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Henriette Caillaux

Henriette Caillaux


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Henriette Raynouard was born at Rueil-Malmaison in Paris on 5th December 1874. When she was a teenager she began a friendship with Léo Claretie, a writer who was twelve years older than her. They were married in 1893 and over the next few years she had two children. She later recalled: "I was raised like all the other young girls of my time… I never left my parents until the day of my marriage... bad feelings unexpectedly arose... our characters did not complement one another; on several occasions, I was at the point of breaking off the union, but I had two children, two girls, and for them I waited."

In 1907 Henriette began having an affair with Joseph Caillaux, who was Minister of Finance in the French government. In 1908, Henriette divorced her husband, Léo Claretie but Caillaux remained married to his wife. On 27th June, 1911 Caillaux became prime minister. While holding this position he upset a large number of people in France by making territorial concessions to the German colony of Cameroon. Caillaux, who was attempting to prevent a war over Morocco. Caillaux favored a policy of conciliation with Germany and this created a great deal of controversy. He also caused a scandal when he divorced his wife and he married Henriette in October 1911. Caillaux and his ministers were forced to resign on 11th January, 1912, after it was revealed that he had secretly negotiated with Germany without the knowledge of the President.

Caillaux was accused of being a pacifist in 1913 when he opposed an extension to conscription. This resulting in a press campaign against Caillaux. It was later claimed that two of Callaux's political rivals, Louis Barthou and Raymond Poincare, organised this attack. It was rumoured that Gaston Calmette, the editor of Le Figaro, had obtained some love letters sent by Henriette to Caillaux, when he was still married to his first wife, and intended to publish them in his newspaper.

On 13th March 1914, Calmette published an intimate letter Joseph Caillaux had written thirteen years earlier to Berthe Gueydan, the mistress who later became his first wife. Henriette became convinced that he would now publish her letters to Caillaux. Three days later Henriette went to visit Calmette in his office in Paris. She asked, "You know why I have come?" Calmette replied: "Not at all, Madame". As Edward Berenson, the author of The Trial of Madame Caillaux (1992) has pointed out: "Without another word, Henriette pulled her right hand from the mass of fur protecting it. In her fist was a small weapon, a Browning automatic. Six shots went off in rapid succession, and Calmette fell to the floor clutching his abdomen." Calmette died six hours later.

Henriette Caillaux's trial took place in July 1914. It was claimed that reporters had paid as much as $200 for their seats in the court-room. Journalists who covered the case included Walter Duranty, Wythe Williams and Alexander Woollcott. Henriette was defended in court by Fernand Labori who had previously defended Emile Zola and Alfred Dreyfus.

According to Herbert Mitgang of the New York Times: "Henriette Caillaux's testimony shifted back and forth between literary and scientific images. It was intended to make her appear a heroine of uncontrollable emotions to the jury, and a victim of deterministic laws to the experts. Literature made a woman of ungovernable passions sympathetic, even attractive; criminal psychology placed her beyond the law. After a seven-day trial in the Cour d'Assises in Paris, Henriette Caillaux walked out free. In less than an hour of deliberations, the all-male jury decided the homicide was committed without premeditation or criminal intent. The jurors accepted her testimony that when she pulled the trigger, she was a temporary victim of (as her lawyer put it) unbridled female passions."

Joseph Caillaux now returned to politics and led the opposition against France's involvement in the First World War. Caillaux worked hard to achieve a negotiated peace. In November 1917 George Clemenceau became prime minister. He immediately clamped down on dissent and Caillaux and Louis Malvy, another senior politician opposed to the war, were both arrested for treason. Caillaux was eventually tried in 1920. Although acquitted on the treason charge he was convicted of corresponding with Germany during the war and banished from France and deprived of his civil rights for ten years.

Henriette Caillaux became a student at the École du Louvre and completed a thesis on the sculptor Jules Dalou. She published a book on Dalou in 1935.

Henriette Caillaux died on 29th January 1943.

On 16 March 1914 at 6 o'clock in the evening Henriette Caillaux was ushered into the office of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro.... Mme. Caillaux wore a fur coat over a gown strangely formal for a late afternoon business call. Her hat was modest, and a large furry muff linked the two sleeves of her coat. Henriette's hands were hidden inside the muff.

Before Calmette could speak she asked, "You know why I have come?" "Not at all, Madame," responded the editor, charming to the end. Without another word, Henriette pulled her right hand from the mass of fur protecting it. Six shots went off in rapid succession, and Calmette fell to the floor clutching his abdomen. Figaro workers from the surrounding offices rushed in and seized Mme. Caillaux... "Do not touch me," she ordered her captors. "Je suis une dame!".

Here was no case that might have required the sleuthing services of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Maigret. The society woman held a smoking gun in her hand and never denied that she had committed the deed. It was a murder in cold blood, punishable under French law by life imprisonment or even death.

