This research paper on late-nineteenth century Jews in Paris was prepared for a college course on Belle Epoque France (roughly 1870 - 1914) where I had to choose a theme within Guy de Maupassant's Bel-Ami and expand upon it.


In Guy de Maupassant’s Belle Epoque masterpiece, Bel-Ami, we encounter the powerful figure of Monsieur Walter. As the wealthy Jewish proprietor of the Parisian tabloid La Vie française, he has select access to the upper echelon of Belle Epoque society, inside knowledge of the French political machine, and enormous influence over public life in the capital. His religious identity seems to be an irrelevance: his wife is a devout Catholic; he marries one daughter off to a French count and the other to the novel’s protagonist, social-climbing Georges “du Roy de Cantel.” In brief, he is the archetype of the Jew as seen from the eyes of many a salt-of-the-earth Frenchman of the late nineteenth century – in cahoots with the not-so-well-liked leaders of the Third Republic, ruthlessly ambitious when it came to money and of dubious nationality; the surname Walter seems to imply muddy Germanic origins. To be fair to Maupassant though, in Bel-Ami the full-blooded Catholic politician Laroche-Mathieu is as complicit as Walter in the stealthy purchase of Moroccan bonds to the detriment of the Rothschild bank, a fictional reenactment of the French intervention in Tunisia in 1881, wherein the most visible benefactors of various bond-based profiteering schemes were a number of Franco-Jewish banks. For Maupassant, all those of Walter’s ilk are equally unscrupulous, be they Jewish or Gentile.

However, most other writers of the 1880’s were less forgiving in their treatment of the Jew. The same year that Maupassant’s novel came out, 1883, Auguste Chirac published Les rois de la république [The Kings of the Republic]. Three years later saw the publication of journalist Edouard Drumont’s La France juive [Jewish France], which became the Bible of French antisemitism. In 1891, Emile Zola, more a friend of the Jews than a foe, came out with l’Argent, a novel whose protagonist is an anti-Semitic financier.

In their representations of the Jew, these authors, regardless of intention, focused upon a minority within a minority – Jews bearing foreign surnames like Rothschild, Bamberger, Reinach, Stern, Deutsch, Heine, Lippmann, Bischoffsheim. French Jewry scholar Zosa Szajkowski has remarked that the 1872 Consistorial census of Paris “gives the place of birth of 10,185 Jews. Of these ... 2,333 were born abroad: 913 in German States, only 327 in Poland-Russia.” German Jews therefore made up roughly 9% of all Parisian Jewry, a proportion that remained consistent throughout the Belle Epoque as few of them left Germany for France even during years of intense emigration; those who did make the move clustered around Paris, though oftentimes they would maintain homes in a number of European financial centers. Significantly poorer Jewish immigrants would flood in from other Eastern European nations during the last three chaotic decades of the century, but the wealthy German Jew continued to play a disproportionate role in shaping prevailing sensibilities – the average Frenchman, anti-Semite or not, saw the Jews as an aloof, monolithic body of close-knit, predominantly foreign-born individuals whose trade was international finance.

The Socioeconomic Diversity of Parisian Jewry

The Jews of Paris were in fact a rather diverse, continually evolving group that spanned the entirety of the French socioeconomic spectrum. In the decade prior to 1880, they fell into five rough categories: middle-class French-born Jews from Alsace-Lorraine, wealthy German-born Jews, bourgeois Sephardim from the Midi, poor French-born Jews and poor Eastern and Central European Jews.

The Ashkenazim, the largest group, derived mainly from the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, where the greatest number of native French Jewry lived. In spite of the popular image of the Jew as a purely urban phenomenon, this group came from the countryside. Drawn to Paris by the growth of industrialization, they became shopkeepers and professionals and joined the lower middle class.

The exceedingly wealthy, foreign-born Germanic Jews who featured so prominently in contemporary French Catholic consciousness due to their roles in high finance were Ashkenazi as well, but were more a clique unto themselves.

The Sephardim, in the minority, were fully-assimilated members of mainstream bourgeois society and rather well-off. With roots in the southern provinces of France and the lands surrounding the Mediterranean that went back for centuries, they maintained their own synagogues and discreetly followed their own brand of Judaism. They were mainly merchants and bankers.

