Rice scholar explores the roots and impact of 1930s and ’40s French prejudice in new book

Julie Fette, an associate professor in the Department of French Studies and a scholar of modern France, dug deep into French archives to uncover the roots and impact of prejudice in 1930s and ’40s France.

Her archival work is the source of a new book, “Exclusions: Practicing Prejudice in French Law and Medicine, 1920-1945,” which provides universal lessons on the all-too-human phenomenon of prejudice and the times when it rears its ugly head.  

Fette said the impetus for the book lies in her interest in “othering,” how groups of people turn different groups of people into “others,” which at its root is based on fear and discrimination. In 1930s France, this dynamic manifested itself in the banning of naturalized citizens from careers in law and medicine for up to 10 years after they had obtained French citizenship. In 1940, the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Axis powers, expelled all lawyers and doctors born of foreign fathers and imposed a 2 percent quota on Jews in both professions. “Doctors and lawyers themselves, despite their claims to embody republican virtues, persuaded the French state to enact this exclusionary legislation,” Fette said.

“For me, the most interesting way to bring an original perspective to our understanding of xenophobia was to look at these two French professions, medicine and law, which were at the time very elite,” Fette explained. “I was interested because there is an assumption that the more educated you are, the more tolerant you are. I found that to be not true in this case.”

Fette said lawyers and doctors had long been influential opinion leaders in French society. “They ran hospitals and courts, doubled as university professors, held posts in parliament and government and administered justice and public health for the nation,” she argued. “Their social and political influence was crucial in spreading xenophobic attitudes and rendering them more socially acceptable in France.”

Fette detects the origins of this professional protectionism in the late 19th century, a time when the French higher-education system opened up to women, the lower classes and foreigners, a development that threatened the status quo. Another key factor was what Fette calls “professional identity formation,” in which established lawyers and doctors sought to resist attempts to make the once-elite and clubby professions of law and medicine more open and meritocratic.

She said she was surprised by the discourse she found in archival records. “Just by digging and digging, there were some documents I came across that were breathtakingly horrible, in particular archives that related to decisions that ultimately led to the deportation of Jews.”  

Although the anti-Semitic laws were annulled at the end of the Second World War, the legislatively imposed delays on the right to practice law and medicine for foreign-born French citizens remained in force until the 1970s, and only in 1997 did French lawyers and doctors formally recognize their complicity in the anti-Semitic policies of the Vichy regime.

Fette said the book is not intended to single out the French, who have a remarkable historical record for tolerance and welcoming others. In fact, France was the first European country to give Jews citizenship during the French Revolution, and France has historically been a world leader in welcoming migrants and refugees. Instead, as a review by Richard Vinen, a professor of modern European history at King’s College of London, points out: “This is a carefully researched and thorough piece of work that will be of interest to all historians of modern France and indeed to historians of all kinds who are interested in xenophobia and anti-Semitism.” Or as Robert Paxton, the Columbia University professor emeritus and a leading American historian specializing in Vichy France, concluded in his review: “This is a fascinating and essential book.”


About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.