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France and the Jews prior to the emancipation of 1791
A series of expulsions and returns
Jews had long been present in France's langue d'oc and langue d'oïl territories, and throughout the country's history they had been both used and persecuted. They were banished in 1306 by Philip the Fair, who confiscated their property. Nine years later, in 1315, Louis X recalled them to France, and accorded them a charter "in answer to the demands of the people." Louis XII them exiled them in 1500, but in 1550 Henry II granted the Jews of Bordeaux the right to trade and to acquire property. In the eighteenth century, the Jews of Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin were forced to remain at night in a separate "Carrière des Juifs" and were heavily burdened with taxes; by 1782, a third of the Jews of Carpentras were poverty-stricken. In Alsace, although the Ashkenazi Jews had their own cemetery at Hegenheim as of 1673, they were subjected to "a secular policy of exclusion and humiliation" (R. Badinter).
The Edict of Tolerance
In 1787, Louis XVI's edict "concerning those did not profess the Catholic Religion" accorded "to his non-Catholic subjects, that which natural law does not allow him to deny," "to register their births, their marriages and their deaths, in order to enjoy, like all of our other subjects, the resulting civil effects." In a country of 25 million inhabitants, there were only 40,000 Jews, half of who lived in Alsace; the hostility that they aroused obliged them to write in their register of grievances, that it was "prohibited to every public figure to use hurtful epithets against the Jews." The Jews had a defender in Mirabeau, who asserted that the country of men "is the place of their birth and their education (…) The diversity of religion does not matter." However, in Strasbourg in 1790, the Society of Friends of the Constitution were led to denounce anti-Semitic tales told to children that "sowed seeds of hate in their hearts, which are fed by education, take root and become indestructible."
Grant everything to Jews as citizens…
The Protestants had been the main beneficiaries of the Edict of Tolerance of 1787, but pastor Rabaut Saint-Étienne continued to ask the Convention "freedom and equality of rights for all of the kingdom's non-Catholics"; he affirmed that the Jewish people "forever wandering, forever forbidden, forever persecuted" would "adopt our manners and ways if, by our laws, they were incorporated with us." The fate of the Jews took up some forty hours of debate in the Constituent Assembly between May 1789 and September 1791. Nearly a dozen deputies joined forces with Clermont-Tonnerre, who proclaimed that France must "grant everything to Jews as citizens" but "refuse them everything as a nation." Abbot Gregoire's concept of cultural unification of the Republic was aimed at Yiddish as much as Basque and Breton, but it was from a point of view of fraternité that the majority of Jews would be brought out of their miserable conditions.