Andersen on Roberts, 'Citizenship and Antisemitism in French Colonial Algeria, 1870-1962'

Sophie B. Roberts
Margaret Andersen

Sophie B. Roberts. Citizenship and Antisemitism in French Colonial Algeria, 1870-1962. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 392 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-18815-0.

Reviewed by Margaret Andersen (University of Tennessee Knoxville) Published on H-Diplo (July, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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In her analysis of antisemitism in colonial Algeria, Sophie B. Roberts explores the fragile nature of citizenship for the colony’s Jewish population. This study represents an important addition to a growing body of scholarship examining the fluctuating meanings and implications of citizenship in France’s overseas empire. Roberts begins with the introduction of the Crémieux Decree in 1870, a formative moment in the development of Algerian Jewish identity. This decree extended French citizenship to Algerian Jews, thereby giving this population a status not shared by the colonized Muslim population. In the decades that followed, this inequality was a significant source of tension that factored into questions of Muslim rights. Algerian Jews’ status as French citizens was also resented by newly naturalized European settlers who sought to use antisemitism to gain political influence and status in the colony. Roberts argues that antisemitism came to play an important role in Algerian Jews’ growing identification with France and emerging French identity.

Roberts’s analysis centers primarily on the municipal governments in Algeria. Although Algeria was administratively part of France and voters (Algerian Jews included) elected members of parliament, such elections had less impact on the inner workings of the colony than did municipal governments. In effect, municipal governments were the primary “forum for exerting citizenship rights” (p. 34). It was in elections to these local governments that groups and factions competed for status, power, and influence in the colony. Antisemitism proved to be a strong political tool for settlers (many newly naturalized) who worried that the Jewish population was too influential as a group and sought to minimize that influence once elected. Ultimately, local politics as seen through the workings of municipal governments were decisive in shaping the development of antisemitism, as well as its expression and institutionalization.

Correctly predicting the political influence antisemitism would gain in Algeria, Edouard Drumont noted in 1886 that Algeria “would begin the French antisemitic campaign” (p. 60). As Roberts shows, antisemitism in Algeria at times mirrored developments in France yet consistently proved more potent. This was particularly evident in the fin de siècle when Algeria, like France, underwent a period of intense antisemitism. In explaining this antisemitism, scholars have pointed to a multitude of insecurities shaping Algerian politics during this period, including economic woes and separatist tendencies. While recognizing the importance of such factors, Roberts emphasizes the “status anxieties” that developed among French citizens. Due to the 1870 Crémieux Decree and the 1889 naturalization law, Algeria had many different types of French citizens, including French of metropolitan origin, newly naturalized European foreigners known as the néos, and the Jewish population. Though they were all citizens, there was an internal hierarchy and significant competition for status and political influence. As néos and metropolitan French settlers feared that French influence was diminishing, politicians successfully used antisemitism to harness such anxieties and win elections. They then solidified their power by enacting antisemitic laws and disenfranchising Jews. In Oran, where antisemitism was especially severe, these tensions led to outbreaks of violence, including episodes in 1896 and 1898. As France became embroiled in the Dreyfus affair, the effects were also felt in Algeria where some local politicians, such as Max Régis (elected mayor of Algiers in 1898), directly engaged with metropolitan antisemitic leagues. Also illustrating how colonial antisemitism influenced France during the Dreyfus affair, Roberts explains that some prominent metropolitan antisemites found more success in Algeria than in France. One such example is Drumont, author of La France Juive (1886), who was elected deputy for Oran in 1898. As in France, antisemitism in Algeria peaked in 1898 and then became less politically influential in the first decade of the twentieth century. Despite the relative calm of the next decade, the lesson of the 1890s was that antisemitism was a powerful force that could be harnessed to political ends through control of municipal governments.

