On October 24, 1870, France promulgated the so-called Cremieux Decree, which granted French citizenship to the native Jews of its colony in Algeria.
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“The native Jews of the departments of Algeria,” read the document in part, “are declared French citizens. Therefore, dating from the promulgation of the present decree, their real status and personal status will be governed by French law; all rights acquired up to this day remain inviolable.”
The move took place in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, when the country felt that its rule in North Africa was threatened. Giving citizenship to the Jews, who numbered about 38,000 at the time, was a sign of recognition that they were considered trustworthy, at a time when the regime needed all the friends it could find.
The Jews also had numerous co-religionists in France, another link binding them to the empire, something that was not then true of Algeria’s Muslims.
The Paris Consistory, the representative body of the city’s Jews, was given responsibility for appointing the rabbis of Algerian Jewry, and the schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle were recruited to turn their young people into loyal French citizens.
An early promoter of human rights
The decree is named for Adolphe Cremieux, France’s minister of justice at the time.
Cremieux (1796-1880) was a Jewish lawyer who did much to promote the cause of human rights in France. In a brief, earlier term, in 1848, as justice minister, Cremieux had overseen the abolishment of slavery in France’s overseas colonies, and had worked to eliminate the death penalty for political offenses.
He also served, starting in 1834, as vice-president of the Central Consistory for French Jewry, and he was the founder of the Alliance Israelite, the French-based international organization that promoted Jewish education and rights around the worldwide.
In 1869, after the capture of Napoleon III by the Germans, a republic was declared in France, and a Government of National Defense was formed. Cremieux returned from private life to oversee the Justice Ministry again.
Although the short-term impact of the Cremieux Decree, in making Jews full-fledged citizens of France, was positive, it was a source of friction between them and the colony’s Muslim population, which was not granted the same privilege. Although the government attempted to gradually introduce privileges that would make it possible for Muslim Arabs to become naturalized citizens, there was both minimal interest among the native population and strong opposition on the part of French colonials in Algeria.
Europeans fan fire in Algeria
In the same vein, the European colonial community in Algeria was even more resentful of the Jews’ newly gained status, and became increasingly anti-Semitic. Anti-Jewish sentiment became a powerful political force among French colonials in Algeria, where in 1882 street signs appeared reading, “all methods are good and should be used for the extermination of the Jews by Europeans.”
In 1898, when pogroms erupted, in the wake of a flare-up in the ongoing Dreyfus Affair, the worst of them were in Algeria. As late as 1935, the French governor general in Algeria, Maurice Viollette, told the Senate, in Paris: “If there is anti-Semitism in Algeria, be sure that it is Europeans who fan it.”
Although the French government was able to protect the Jews from attacks, this protection only drew them closer to the colonial power, which meant that, as Arab nationalism began to develop in the colony, the Jews were not part of the movement. That created additional distance between the Muslims and Jews.
In June 1940, France fell to the German army, and the northern two-thirds of the country were occupied. The southern part, based in Vichy, maintained control of Algeria, which was technically part of France.
Vichy regime revokes Jewish rights
The Vichy government revoked the Cremieux Decree on October 7, 1940, at the same time that the anti-Jewish statutes implemented in France were also applied to the Jews of Algeria. In general, in fact, the measures taken against Algeria’s Jews were harsher not only than those imposed in Tunisia and Morocco, but also those applied within continental France itself.
One can only assume that it was only the landing of Allied forces in North Africa, and the liberation of Algeria, in November 1942, that saved the Jews there from deportation and annihilation.
Liberation, however, did not lead to the immediate restoration of citizenship to the Jews. General Henri Giraud, the newly appointed governor of Algeria, was slow to repeal the racial laws in general, and even to release prisoners from the concentration camps set up in the colony’s south. Only in March 1943, after the application of significant pressure by the U.S. and Britain, did Giraud repeal the racial laws – but he still didn’t reinstate the Cremieux Decree, out of what he described as “the same desire to eliminate all racial discrimination,” meaning, to end the “distinctions between Mohammedan and Jewish inhabitants.”
It was only on October 21, 1943, that the French Committee for National Liberation, reinstated the Cremieux Decree, thus restoring to Algeria’s 140,000 Jews all the rights as French citizens they had possessed prior to the start of World War II.