 francs) and the Chief Rabbis of the departmental consistories (3,000 francs) were to be found by the Jewish community.

> Another decree dated 17 March 1808, n° 3,210, aimed at providing “social reform for Jews” (in French). It abolished certain debts to Jews. It created a special patent, renewable annually by the Prefect, for Jews desiring to engage in commerce.  No new Jews were allowed to settle in Alsace. Non-French Jews could only set up on French territory provided they bought a country house and provided they did not engage in commerce. Replacement for Jewish conscripts was forbidden (this was changed in 1812, when replacement for Jewish conscripts was permitted but only by other Jews).  These general provisions were established for ten years, “hoping that at the expiration of this period, and by the effect of the various measures taken with regard to the Jews, there will be no longer any difference between them and the others citizens of our Empire.” Furthermore, these measures did “not apply to Jews living in Bordeaux, and in the departments of Gironde and Landes, which ha[d] never given rise to any complaint.”
Since it introduced differences between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, in itself contrary to the Civil Code, this decree was called “infamous”. (see Bulletin des lois, 1808, tome 8, 4e série, pp. 200-203).

> On 20 July, 1808, a decree n° 3,589 (in French) renewed demands made in 1792 ordering Jews to adopt fixed first names and surnames. For first names, the choice was to be made from a list of saints or historical characters.

On 22 July 1806, Napoleon concluded his letter to Interior Minister Champagny with the following words: “Our aim is to reconcile the belief of the Jews with the duties of the French, and to make them useful citizens, since we are resolved to remedy the ill in which many of them participate to the detriment of our subjects.”

Napoleon’s policy, based as it was on the solicitation of the Jewish community and the taking into account of their thoughts, was, despite its contradictory nature, combining advances with setbacks for rights for the Jews, opened the way for a real and lasting integration of the Jews in France.


(Text revised and completed, March 2019, I Delage tr./ed. Peter Hicks)

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