And then, there were the poor. Through an exhaustive analysis of synagogal marriage records, tax records, and death records – all of which involved graded brackets of some sort or other – Szajkowski has found that while most Parisian Jews held their ground financially, a small but significant number lived in poverty, attested to by such facts as the following: of the 679 Jewish burials in Paris in 1870, 239 were paid and 440 were free. Poor Jews were mainly struggling Ashkenazim who worked as peddlers. The vast majority of Parisian Jewry in 1870 was born in the city itself, but several continental crises in succeeding years altered this fact.

The Franco-Prussian War and its aftermath – the humiliating loss of Alsace-Lorraine – saw great numbers of Jews heading westwards, primarily to Paris, in order to retain their French Republican citizenship. By the late 1870’s, Paris had supplanted the eastern rim of France as the center of French Jewry. Nevertheless, in a nation of more than 30 million, Jews still numbered less than 100,000, a figure far below that of neighboring Germany and minuscule compared to the populations further east. With the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia in 1881, a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment and violence swept through Eastern Europe and French demographics changed yet again. In the next two decades, nearly one million Jews left Russia, Poland, Galicia, the Ukraine, and Rumania, the majority heading for the western hemisphere, seen as offering greater economic opportunities, while those relatively better-off resettled in France, long recognized in the east for its Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and its distinction as having been the first European nation to have emancipated the Jews.

Overnight, the Jewish population of Paris, which numbered around 40,000, jumped by almost a third. These uncultured, but usually skilled refugees of the shtetl came to form the “Jewish proletariat,” though the existence of an actual Jewish working class continued to be in question among many contemporary intellectuals, Jewish and Gentile alike. Settling into an area of the fourth arrondissement that thenceforth became the pletzl, they created an enclave, which, though noticeable, was seldom acknowledged by most native French Jewry, who kept to the more affluent districts of Paris.

Parisian Jews and the Consistories

By the 1880’s, these predominantly native-born old-timers were all well-established and assimilated, meaning that they thought of themselves as full French citizens and the Revolution as part of their heritage. They differed from everyone else only in their racial background, for in an era rampant with French scholars coursing the globe to categorize every manner of animal, plant, and human being, and in which phrenology was still a respected scientific field, Jews were considered a race. Those within the fold often perceived themselves as such. While many were careful to retain a Jewish identity, perhaps to keep the money in the family – the Rothschilds and other banking families going so far as to marry cousin to cousin and uncle to niece – a few were far more liberal and rather indifferent to their religious and purportedly ethnic identities, freely marrying non-Jews, some going so far as to convert to Christianity. So far as this minority was concerned, they differed from their fellow Frenchmen only in their Hebraic backgrounds. With the census of 1873, even the French government echoed this attitude when it stopped collecting information on religious affilation, deeming it a private matter. Leading increasingly secular lives, native Jewry evolved to consider themselves Israelites, not Jews, a distinction that took on greater strength at the start of the twentienth century.

But the diverse majority of native French Parisian Jews in the early Belle Epoque, however, did acknowledge their ancestry and defer to the concept of a Jewish community, in spite of the fact that it was defined mainly by outsiders through both well-intentioned and anti-Semitic typecasting. The higher-ups, mainly the Germanic elite, the Sephardim and a few economically successful Alsatian Jews, were the directors of the local Consistories, institutions Napoleon set up nationwide to provide Jews with an administrative structure for organizing community earlier on in the century, in light of certain elements calling for their removal from the newly formed empire. The emperor himself, though sympathetic to Jews, was wary of their potential “subversiveness”; the Consistories were thus intended as a bureaucratic watch group as well. In each department, or in every few departments in areas where they were scarce, a small number of Jews, usually the wealthiest, were made “electors” of the regional Consistory; they held decision-making power in the formation of local synagogues, public welfare programs, and educational institutions, and were expected to act as representatives of the “Jewish community” at official functions, regardless of whether consensus actually existed among neighboring Jews.

