Two very different stories can be told about the Jews in modern France. The first is one of liberation and opportunity. It begins with the granting of full civil rights to French Jews during the revolution of 1789, after centuries in which the small number who had the right to live in the country suffered from enormous legal discrimination. It continues with the opening up of French society to them in the nineteenth century, the community’s rapid growth, and the rise to prominence of Jews such as the sociologist Émile Durkheim, the actor Rachel Félix, the politician Adolphe Crémieux (who served as minister of justice), and the painter Camille Pissarro (before 1900, few Jews elsewhere had such visibility). It concludes with the undeniable success and prosperity of French Jews today. France in 2020 has the third-largest Jewish population in the world after the United States and Israel. French Jews receive higher education degrees at a rate twice that of the general population. They are disproportionately represented at the top of many fields, from business to entertainment to academia to politics. To take just one example, the showrunner, star, and many lead actors in the most successful French television series of recent years, Le bureau des légendes (released in the US as The Bureau), all have Jewish ancestry.
But there is another, darker story. It begins with the survival of anti-Semitism in France in the revolutionary era, exemplified by the emperor Napoleon’s “infamous decree” of 1808 that accused the Jews of usury and again restricted their rights. It moves on to the explosion of anti-Semitic hatred in the late nineteenth century, culminating in the Dreyfus Affair. In that blatant miscarriage of justice, French courts twice convicted an innocent Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, of treason, and although he was eventually exonerated, a tsunami of anti-Jewish invective, accompanied by widespread violence, swept across the country. The story reaches its nadir in World War II, when the Vichy government persecuted Jews on its own initiative and willingly collaborated with the Nazis to send more than 77,000 to their deaths. And it persists today with widespread anti-Semitic violence, including terrorist attacks committed by radicalized French Muslims.
Both these stories, of course, are true. The history of modern French Jewry is fraught and paradoxical, at once inspiring and dispiriting. No other Jewish community in the world today is simultaneously so successful and so fragile. In a poll, taken last year, 55 percent of French Jews said they have considered emigrating, and 29 percent think that “Jews should leave France now.”
In recent years, few if any scholars have done more to explore the contradictions of modern French Jewish history than Maurice Samuels. A professor of French at Yale and founding director of the university’s Program for the Study of Antisemitism, he is particularly known for The Right to Difference: French Universalism and the Jews (2016). Today, many French politicians and intellectuals argue that civic equality and cohesion require the denial of public recognition to any form of ethnic and religious difference, an idea they trace back to what they call the “universalism” of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Samuels, using a series of mostly literary and artistic case studies, deftly showed that French Jews in the past found ways to maintain a distinct communal identity without threatening either universal values or civic cohesion. (The demonstration had implications not just for French Jews today, but also for French Muslims.) The Right to Difference also offered a sprightly and entertaining introduction to modern French Jewish history in general.
In his new book, The Betrayal of the Duchess, Samuels argues that the rise of a distinctly modern French anti-Semitism took place earlier than generally thought and can be dated with strange precision to November 6, 1832. On that day, Simon Deutz, the son of the chief rabbi of France, betrayed to the French authorities Princess Marie-Caroline, the Duchesse de Berry, who was leading a rebellion on behalf of her son, the “legitimist” (Bourbon) claimant to the throne. Although Deutz had converted to Catholicism, the duchess’s ultra-right supporters vilified him in grossly anti-Semitic terms. This abuse, Samuels argues, differed markedly from older forms of Jew-hatred and set a pattern that has endured down to the present.
Samuels sets this argument within a suspenseful, entertaining narrative that provides vivid portraits of its two subjects. The duchess was born into the royal family of Naples, a descendant of both Bourbons and Habsburgs. In 1816, at age seventeen, she came to France to marry the Duc de Berry, the nephew of the Bourbon king Louis XVIII (the brother of Louis XVI, he had reclaimed the throne after the fall of Napoleon). A tiny woman with bad teeth and strabismus, she initially devoted herself to the pleasures of Paris. But in 1820 her husband was stabbed by a radical assassin in front of the Opera and died in her arms. The murder seemingly put an end to the Bourbon dynasty, since neither the king nor his brother Charles, the Duc de Berry’s father, had surviving male descendants (under France’s Salic Law, only men could inherit the throne). But seven months later the duchess triumphantly gave birth to a son: Henri, the so-called miracle child.
