From the beginning, in July 1940, the Vichy government excluded Jews from all public functions, including teaching, and from influential roles in business, publishing, and film; some war veterans were excepted. Vichy policy prohibited foreigners in general from practicing law or medicine and authorized the internment of foreign Jews in camps or in labor battalions. When the Germans began confiscating Jewish property in the Occupied Zone, Vichy chose to participate in this "aryanization" project, hoping to keep major assets out of German hands. The Germans did not require these steps; they initially envisaged Vichy France only as a dumping ground for German Jews. French civil servants applied Vichy's measures vigorously, even in colonies remote from German influence.
Antisemitism always existed in France, with ups and downs and with varied associations. French antisemitism was linked to the anticapitalist left in the 1840s, associated with nationalism and Catholicism in the 1880s, and then sharpened because of immigration and economic depression. It gained broad support during intense debates about the guilt or innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, arrested (wrongfully) for espionage in 1894. During World War I feelings of national unity moderated French antisemitism. It surged to its historic maximum in the 1930s because of the arrival of Jewish refugees, resentments about competition during the Depression, and fear of an alleged Jewish desire for a war of revenge against Hitler. Prominent intellectuals made antisemitism respectable in the Dreyfus era and in the 1930s.
Admiral François Darlan, named prime minister by Pétain in February 1941, faced mounting Nazi pressures concerning Jews. Darlan created the Commissariat général aux questions juives (Commissariat General for Jewish Questions) in April 1941 to intensify anti-Jewish actions, under the antisemitic politician Xavier Vallat. Darlan and Vallat calculated that if Vichy acted strongly against Jews, the Germans would let Vichy take over Jewish matters in the Occupied Zone, enhancing French unity and sovereignty. Vallat closed more professions to Jews, installed quotas in the liberal professions, and extended aryanization to the Unoccupied Zone. The Germans never contemplated ceding any authority to Vichy. The nationalist Vallat quarreled with the Germans and was dismissed, and Darlan was replaced in April 1942.
The Vichy administration, eager to reaffirm state authority after the humiliation of 1940, applied the regime's anti-Jewish measures fully and energetically. French officials treated them as legitimate and cooperated with the Commissariat général aux questions juives. Fewer exemptions were granted than the law allowed. The Commissariat devoted increasing energy to the aryanization of Jewish property. Vichy officially promoted Jewish emigration, but few countries would accept Jews and transportation was scarce. Vichy's bureaucratic complexity further impeded departures. Remaining foreign Jews faced harsh controls. Those with means were assigned to residence in unused resort areas. Those without means were interned in camps or enrolled in labor battalions. The camps, inefficient and corrupt, became notorious for malnutrition, illness, and death.
In the absence of elections, public debate, and a free press, our knowledge of public opinion in Vichy France comes only from prefects' reports and from a service that sampled mail and telephone calls. Most French people in the Unoccupied Zone, preoccupied by their own problems, seemed indifferent to Vichy's anti-Jewish measures. Some applauded. A few disapproved, including some Catholic and Protestant clergy. Public opinion evolved over the course of the war. Antisemitism increased in the Unoccupied Zone in early 1942 as more Jews fled from the Occupied Zone. Before the mass arrests and deportations of the summer of 1942 shocked opinion, Jews were criticized for the supposed excessive numbers of foreigners, black market involvement, and luxurious living.
At German behest, Pierre Laval became Vichy prime minister in April 1942. In May the SS took over police authority from the military. Repression hardened. The Russian front demanded ever more men and supplies. The Germans responded savagely to Resistance assassinations, first executing Communists and Jews and then, starting in March 1942, deporting them. The Final Solution began in June 1942, with Jews required to wear a yellow star. Vichy refused this in the south. Eager to expel foreign refugees, however, and to earn police autonomy in the Occupied Zone, Vichy carried out mass roundups for deportation in both zones. Almost uniquely, Vichy handed over Jews living in an unoccupied area. Mass arrests and children separated from families offended many.
The rabid antisemite Louis Darquier de Pellepoix became the commissioner of the Commissariat général aux questions juives, at German insistence, in May 1942. Taking his cues from the occupiers, Darquier urged harsher measures. After some hesitation, in August 1943, Vichy rejected a plan to denaturalize for deportation Jews of recent citizenship. Darquier's Commissariat, now mainly occupied by aryanization, was tainted by corruption. When the Allies landed in North Africa in November 1942, German forces moved south. The SS gained a free hand in formerly unoccupied areas, except for a temporary haven east of the Rhône (Italian zone). In the final months flying SS squads, aided by paid French accomplices, kept arresting Jews, including French citizens. Deportations continued until the Allies approached Paris in August 1944.
Just over 74,000 Jews, about a quarter of them French citizens, were deported from France in 1942–1944. Vichy made their situation worse than it would otherwise have been, first by its own exclusion and discrimination measures in 1940–1942 and then by abetting German deportations. Some French citizens helped rescue Jews, but others denounced hidden Jews or participated in aryanization. Although details about the extermination camps could not be known, the conditions of their departure made the deportees' dire fate clear. About 25% of the Jews of France were deported. Only Denmark (0.1%) and Italy (16%) lost fewer. But because France's situation, with its mixture of constraint and autonomy, was unique in occupied Europe, such comparisons tell us little.