The imposition of the Consistories faced resistance from certain sectors, most notably the Sephardim, many of whom desired to maintain their own institutions, but the acceptance of this system entailed a number of governmental concessions as well, primarily that of Judaism becoming a culte reconnu [officially recognized faith], and hence official funding and such fringe benefits as payment of the salaries to rabbis. Though the nineteenth century was one of great political unrest and France went from empire to republic and back again, these institutions managed to survive into the Belle Epoque. Paris had a Central Consistory whose members included the Grand Rabbi of France, and whose decisions held sway over all the other consistories in the country. Those who found themselves at the head of this institution, the aforementioned wealthy Jews who donated regularly to charity and who bought synagogal pews, commanded a great deal of bureaucratic power and respectability. In 1898, the members of the Central Consistory of Paris “consisted of a Regent of the Bank of France (Alphonse de Rothschild), the first honorary president of the Cour de Cassation (G. Bedarrides), two important bankers (Eugène Pereire and Henry Deutsch), a retired general (Abraham Sée), a senior municipal official of Paris (Henri Aron), the Inspector-General of the Ponts et Chaussées (Maurice Lévy), and several well-known doctors and lawyers.”

Attitudes of Parisian Jewry Towards the Eastern European Exodus

The Consistory and the paper it published, the Univers israélite, one of two weekly Jewish papers, was thus exclusively an outlet for the old-timers and the elite of Paris, as the electors would only vote others of their own social stratum into positions of power within the Consistory. Its membership thus reflected that of a private country club more than anything else, in spite of the original mission of servicing a whole community. In the 1880’s, native French Jewry, a much diminished group in relative size but not the least in political influence, had very little to do with the lower-class immigrant Jews that were steadily streaming in from Eastern Europe. Ostensibly the leaders of the Parisian Jewish community, they were aware of the latter’s existence, but by no means thought of themselves as forming one cohesive group, as outsiders were so apt to put it in those days. In the popular and anti-Semitic, rich, established Jews were seen as welcoming with open arms and necessarily providing financial support to poorer, immigrant Jews.

But Jewish solidarity was a myth. Though they did feel a paternalism for their poorer coreligionists that went so far materially as to see to the continued maintenance of a number of pre-existing charities, aid societies and training schools, the bulk of their philanthropic efforts were directed towards Jews abroad, notably in areas where they were still considered oppressed. They rather did not care to see any excessive number of the uncouth Jewish masses settling in their Paris. Widespread immigration would stir up unwanted attention and not-quite-forgotten stereotypes. According to Nancy Green, who put out a study of the Jewish immigrant workers of Belle Epoque Paris, “the French Jewish community – that preexisting structure which is assumed to be the primary frame of reference for the immigrants’ insertion – was, in fact, due to its own social and economic insertion in France, ill prepared for the arrival of their very foreign coreligionists from the East. The emigration/immigration policy of that community would in many ways aim at discouraging any “pull” rather than encouraging the settlement of the immigrants in Paris.”

The Alliance israélite Universelle, the first major Jewish philanthropic organ to be known throughout the world, was founded in Paris in 1860 by members of the elite. Setting up schools for Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe, it not only sought to uplift oppressed Jewry, but to spread French values, one of its tenets being “appliquer les principes de 1789 et les propager en faveur de la liberté de l’esprit” [to implement the principles of 1789 and spread them in order to promote free thought]. When massive emigration from Russia began in the 1880’s, the Alliance turned against the idea of Jews leaving for abroad. For them, reform was needed within Russia itself. When thousands of Russian Jews began crowding the border in Brody, Galicia, in hopes of departing for the U.S. but were unable to leave, the Alliance put funds towards paying for train tickets to return them to Russia rather than try to resettle them elsewhere in the Western world.

But there was an element of Western self-protectiveness to this position as well. When the U.S. put restrictions on immigration in 1906, the only other Jewish weekly in France apart from that of the Consistory’s, the Archives israélites, “complained that such an action was unjust on the part of such a large and deserted country. Other suggestions for possible destinations [for Eastern European refugees] ranged from Mexico to Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil or French Guyana (the latter extolled for its agreeable climate!). The cost of a boat ticket was cheaper than the anticipated burden the emigrants represented.” Apart from the Alliance, many other French organizations were busy securing passage for refugees to numerous destinations outside of Western Europe. In brief, though they were motivated by a great deal of idealism, upper-class Parisian Jewry would help out their fellow Jews so long as they did not turn up on their doorsteps. In the non-Jewish Parisian press of the 1880’s which included one or two openly anti-Semitic papers, arriving Jewish immigrants from the East were an item to be feared – potentially ridden with cholera, breeding uncontrollably, uncultured, unskilled, and superstitious, but like all Jews, intensely materialistic. Native French Jewry, which had lived through centuries of anti-Semitism in France and fought long and hard in the Revolution to obtain equal citizenship and consideration in the eyes of the law did not want to be ensnared by stereotypes of the past reemerging in the present in the form of the refugee.

