The history of the Holocaust in France's three North African colonies (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) is intrinsically tied to France's fate during this period.
France quickly fell after Germany invaded in May 1940. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned. On June 22, Marshall Henri Philippe Pétain, the popular hero of World War I, signed an armistice with Germany. The terms of the agreement divided France in two unequal parts, with the northern part of the country, including the entire Atlantic coastline, under direct German control. Pétain was granted power over the southern third of metropolitan France and the colonies. Despite the change in regime, the colonial administration, under the control of the French armed forces, remained largely intact.
Antisemitic legislation in Vichy, initiated by the French government, was inspired by that of Nazi Germany. A General Commission on Jewish Questions was created in 1941 under the leadership of Xavier Vallat to carry out and enforce the regime's anti-Jewish laws.
The first anti-Jewish law (Jewish Statute) was passed on October 3, 1940. It defined Jews residing on the French mainland (known as the “metropole” or “metropolitan France”) and in Algeria by race, based on the religion of their grandparents. In Algeria as in metropolitan France, Jews were forbidden to exercise any public functions: they could no longer work for the government, teach except in Jewish schools, serve in or work for the military, or even be employed by businesses with public contracts. Moreover, Jews were not allowed to participate in political activities. There were a few exceptions, mainly for Jewish war veterans.
In contrast, Jews in Tunisia and Morocco were defined by their membership in a religious community. This distinction offered Jewish community institutions greater autonomy, mitigated somewhat the impact of anti-Jewish laws, and permitted Jews to continue to hold positions within their communities.
The first Jewish Statute was quickly followed by an event that had a major impact on the Algerian Jews. On October 7, 1940, the French government abolished the Crémieux Decree, revoking the Algerian Jews' French citizenship and offering no way to regain it. Since France's occupation of Algeria in 1830, small numbers of Algerian Jews had migrated to France. By 1939, small communities of North African Jews lived in Paris, Marseille, and Lyon. The abolition of the Crémieux Decree also rescinded their citizenship, although other mainland French Jews remained French citizens because the Crémieux Decree did not apply to them. Although the Jews living in Algeria and the protectorates would avoid deportation to the Nazi concentration camps, North African Jews living in the metropole were among France's Holocaust victims.
A subsequent Jewish Statute on June 2, 1941, widened the scope of the earlier anti-Jewish law. In an attempt to further exclude Jews in the colonies from economic and professional life, the Vichy authorities barred Jews from engaging in any occupations dealing with finance. This included not only banking and the stock market, but also gambling, granting loans and credit, and trading in grain, livestock, artwork, and lumber. Jews were not allowed to own, direct, or manage businesses, and were dismissed from jobs in the media.
In the professional fields, quotas (numerus clausus) limited the number of Jewish lawyers, doctors, dentists, midwives, notaries, and architects to only 2% of the total number licensed in such professions. Jewish teachers had already been barred from teaching at all but Jewish schools; this legislation excluded Jewish students in Algeria from state schools and universities altogether. In response, the Jewish community of Algeria established its own centralized private education system of 70 primary schools and 5 secondary schools. These schools had Jewish instructors, were run by the local Jewish religious administrations (known as Consistories) of Algiers, Oran, and Constantine, and were regulated by the Vichy administration. Vichy authorities quickly moved to prevent the creation of a university for Jewish students.
Given Algeria's significant Jewish professional class and high rates of assimilated Jews, these restrictions had the greatest impact on Algerian Jews. In Morocco and Tunisia, the numerus clausus restrictions primarily affected Jewish professionals such as doctors and lawyers; most Jewish students attended the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle and few attended university, and thus were not directly affected by the legislation. However, in Morocco, local business and manufacturing associations and labor unions could strengthen the adverse economic implications of the anti-Jewish statutes. Eager to eliminate Jewish competition, these organizations moved to expel Jewish members and fire Jewish employees. Overall, the Jews in the protectorates were less assimilated, and the restrictions on occupations, business, and education affected them less than the Jews in Algeria.
The Vichy regime also sought to “Aryanize” all Jewish property. In July 1941, a law mandated the confiscation of all Jewish property except for personal residences. Vichy authorities awarded Jewish-owned businesses to “trustees” who were allowed to pay themselves from the profits of the business. Although the trustees were supposed to sell the enterprises under their control to suitable European settlers, they often postponed this step in order to take more money out of the business. (Because of this greed, many of the businesses were not sold by the time the Allies landed in North Africa, and would eventually be returned to their original owners.) Vichy officials handled the “Aryanization” campaign differently in each colony. As in other areas, enforcement in Algeria was most systematic under a newly established Office of Economic Aryanization.
In Tunisia, sympathetic French and Muslim officials—in particular the resident-general Admiral Jean-Pierre Estéva, the Tunisian ruler Ahmed Pasha Bey and his successor, Moncef Bey—and entreaties from the Jewish community postponed evictions and “Aryanization.” Furthermore, Italian officials in Tunisia opposed the application of Vichy racial laws to the 5,000 Jews with Italian citizenship, further weakening the force of the “Aryanization” measures. In Morocco, Jews who had moved into European urban neighborhoods were forced to move back to the traditional Jewish quarters, known as the mellah.
In March 1942, Vallat created the Union Générale des Israélites d'Algérie (General Union of Algerian Jews) to monitor Jewish community institutions. This organization, similar to a Jewish Council in that the Vichy authorities forced prominent members of the Jewish community to serve, had minimal impact. Its members were appointed only in September 1942, shortly before the Allied landings in North Africa. Such an institution was not necessary in Morocco and Tunisia, since Jewish community institutions were already under the supervision of the colonial authorities before the war.