The dynastic succession, however, was anything but assured. The duchess’s father-in-law, Charles, succeeded Louis as king in 1824, but quickly alienated much of the country with his reactionary policies, which led to the July Revolution of 1830. When liberal revolutionaries took control of Paris, Charles tried to abdicate in favor of his young grandson, but instead his cousin Louis-Philippe, from the Orléans branch of the family, became king, promising to unite the grievously divided country under a centrist, moderate regime. The Bourbons departed for a moldy exile in England, but the duchess refused to abandon her son’s claim to the throne. In 1832, with Louis-Philippe’s regime looking shaky after a cholera epidemic and an abortive left-wing uprising (the one made famous by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables), she slipped into France to lead a legitimist revolt.
Simon Deutz’s German-born father, Emmanuel, became chief rabbi of France in 1810. Simon, born in 1802, grew into a troubled and unruly young man who could not complete his studies or settle upon a profession, although he could show considerable charm. In 1827, following the example of a brother-in-law, he became a Catholic. He may well have done so as a result of a genuine spiritual crisis, but he also hoped the church would give a large material reward to so high-profile a convert. In the event, he squandered the opportunity and continued to drift from one failure to the next, including an unlikely attempt to start a high-end Catholic bookstore in New York City. Back in Europe, he traded on his celebrity among Catholics to wangle an introduction to aristocratic legitimists. Through them, in early 1832 he met the duchess, gained her trust, and even carried messages from her to the king of Portugal, who she hoped would support her son’s claim to the throne.
On April 30, 1832, the duchess landed in southern France to take the leadership of the legitimists. But her rebellion was a fiasco from the start. Unable to gain support in the south, she disguised herself as a peasant boy and made her way to the western region of the Vendée, whose legitimist sympathies dated back to the French Revolution, when the government had suppressed a royalist uprising there with huge loss of life. But even with the help of local nobles, this new Joan of Arc could not get more than a few hundred armed men into the field at any one time, and the national army and police quickly suppressed what Samuels, with some exaggeration, calls a “civil war.” In early June, the duchess went into hiding in the nearby Breton city of Nantes.
In the summer of 1832, as the police scoured Nantes for any sign of her, Deutz made contact with leading figures in Louis-Philippe’s government. He told them he had the duchess’s trust and would locate her for the authorities. He insisted that his motivation was pure: to save France from violent turmoil. But he also wanted payment for his services, and eventually settled on the considerable figure of 500,000 francs. He traveled to Nantes, sought out legitimists there, and told them he had confidential messages for the duchess. In late October he was taken to her hiding place in the rue Haute-du-Château, though he could not identify the building afterward. But on November 6 he went to see her again, bringing from supporters letters written in invisible ink, one of which warned that the duchess had a traitor in her entourage. This time the police were close behind him.
There followed a dramatic scene to which Samuels does full justice. As the police and soldiers burst into the house, the duchess and three followers squeezed into a secret hiding place built during the Revolution. While the authorities ransacked every room, the fugitives remained hidden for many hours, using a hat as a chamber pot. But the compartment stood next to a fireplace, and during the night, cold and frustrated soldiers built a fire to stay warm. The fugitives began to choke and their clothes began to smolder, forcing them to pour out the contents of the hat in a desperate attempt to extinguish rising flames. Finally they had no choice but to stumble out into captivity.
This pathetic scene brought an end to the legitimist rebellion, and to the hopes of the Bourbons more generally. The duchess’s reputation as a romantic heroine soared, even among nonroyalists, only to fall precipitously when it became clear that, twelve years after her husband’s death, she was pregnant, most likely by a handsome young supporter who had been in hiding with her. The pregnancy gave Louis-Philippe’s government an excuse to expel her from the country rather than put her on trial. A quick marriage (helpfully backdated by the Vatican) to an impecunious Italian prince named Ettore Lucchesi-Palli rescued her from complete disgrace.
To her legitimist supporters she remained, as Samuels puts it, “a saint.” Her rushed second marriage turned out to be surprisingly happy, and she lived for nearly forty more years in exile. Even as another revolution in 1848 was followed by the rise and fall of another Napoleon (Napoleon III), she defended her son’s right to the throne. In the 1870s Henri finally had his chance when conservative republicans offered it to him in yet another attempt to establish a centrist regime that could reconcile France’s bitterly hostile political factions. But the project foundered when the “miracle child,” who had grown into a stiff-necked and neurasthenic curmudgeon, refused to make the necessary compromises, including acceptance of the revolutionary tricolor as the national flag. So France resisted the lure of a new restoration and remains a republic to this day, albeit, since Charles de Gaulle, one with a very monarchical presidency.