In Algeria, the years prior to and during the First World War were characterized by mostly calm coexistence with few episodes of violence. French fears were directed more toward the Algerian Muslim population, particularly after incidents like the Margueritte massacre of 1901. Still, the threat to Jewish citizenship and rights remained elevated. During this period, organizations such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) and the Comité Algérien des Études Sociales (CAES) worked at promoting assimilation and fighting within the legal system for Jewish rights. Many Algerian Jews served under the French flag during the Great War, in the hopes that their contributions to the nation would earn recognition of their French citizenship and identity. As was the case in France, antisemitism increased markedly during the interwar period. The economic crisis, the growing appeal of Nazism in North Africa, and hostility to Zionism were among the complex interplay of factors that fueled animosity toward the Jewish population. Antisemitism in Algeria was also linked to developments in the metropole. As the metropole experienced growing right-wing movements, organizations such as the Action Française and the Parti Populaire Français found Algeria to be a fertile recruiting ground. These groups attempted to use antisemitism to recruit Muslims, but with limited success. The election of the Popular Front also had significant implications for Algerian Jews and the intensification of antisemitism in the colony. Significantly unpopular with the European settler population was the Popular Front’s attempts to extend more rights to some Muslims with the Blum-Violette bill. This measure offered citizenship to a limited number of Muslims without requiring them to give up their personal status. It was opposed by settlers and right-wing organizations who refused to cede any measure of political power; the bill also did little to address Muslim groups’ vocal demands for political rights. Antisemitism in the 1930s produced outbreaks of violence, such as the pogrom of 1934 in Constantine. French authorities blamed the violence on Jewish provocations of Muslims, most notably, the unsubstantiated rumors of a Jewish man urinating in a mosque in Kalifa. Yet Roberts shows that the causes were more complex and also included the sense that the Jewish population was more secure during the economic crisis and the resentment that the Jewish population had more rights. In what was experienced as a significant betrayal, the French authorities were slow to restore order and proved uncommitted to protecting the Jewish population. Though the 1934 pogrom was the largest such episode, sporadic violence continued to break out during the years preceding the Second World War, including violence in the Sétif in 1935. 

In 1940, the new Vichy regime stripped Algerian Jews of citizenship (by abrogating the Crémieux Decree) and instituted a series of discriminatory measures. Like other scholars of Vichy, Roberts argues that these decisions were not the result of French officials bowing to German pressure; they were introduced voluntarily by the French authorities. As the earlier chapters of this book make clear, Vichy officials in Algeria did not invent institutional antisemitism with the Jewish statutes. This persecution grew out of a decades-long history of settlers electing antisemitic officials, municipal governments implementing antisemitic policies, and local officials tolerating violent episodes like that of 1934. Roberts makes a strong case for the idea that the success of Vichy in this colony can be partly explained by this history and the support that the regime found in the population. For the Jewish population of Algeria, the loss of French citizenship was experienced as a strong rupture. Roberts analyzes letters that some people wrote to Philippe Pétain asking for his intervention and expressing their confusion at how they could cease to be French after having been French all their lives. Many such letter writers explained that they had married Catholics and had their children baptized, thereby asserting their high level of assimilation as Frenchmen and surprise at being stripped of their rights.

Despite the trauma of Vichy, many Algerian Jews continued to be loyal to their idea of the true France, one that they hoped would eventually be restored. Some joined the resistance and played key roles in Operation Torch. Though many Jews hoped that the Allied Landings in November 1942 would lead to a prompt restoration of their rights, these hopes were soon disappointed. In a confusing move, General Henri Giraud first canceled Vichy’s abrogation of the Crémieux Decree and then re-abrogated it, citing concerns about the negative reaction among the Muslims if the Jews were once again to have more rights. The Crémieux Decree was not restored until almost a year later in October 1943. Following the war, Muslim nationalists pushed for independence. While a small number of Algerian Jews supported this movement, most continued to identify as French. When President Charles de Gaulle made his famous speech indicating that the Algerian people would have an eventual choice about whether to remain part of France, it became clear which way things were headed. Algerian Jews recognized that their options were to remain in an Algeria that would no longer be French or leave their homeland to go live in either Israel or France. Though this was hardly an easy decision, most decided to move to France following Algeria’s independence in 1962.

This study represents a crucial addition to scholarship on antisemitism in modern French history. While many scholars have studied antisemitism in France during key moments, such as the Dreyfus affair, the interwar years, and Vichy era, most such studies do not connect these developments to Algeria directly. As this study shows, developments in Algeria and the metropole were closely linked and cannot be fully understood separately. This study also represents a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship exploring the everyday practice of citizenship in the empire. Roberts could have taken this analysis further by considering how gender factored into concepts of Jewish citizenship and how it was practiced. Though voting and running for office was restricted to men for most of the period covered in this analysis, it would have been interesting to see what French citizenship meant for Jewish women in the colony and the ways in which gender informed French identity more generally. Despite this criticism, this study remains an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship exploring the multiple categories of citizenship in the empire and showing how in practice colonial citizenship was inconsistent, fluid, and unstable.

Citation: Margaret Andersen. Review of Roberts, Sophie B., Citizenship and Antisemitism in French Colonial Algeria, 1870-1962. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL:

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