In 1939, French North Africa was composed of three colonies: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Arab and Berber Muslims made up by far the largest part of the population in all three colonies, joined by large numbers of settlers from France and other southern European countries, particularly in Algeria. Jews made up the smallest percentage of the population of all three.
Algeria was technically part of the French state, while Tunisia and Morocco were French protectorates. Algeria and Tunisia had been regencies under the rule of the Ottoman Empire since the sixteenth century until becoming French colonies during the nineteenth century. French troops invaded Algeria in 1830 and over the next thirty years established their power over the territory, turning it into a colony of settlement. At the outbreak of World War II, the Algerian population numbered around 7,235,000, of which the vast majority, over 6,000,000, were Arabs and Berbers.
Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881. Unlike Algeria, which was directly governed by France, Tunisia retained its nominal sovereignty but gained a French resident-general and a French military presence. The ruling bey's power was restricted to the domestic sphere. In 1936, Tunisia's population numbered 2,600,000, of whom 2,336,000 were Tunisian Berber and Arab Muslims, the rest being Jews or settlers of European descent.
Morocco never came under Ottoman rule, but remained under the Sherifian sultanate, except for areas in the north under Spanish rule. In 1912, the Treaty of Fez made most of Morocco a French protectorate. The Sherifian monarchy remained in place, while French military presence was established and a French Commissioner-General took charge of domestic security and all non-Moroccan nationals. During the time period in question, Morocco's population approached 7,000,000. Of these, almost 6,000,000 were Berber and Arab Muslims, while the rest were Jews or Europeans.
At the outbreak of World War II, about 400,000 Jews lived in French North Africa, only about 3% of the region's population. Most North African Jews had moved from small towns into colonial cities such as Casablanca, Rabat, and Fez in Morocco, Algiers, Oran, Tlemcen, Sidi-Bel-Abbès, and Constantine in Algeria, and Tunis, Sfax, and Sousse in Tunisia, where they constituted a significant percentage of the non-Muslim population.
The vast majority of North African Jews were native to the region; they were the descendents of successive waves of Jewish immigration from around the Mediterranean beginning in ancient times. They included Jewish traders who had arrived with the Phoenicians in the ninth century BCE, converted Berber tribes, and refugees from the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula and around the Mediterranean. In particular, northern Morocco and the western Algerian department of Oran had significant numbers of Spanish and Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, while Tunisia and Algeria were home to Jews with roots in the Italian trading center of Livorno. Indigenous Jews in all three countries also spoke Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Berber, although these languages had been largely overtaken by French by the time period in question. There were also smaller numbers of recent immigrants from Europe.
According to a census carried out by the Vichy government in 1941, Algerian Jews numbered approximately 111,000, with an additional 6,625 foreign Jews. Algerian Jews were French citizens; in 1870 the Crémieux Decree granted them French citizenship en masse. They participated fully in the French educational, political, and social institutions of the colony. Jews in Morocco and Tunisia were colonial subjects, like their Muslim neighbors. Tunisia was home to 68,000 Tunisian Jews, 3,200 Italian Jews, and 16,500 French Jews, as well as 1,660 Jews of other nationalities, particularly British. Morocco had the most populous Jewish presence; its community numbered around 200,000, with almost 180,000 being Moroccan subjects, 12,000 French citizens, and the rest foreigners.
North African Jewry was divided socio-economically. While a wealthy professional class existed, it made up only around 6% of the total Jewish population of the region. The majority of Jewish families in all three colonies were poor; more than half of the employed population made their living as artisans, or as blue collar and salaried workers. The largest occupational groups were employed in commerce, agriculture, and various segments of the textile trade. Nevertheless, by the twentieth century, North African Jews, particularly in Algeria and Tunisia, had been largely assimilated into French society and culture.
A major characteristic of Algerian settler society was its antisemitism. The Algerian Jews' French citizenship, and the political rights which it granted, were seen as dangerous to settlers' vision of Algerian society. In the early twentieth century, antisemitic newspapers flourished in Algeria, and politicians of major cities were elected on antisemitic platforms.
European antisemites in Algeria also tried to incite Muslims to act against the Jews, but without great success. Not surprisingly, this environment proved to be particularly fertile ground for the Nazi-inspired anti-Jewish measures during World War II. European antisemites spread rumors blaming the Jews for the French defeat and calling for pogroms. In September 1940, Jewish shops in Algiers were attacked and plundered, with little reaction from the authorities. Because they had fewer European settlers, French right-wing organizations had less of an impact in Morocco and Tunisia.
In the late 1930s, however, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sought to export antisemitism to the protectorates and to Algeria, aiming antisemitic propaganda at Muslims in French North Africa in an attempt to kindle anti-Jewish sentiment. Newspapers, pamphlets, and radio broadcasts in Arabic and Berber called for pogroms and economic boycotts of Jewish businesses, and promoted pan-Islamism and nationalism among the Arabs and Berbers. Italian consular services in the French colonies spread rumors painting the Moroccan and Tunisian Jews as agents of French domination, and Jews in Palestine as agents of British imperialism. Italian businesses were urged to fire their Jewish employees in Morocco and Tunisia.
All of these measures resulted in reports of increased Muslim anti-Jewish sentiments and violence against Jews and their property.