Deutz, meanwhile, collected his reward, but also earned instant infamy. Newspapers—and not just ultra-right ones—attacked him as a new Judas Iscariot. They quickly ceased even to acknowledge his conversion and referred to him simply as an “odious Jew.” A hostile engraving gave him such dark skin and thick lips that he appeared part Jewish, part African—two stereotypes converging in a single image.
While the French Jewish community tried to disassociate itself from him, Deutz, spurned by his former Catholic sponsors for his treachery, reconverted to Judaism. He spent several years in London and tried to salvage his reputation by writing a pamphlet entitled The Arrest of Madame. At once pompous and self-pitying, it backfired spectacularly, reigniting ferocious criticism from across the political spectrum. Victor Hugo, despite having largely left behind his own youthful ultra-royalism, wrote a poem that denounced Deutz and called Jews “impure merchants to whom one sells one’s soul.” Deutz eventually fled Europe for New Orleans, and in 1846 his family received word that he had died there. But Samuels finds no convincing evidence for his death in the city’s records, and concludes that quite possibly “Simon Deutz did not so much die as vanish in the New World, blending into the great American melting pot and taking his secrets with him.”
Samuels is hardly the first scholar to tell the story of the duchess’s betrayal. It has had a minor place in most standard histories of the period, and a larger one in the pious accounts written by those diehards who have longed for a return of a king to France (today a tiny band indeed, and divided in their loyalties between Bourbon and Orléanist pretenders). But Samuels has stripped away the pious propaganda, uncovered many new details, and told the story in a gripping fashion that also brings out its absurdities and moments of dark comedy (the duchess and Deutz were both bumbling and incompetent conspirators). Samuels has also shifted the focus from the duchess to Deutz and made an ambitious argument. “The betrayal of the duchesse de Berry,” he writes,
marks…the moment at which modern stereotypes of the Jew crystallized in the popular imagination. Simon Deutz represents a bridge between old and new forms of antisemitism. He is the missing link between Judas and Dreyfus.
Samuels means two things here. First, gentiles started seeing Jews as racially as well as religiously distinct. Second, and more broadly, Samuels borrows the Israeli historian Shulamit Volkov’s contention that by the time of Dreyfus, Jews in Europe had become a symbol of everything conservatives hated about modernity: “capitalism, liberalism, parliamentary democracy, cosmopolitanism.” It was in the affair of the duchess, Samuels writes, that this “cultural code of antisemitism really coalesced in France.”
The argument is an intriguing one, and eminently plausible. To be sure, racial anti-Semitism did not suddenly arise in the early nineteenth century. Centuries before, as Samuels acknowledges, church and state in Spain distinguished the suspect descendants of converted Jews and Muslims from other Christians by what they termed “purity of blood.” Nor have more recent anti-Semites always seen Jews as symbols of a frightening, atomized, rootless modernity. Sometimes, as Samuels knows well, they have seen them as exactly the opposite. A long tradition of left-wing anti-Semitism in France has blamed Jews for holding on to a primitive, archaic, and irrational communal identity in defiance of the Enlightenment’s universal modern values. And the historian David Nirenberg in Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2013) has identified deep continuities between modern forms of what he calls “anti-Judaism” and ancient doctrines that associate Jews with carnality and sin.
Still, the anti-Semitism that pervades the darker side of modern French Jewish history has correlated particularly strongly with a fear and suspicion of liberal, capitalist, secular modern ways. It is not surprising that it took off so strongly in the 1880s, the decade that brought the consolidation of France’s militantly secular Third Republic. In the fin de siècle, the ideological descendants of the Duchesse de Berry conjured up a vision of an ethnically pure country, its population bound to the soil, loyal to ancient national traditions and an even more ancient Christian faith, organized into an organic, natural social hierarchy. It was a fantasy that served as a vivid counterpoint to the reality of an increasingly mobile, secular, industrializing, cosmopolitan, immigrant-friendly, and imperial republic, whose (male) citizens were at least theoretically equal before the law. And what better symbol of this Republic than the Jews: allegedly rootless, cosmopolitan, excelling in commerce, and loyal to the revolutionary tradition that had emancipated them a century before? As early as 1886, the journalist Édouard Drumont wove these poisoned threads together into a toxic two-volume compendium entitled La France juive (Jewish France). It became one of the greatest best sellers in French history, enriched the Flammarion publishing house (still in business), and deeply influenced Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
It is no coincidence, as Samuels notes, that in this book Drumont gave considerable space to Simon Deutz—“the oily, viscous, creeping, thick-lipped Jew”—and his betrayal of that “knightly, intrepid Aryan,” the Duchesse de Berry. For Drumont’s readers, the story provided a perfect illustration of the dangers that the Jews posed to France. Samuels also notes that as anti-Semitism grew more intense in the 1880s, references to Deutz and his betrayal exploded. Between 1890 and 1910, the decades of the Dreyfus Affair, over 250 articles about the older case appeared in the French press. Another upsurge in attention took place during World War II, when a collaborationist newspaper published an entire special edition devoted to Deutz and his treachery.
