This Day in Jewish History

1808: Napoleon Issues Decrees to Frenchify the Jews

With his three decrees, including the 'infamous' one, the Emperor sought to make the Jews fully French. It wouldn't work.

Napoleon grants freedom to the Jews, 1806, artist unknown. Source: Goethe und seine Zeit (Salzburg: Andreas & Andreas, 1982), p. 281.
Wikimedia Commons

On March 17, 1808, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte issued three decrees that together were intended to normalize the status of France’s Jews.

The decrees were part of a larger plan on his part to accelerate Jewish assimilation into French society. While two of the decrees were largely administrative in nature, a third, which came to be known as the “Infamous Decree,” singled out Jews for a number of economic restrictions, and was understandably unpopular among them.

Not vive la difference

Napoleon, who reigned from 1804 to 1815, could be said to have harbored ambivalent feelings toward the Jews, as his actions reflected. Overall, however, his desire was to see them become fully French, with all that implied.

The first two of this day’s decrees pertained to the hierarchy that was to be established for control of France’s Jewish communities. Every town with a Jewish population exceeding 2,000 was to have a consistory – a council – with members representing both the senior local rabbis and the community’s lay leadership. The consistories would in turn be under the jurisdiction of a central body in Paris, and would derive their powers from the Ministry of Religions.

The model of the Jewish consistoires was based on that already in place for France’s Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. These consistories also served as a two-way channel to the government, not only helping to enforce official policy at the local level – in particular as it pertained to military service, which was to be strongly encouraged among the Jews – but also as a source of intelligence regarding what was happening in individual communities.

As for the third, “Infamous” decree, whose terms were to be in effect for a decade, as put by Paula Hyman, the late historian of Jewish-French history, Napoleon expressed “his confidence in the efficacy of social engineering through law, expressing the hope that at the end of the ten-year period, ‘there would no longer be any difference between [the Jews] and the other citizens of our empire.’”

"The Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte in His Study at the Tuileries", 1812. Napoleon authored the Napoleonic Code and emancipated France's Jews - though he forced them to forgo a lot of debt owed to them by certain communities. Painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1812.
Wikimedia Commons

Drafting the Jews

Erasing the differences meant moving the Jews from being predominantly involved in moneylending and commerce into other walks of life. Among other things, the law voided all outstanding loans Jews had made to women, soldiers and minors, unless the debtors had permission from their husbands, superior officers or parents, respectively. Furthermore, loans with interest rates exceeding 10 percent were canceled outright.

The social engineering element was evident in the decree’s intention to transfer Jews into farming or into being small craftsmen. To achieve this, it limited their ability to move around the empire, if such a move did not include the acquisition of land. And they were not permitted to move at all into the Alsace region, which already had a high concentration of them.

In the case of Jews who continued making their living from commerce, they were required to renew their licenses yearly, at which time they also had to bring testimony to the effect they were not indulging in usury.

Additionally, Jews who had been drafted into the armed forces were not permitted to pay someone else to serve in their place, a privilege extended to the rest of the population.

Finally, on July 20, 1808, Napoleon issued a final decree that required all Jews to take on permanent first and family names. These were not include the traditional formulation of “son of” or “daughter of,” nor were they permitted to derive from the Bible or from their town of origin.

Eventually, the application of the Infamous Decree was limited to northeast France, and when the period of 10 years was over, Louis XVIII, Napoleon’s successor elected not to review its terms at all. For this, he earned himself the epithet “Liberator of the Jews.”

In reality, though, neither the adoption of the decree nor its elimination a decade later had the desired effect of making French Jews like all other Frenchmen, nor did they end the suspicion and in some cases hatred that non-Jews had for them.