Eastern European Jewry in Paris

The recent arrivals were very well aware of the feelings old-timers bore towards them. They were profoundly different from the native Jews. They willingly segregated themselves into a ghetto in the capital of a nation where Jews had been emancipated for over a hundred years. They came from countries where Jews were considered not only a race apart, but a separate nationality, a perception which they incorporated into their psychological makeup. In France this had happened as well, but French Jews still thought of themselves as French; Russian Jews were however not Russian. Many of them, more so than the natives, still clung to the faith and observed the Sabbath. Religion was a major part of life in the unindustrialized East. The newcomers in Paris even included a group of very conspicuous Orthodox Jews. The religious practices of assimilated practicing Parisian Jews presented a major shock; many, including “the bringing into the synagogue of newly born children to be blessed,” seemed to be adopted from Catholic ritual. Their livelihoods were also much less prestigious than those of natives. Many worked in industry as garment workers, while others continued in their traditional, artisanal roles as cabinet-makers, tailors, shoemakers, hatmakers, metalworkers and peddlers. Unlike the native community of bankers, merchants and shop-owners, the immigrants had no newspapers of their own. They had no Consistory.

Their situation reflected badly on the elite, who were naturally expected to take care of them by the Parisian community at large. Initially, the social institutions to which they had access existed only due to the generosity of native Jews, which had been relatively considerable in times when Parisian Jewry was a smaller group. The newcomers relied on many of these pre-existing institutions. The Comité de Bienfaisance distributed nearly half a milion francs a year in food, clothing, and shelter. The Rothschilds ran a Jewish hospital for adults and children, an orphanage, and a reform school for boys and one for girls. The wealthy also maintained two free training schools, the Ecole de Travail for males, and the Institution Bischoffsheim for females. In Belle Epoque Paris, philanthropic activity was fashionable among the upper classes; ladies went around visiting the sick and bedridden, a practice emulated by the wives of wealthy Jewish bankers.

Even if pure goodwill was at work, and the Jewish value of tzedakah, or justice and charity, the driving force behind all this charity, it put the poorer Jews in the uncomfortable psychological position of the beggar and became for them a tremendous source of shame. At the same time, those running these programs were highly suspicious of faux pauvres [false paupers] among the immigrants simply taking aid when it was not needed and devoted efforts to stamping out however much of it that existed as well. The influx of Eastern European immigrants put a great deal of pressure on the aid available, which served a total of fewer than a thousand individuals at any given time. There was a great deal of resentment among the workers at the dregs, some of whom ended working up for middle-class, native French Jews who exploited them. “‘The question of race is a mystification,’ said one worker after a 1902 strike in the Marais. He continued, ‘Everything gives way before interest. One would have to be a journalist, that is, someone unfamiliar with the problems of work [a dig at his interlocutor?], in order to assume that an employer takes into consideration the religion of his employee or worker ... [Even the bosses are fighting among themselves.] A pretty farce is this Jewish solidarity. Everyone must look out for himself, and that’s that.’” Working class Jews were part of an expanding labor rights movement involving immigrants from all walks, and increasingly grew to identify themselves along socioeconomic rather than religious-racial lines.

Some became revolutionaries, associating with socialists, nihilists, anarchists and the like. This thoroughly incensed the native Jews who were loyal to the Republic. In 1885, when it was discovered that the Société des ouvriers russes de Paris [Paris Association of Russian Workers] had addressed a letter of support to the socialist paper, Le cri du peuple, the Archives israélites denounced the paper and the Jews who wrote the letter, and called for “a protest ... so that France would know that the Jewish community, in giving aid to the immigrants, was not supporting ‘enemies of order and public peace.’” Once they were more established, however, the immigrants themselves began setting up social welfare organizations to meet their own needs, most notably the Société philanthropique de l’asile israélite de Paris [Israelite Refugee Philanthropic Society of Paris], founded by Russian and Rumanian Jews in 1900. The assistance provided by, and even the structure of this organization was quite similar to many a charity set up by their wealthier Jewish brethren. But in an annual report, they had the following to say about aid dispensed by native Jewish Parisians: “The Parisian [Jewish] Community, so rich in charitable works, yet lacked that which would have given a provisional hospitality to unfortunate emigrants, to enable them to become oriented in the labyrinth of the capital .... But we have wanted to practice hospitality such as we have seen it practiced in our homeland.” Their identities remained deeply couched to their status as immigrants, and they wanted to do things their own way – right down to social outreach.

