- Uneasy Asylum: France and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, 1933–1942
This is an important book because it provides for the first time a fully documented picture of French attitudes and policies towards Jewish refugees in the approach to World War II and during the early years of the Vichy regime. Professor Caron has skillfully accessed an impressive range of French, American, and British archival sources, including most importantly French government and police files. Since the 1980s Vichy’s complicity in the Final Solution has been extensively investigated. How was it that a country which until 1940 had the reputation of being continental Europe’s leading liberal democracy could send 76,000 Jews to their deaths? The common assumption has been to regard Vichy’s antisemitic legislation as the logical conclusion of increasingly sharp anti-refugee measures in the 1930s. Such measures, it is said, were largely the result of traditional antisemitism.
Reality, as Professor Caron demonstrates, was much more complex. To be sure, as the Dreyfus case confirmed, the Third Republic carried a strong streak of antisemitism. Yet at the same time the Republic projected itself as the heir of the Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789, offering political asylum to all comers. This was not empty rhetoric. Ironically, the very success of the Republic in fulfilling its sense of mission helps to explain the discriminatory measures of the 1930s. In the nineteenth century and through the interwar years successive waves of refugees from all parts of Europe found safety in France. In 1939 France was still the foremost nation of asylum in the world. Why, then, did attitudes change in the 1930s? The achievement of Professor Caron’s sensitive analysis is to show the complex interplay of a number of forces in the 1930s: depression, the resurfacing of traditional antisemitism, xenophobia, official appease ment policies, the role of the native Jewish community, fear of war and Communism, the collapse of 1940.
The crackdown on immigrants and refugees came in two phases. The first phase from 1934 to 1935 was driven largely by the economic fallout of the Depression. Politicians and middle-class groups strove to protect business and industry from what was perceived as excessive competition. The whole immigrant community—not just refugees—was targeted. A largely successful campaign was waged to oust foreigners from the middle-class professions, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a mostly middle-class refugee community to acquire the right to work. Jewish doctors, for example, found it impossible to secure employment in the provinces. Phase two followed in 1938 when the Daladier government’s appeasement policy impacted on the treatment of refugees. They were denounced as spies, warmongers, and fifth columnists. However, and this is one of Professor’s Caron’s major findings, it would be quite wrong to conclude that refugee policy became progressively sharper as the decade advanced. On the contrary, Leon Blum’s Popular Front cabinet of 1936 introduced a more humane [End Page 152] approach, overturning some of the hardline measures of 1934–35. Secondly, Professor Caron argues persuasively that “strong countervailing forces were at work throughout the 1930s that tended to mitigate the severity of many of the anti-refugee initiatives” (p. 5). In particular, Professor Caron highlights the existence of “a significant body of opinion sympathetic to the refugee cause” (p. 9). Were Jewish refugees betrayed by the native community? The main Jewish refugee committee has been accused of denying refugees adequate assistance and of collaborating with the authorities in seeking restrictive immi gration policies. According to Professor Caron, before 1936 these charges were largely justified. While native Jewish opinion was divided in its response to the reception of immigrants a group of hardliners dominated the community’s refugee relief. From 1936, however, moderate spokesmen prevailed, lobbying the administration for more liberal refugee policies.
If there was nothing inexorable about the advent of an antisemitic regime in 1940, how does Professor Caron explain the transition to Vichy? She rejects Gerard Noiriel’s emphasis on structural factors—the view that...