The increased importance the case took on after 1880, however, raises questions about its earlier significance. What does it really mean to say that it led modern stereotypes of the Jew to “crystallize”? If Deutz had not betrayed the duchess, would this crystallization not have taken place? It seems unlikely. And if the case was so crucial, why did it take another half-century for it to acquire its full dimensions in the French anti-Semitic imagination? Samuels doesn’t address these questions sufficiently. He devotes the first 272 pages of the book to the life stories of the duchess and Deutz, and to the dramatic circumstances of her capture. Only in the last fifty-one pages does he undertake a systematic analysis of the case’s place in the larger histories of French Jewry and French anti-Semitism. It’s not quite enough to substantiate his ambitious thesis or to prove that this was, to quote the book’s subtitle, “the scandal that…made France modern.” (The entire subtitle represents the sort of overkill publishers so often succumb to these days—how could the betrayal of the duchess have “unmade the Bourbon monarchy” when that monarchy had fallen two years earlier?)
At the time these events actually occurred, they arguably fed more easily into older patterns of religious anti-Semitism than into the newer racial ones that would soon become dominant. As Samuels notes, legitimist descriptions of Deutz in the 1830s universally compared him to Judas Iscariot. The Romantic writer Chateaubriand, in a pamphlet dedicated to the duchess, saw Satan himself at work in the case, while casting the duchess’s hiding place as a “Gehenna.” This religious framing was overt and explicit. As for the equation of Jews with capitalist, liberal modernity, the seeds of the idea may have been there in 1832, but it would take later writers to spell it out and transform it into anti-Semitic dogma.
Just as important, we need to consider Deutz’s success in worming his way into the duchess’s confidence. It is very much to be doubted that Marie-Caroline’s ideological successors a half-century later would so easily have accepted a converted Jew as a genuine Christian. A half-century after that, the Nazis were sending Christian descendants of converted Jews to the gas chambers. Race had become the basis of identity. But for the duchess in 1832, Deutz’s baptism really did wash him clean of his Jewish origins. It could of course be argued that Deutz’s betrayal itself led French anti-Semites to believe in race above all else—to believe that conversion could not overcome biology. The hostile descriptions of Deutz from the 1830s already emphasized his Semitic features, and at least one spoke of his “apparent” conversion.
But did these anti-Semites consider Deutz’s conversion to be essentially impossible, or simply insincere? Samuels’s brief analysis does not provide a clear answer. The book puts considerable stress on the Victor Hugo poem, which brings together “all of the elements of this emerging right-wing antisemitism.” But the poem, after first calling Deutz a Jew, corrects itself: “He is not even a Jew! He is a disgusting pagan,/A renegade…/A putrid apostate.” A Jewishness that can be renounced is not a racial identity. If, in the history of anti-Semitism, Simon Deutz represents the “missing link between Judas and Dreyfus,” he came closer to the first than to the second.
Even so, Samuels is right to insist on the importance of the case to the history of French Jewry. The year 1832 lay a little less than halfway between the end of France’s Old Regime, with its official discrimination against Jews, and the Dreyfus Affair, with its anti-Semitic furies. It was a period in which the French Jewish community grew rapidly and prospered. But even in this relatively quiescent time, an incident like Deutz’s betrayal of the duchess could, in an instant, set off an outpouring of anti-Semitic vitriol and provide material out of which writers would renew old, noxious myths and forge new, even more noxious ones.
Myths of this sort have real, lasting power. Even when they seem to have vanished almost entirely, an apparently random incident can reawaken them with frightening force. Samuels’s book shows brilliantly that both the stories we can tell about the history of French Jews—the sunny, optimistic one and the dark, tragic one—have followed erratic, often unpredictable courses. A community that thought itself established and prosperous at one moment could suddenly find itself thrown back into terrible fragility and danger. Will this element of the French Jewish past repeat itself?