The Dreyfus Affair

Any discussion of Paris Jewry would not be just without a mention of the Dreyfus affair. It is noteworthy that the only Jewish public demonstration concerning Dreyfus was organized by le Prolétariat Juif de France. In September 1899, several hundred working-class Jews and non-Jews gathered before the Maison du Peuple, near the Montmartre, to speak out against anti-Semitism, and also criticize the reference to all Jews as “princes of finance” that was so popular in the press. But the official organisms of the native French community – the Consistories, the papers, and even the Alliance israélite universelle remained silent throughout the affair.

According to Léon Blum, upper-class Jewry for the most part did not wish to become involved:

“[L]es juifs ne voulaient pas qu’on pût croire qu’ils défendaient Dreyfus parce que Dreyfus était juif. Ils ne voulaient pas qu’on pût imputer leur attitude à une distinction ou à une solidarité de race. Ils ne voulaient pas surtout, en se portant à la défense d’un autre juif, fournir un aliment à la passion antisémite qui sévissait alors avec une grande intensité... Les juifs de l’âge de Dreyfus, ceux qui appartenaient à la même couche sociale, qui, comme lui, avaient réussi des concours difficiles ... s’exaspéraient à l’idée qu’un préjugé hostile vînt borner leurs carrières irréprochables ... Les juifs riches, les juifs de moyenne bourgeoisie, les juifs fonctionnaires avaient peur de la lutte engagée pour Dreyfus.”

[The Jews did not want others to believe that they were defending Dreyfus because Dreyfus was a Jew. They did not want to others to impute their attitude to racial considerations or racial solidarity. They especially did not want – in coming to the defense of a fellow Jew – to fuel the intense antisemitism that was raging at the time … The Jews of the era, who belonged to the same social stratum as Dreyfus and who, like him, had triumphed against the odds … were exasperated at the thought of hostile, prejudiced individuals drawing boundaries around their impeccable careers … Rich Jews, middle class Jews, civil servant Jews were fearful of the committed struggle over Dreyfus.]

It was a Republican struggle, not a Jewish one. Thus, the immigrant Jews were a community apart from the natives, held to their own views and regarded the latter with a certain degree of wariness, if not outright dislike.


Of course, the outside world perceived little of the the tension among Parisian Jews as reflected in the literature of the late-nineteenth century. There was a community, but it was weakly defined, one brought together by historical accident and anti-Semitic sentiment. There was no cultural or social or economic unity, as claimed by pro and anti-Semites alike in France. The outsider saw sordid refugees arrive from Europe, and often assumed that they would be embraced by the pre-existent network, and that they all eventually became successful bankers and merchants. Occasionally, newspapers would venture into the Marais and the pletzl to document some of the horrors therein, but the French masses would continue to associate the Jew with high finance, evidenced by the fact that the bitterly anti-Semitic Edouard Drumont’s La France juive remained a bestseller throughout the eighties and nineties. It is no wonder that the literature of the Belle Epoque reflected variations of a figure like Monsieur Walter.

Works Cited

Aubery, Pierre. Milieux juifs de la France contemporaine à travers leurs écrivains. Paris: Librarie Plon, 1957.

Cahm, Eric. l’Affaire Dreyfus: Histoire, politique et société. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1994.

Graetz, Michael. The Jews in Nineteenth-Century France: From the French Revolution to the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Green, Nancy L. The Pletzl of Paris: Jewish Immigrant Workers in the Belle Epoque. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986.

Marrus, Michael R. Politics of Assimilation: The French Jewish Community at the Time of the Dreyfus Affair. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971

Maupassant, Guy de. Bel-Ami. Edited by Daniel Leuwers. Paris: Bordas, 1988.

Szajkowski, Zosa. Poverty and Social Welfare Among French Jews (1800 – 1880). New York: Editions Historiques Franco-Juives, 1954.

Weill, Georges. Emancipation et progrès: l’Alliance israélite universelle et les droits de l’homme. Paris: Editions du Nadir, 2000.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.