On Tolerance in France

French civilization has stood as a dazzling beacon of light for centuries, yet its record on tolerance has always been remarkably mediocre.
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault/France-Amérique

Let’s begin by jogging our memories with a few milestones in what was – but is no longer – France’s specific brand of intolerance. We shall start, symbolically, with the night of Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572, when the Catholic League systematically exterminated Protestant minorities. This hatred of religious difference resurfaced in 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, forcing Protestants to either convert to Catholicism or go into exile. Many left for the United States, where the Huguenots planted the first vineyards. The city of New Rochelle, New York, is a testament of this immigration from the then Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle.

Unsurprisingly, Jews were not treated much better throughout French history. It wasn’t until the Revolution that their status as citizens was accepted on an individual level, although still not as a community. What’s more, this recognition of citizenship did little to prevent bitter anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Dreyfus Affair. Had the Alsatian officer not been Jewish, regardless of the extent of his devotion to the French army, he would obviously not have been convicted of spying for the Germans in 1894. He had to wait until 1906 to be pardoned, following a campaign led by the writer Emile Zola.

Religion wasn’t the only difference that irked most French people. Cultures from elsewhere, even Christian ones, were not necessarily welcome. Italian immigrants in the town of Aigues-Mortes paid a high price in 1893, when accusations that they were stealing jobs from French salt marsh workers led to a massacre. Meanwhile, Polish people, particularly coal miners invited to settle in France and rebuild the country after the Great War, found that French priests refused to say mass for them. As a result, they were forced to import their own clergymen.

When Léon Blum, France’s first Jewish prime minister, took office in 1936, he became the target of a violent anti-Semitic campaign similar to the ones led in Poland, Russia or Germany – despite his family having lived in France for generations. This intolerance clearly reached fever pitch under the Vichy regime, starting in 1940, when discriminatory decrees excluded Jews from most professions and paved the way for their extermination, even before the Nazi occupiers asked Marshal Pétain to do so. One might have imagined that the Holocaust would have put an end to anti-Semitism after World War II, yet this was not the case. In 1954, Pierre Mendès France, a Jewish politician and president of the Council, from a family that had been French for centuries, became the next target of an incredibly virulent anti-Semitic campaign, which I personally remember.

So when did France move from intolerance to tolerance? The shift is a recent one, since even in 2013 (yesterday, in historical terms), a law legalizing same-sex marriage was passed by Parliament, but sparked major street protests in the name of eternal Christian values. Today, a 34-year-old prime minister has reached the upper echelons of power – a man who, in many ways, is quite different. Gabriel Attal’s grandfather was a Tunisian Jew, and he himself is openly gay. In fact, he was previously in a relationship with our new minister of foreign affairs. Meanwhile, the minister of culture, an iconic position in French politics if ever there was one, is of Moroccan heritage, and her predecessor is of Lebanese origin. Looking to the United States, Mohamed Bouabdallah, the new cultural counselor to the French embassy, who recently took up his post in New York City, is of Algerian origin. And the most remarkable thing about all these recent promotions is that, aside from a few ultra-conservative fringe groups on social media, they have failed to draw any disapproval or even questions from French society. In truth, the prime minister’s Judaism and homosexuality are no longer concerns to anyone. The days of Mendès France are long gone, yet still so close.

Of course, resistance and traces of intolerance still remain. We know that the #MeToo movement, born in the United States and imported to France, did not receive unanimous support. Actress Catherine Deneuve, a national female icon, even described it as an attack on the French culture of seduction in 2018. That being said, sexism – the opposite of seduction – is still alive and well. Most recently, Gérard Depardieu, the biggest living star of French cinema, has been accused of sexual harassment and rape, yet did not suffer the same fate as Harvey Weinstein. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the name of his “genius,” the actor has received the support of the French president, who declared that he “makes France proud,” apparently forgetting his female victims.

There is clearly still a long way to go before French society becomes completely egalitarian. There is also still one, major obstacle to tolerance, reminiscent of the experience of African Americans in the United States: France’s Arab-Muslim community, which makes up around 10% of the population, is far from accepted as totally French. Many of those who claim to be “native French” expect this community to “integrate,” which is shorthand for abandoning their identities. In France, we have still failed to realize that diversity is an essential component of our civilization. And while many continue to think so, our ancestors are no longer the Gauls.

Editorial published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.