Since no census based on religion or ethnicity is allowed under French law, demographers must rely on indirect sources and estimates in order to assess the size and distribution of the Jewish population. Results can be quite diverse. Since 1994, according to most polls and investigations, 1% of the French describe themselves as Jewish. Since the global French population (overseas territories included) grew during the same period from 57.6 million to 65.5 million in 2013, the Jewish population may actually have grown by ten percent, from 576,000 to 655,000.
However, many sources point instead to diminishing numbers. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish population has declined to 480,000.
According to the report on religious attitude and affiliation in France released in 1994 by CSA, a polling institute, 1% of the French identified “entirely” with Judaism, an additional 1% identified “strongly,” and an additional 2% identified “somewhat.” These results would have enlarged the sway of Judaism to 4%, over 2 million. (Some 92% of the French said they did not identify “at all” with Judaism.)
CSA has conducted many other polls on religious issues since then, but has never entirely replicated its 1994 methodology. Still, according to its 2003 survey, 2% of French adults aged 18-24 years identified as Jewish, a figure that would tend to confirm that “the audience” of Judaism was then larger than what it is routinely assumed to be. As for the 2013 CSA survey, it provides figures with similar implications: 2% of the French say they are “strongly interested” in Judaism, and an additional 16% say they are “somewhat” interested; whereas 82% are “not interested.”
The pattern set by the recently released Pew Forum report on American Jews may perhaps help researchers assess the real demographics of the French Jews. What the Pew Forum report essentially shows is that many Americans retain a link with Judaism and with Israel even if they are estranged from Jewish congregations and Jewish religion, or are only partially of Jewish descent. The same may be true about French Jews.
From 1994 to 2013, a solid 2% of the French population has expressed a steady commitment to Jewish matters, a number twice as large as the nominal Jewish population. It is likely that the broader 2% — that may amount nowadays to about 1.2 million people — have helped the core 1% to stay or even grow, in spite of death, acculturation, and emigration to Israel and other places. Moreover, the Jewish population writ large seems to be surrounded by ever-growing circles of more or less remote sympathizers, especially among observant Christians.
If indeed the broader Jewish population or “audience” of France, or just a significant fraction of it, is so concerned about its future as to consider leaving the country, Israel may realistically envision a major immigration wave in the coming decade, and should be well-advised to take the necessary steps without delay.