Henriette Caillaux shot the editor because he had conducted a campaign of vilification against her husband, Joseph, a wealthy former prime minister affiliated with the center-left Radical Party. Or was her motive more a familiar affair of the heart? She had been one of Joseph Caillaux's mistresses; it was a second marriage for both. The Figaro editor, a rightist political enemy, had broken an unwritten Parisian rule by publishing a love letter written to a gentleman's mistress. Joseph Caillaux, a notorious boulevardier, had sent the letter 13 years before the trial to another woman, who later became his first wife, and it had been leaked to Figaro.

Political and social mores, the Napoleonic Code that discriminated against women legally and the venality of the press all came together in the affaire Caillaux.

Her celebrated lawyer, Fernand Labori, had represented Emile Zola and successfully defended Capt. Alfred Dreyfus against false charges of treason in the notorious, anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair. In her clever defense on the witness stand, Henriette Caillaux made two points. She evoked the romantic and idealized notion that women were ruled by their passions; hers was simply a "crime passionnel." She also used new scientific language that stressed the nervous system and the unconscious mind.

Henriette Caillaux's testimony shifted back and forth between literary and scientific images. Literature made a woman of ungovernable passions sympathetic, even attractive; criminal psychology placed her beyond the law.

After a seven-day trial in the Cour d'Assises in Paris, Henriette Caillaux walked out free. The jurors accepted her testimony that when she pulled the trigger, she was a temporary victim of (as her lawyer put it) "unbridled female passions."

By digging deeply into the transcripts of the case and newspaper files, Mr. Berenson, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, has unearthed and reconstructed a highly readable story that touches upon many aspects of life during the so-called Belle Epoque in France.

Under one infamous article of the 1804 Napoleonic Code, "The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband." The author emphasizes that French attitudes toward women were an important part of the trial and its coverage in the press. Describing the newspaper illustrations, Professor Berenson writes, "Mme. Caillaux stands out starkly as a lone woman speaking to a sea of mustachioed male faces, as a woman subject to their gaze, open to their scrutiny."

Going beyond the trial itself -- and giving his book a modern feminist twist -- Professor Berenson notes that during the Belle Epoque men claimed the existence of natural and hierarchical differences between the sexes. After France's defeat by Prussia in 1870, some commentators attributed a decline in French power to moral decay and to changing relations between the sexes. The author says these commentators attributed France's weaknesses to the emancipation of women, the legalization of divorce and the emasculation of men.

What distinguishes "The Trial of Mme. Caillaux" is its portrait of society before the guns of August 1914 destroyed the illusions of the Belle Epoque. In an epilogue, Professor Berenson writes that World War I gave women important responsibilities on the home front and greater recognition. Even so, it took a second World War before French women won the right to vote.


Sex and high society. the decline and fall of Paris's elite

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Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings depicted the Paris in which Henriette Caillaux made front-page news [ALAMY]

As the French so appropriately say: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose." ("The more things change, the more they stay the same.")

Paris is currently agog over the affair between President Francois Hollande and the actress Julie Gayet "Paree" a century ago, in spring 1914, was equally transfixed by a scandal involving a leading politician.

Whereas Hollande's peccadillo is likely only to lower his already abyss-scraping ratings, the shooting of the editor of Le Figaro by Henriette Caillaux possibly altered the course of history.

Madame Caillaux was the wife of the Finance Minister, Joseph.

The "affaire Caillaux" prevented Monsieur Caillaux from becoming prime minister it also gave the Germans the distinct impression that France was fractious, frivolous and so morally corrupt that she was unlikely to put up much of a fight if attacked.

The Caillaux scandal, it might be said, positively encouraged the war lobby in Deutschland, which looked for weakness in rival nations like a shark sniffs for blood.

Of the tens of millions of bullets fired in 1914, few were quite so melodramatically delivered as the six from Henriette Caillaux's Browning automatic pistol.

She had taken a taxi to Le Figaro's HQ in Rue Druot on March 16, and after waiting an hour to see Gaston Calmette, the editor, she walked into his office, coolly extracted the Browning and fired away.

Four of the bullets hit Calmette. He died that evening.

Le Figaro was a conservative newspaper, implacably opposed to the radical, pacifist politics of Henriette's husband.

More to Henriette's concern, Le Figaro was about to publish intimate letters she had written to Joseph Caillaux when she was married to someone else.

Even by Gallic standards the letters were embarrassingly indiscreet.

The boulevards at night with their electric lights and brilliant illuminations, suggest a city of pleasure, always en-fête. the seductive capital, which no one quits without regret

Baedeker's 1910 travel guide

Henriette made no attempt to flee and a sensational trial took place, which utterly distracted France from the mushrooming crisis in the Balkans following the murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

To the French Right, as well as to Germany, the Caillaux scandal seemed to be an inevitable consequence of France's national pastime: the pursuit of pleasure.

Had not the Caillaux pair, after all, put plaisir before propriety in their adulterous liaisons?

To the moralists and the Prussians, nowhere in France was more guilty of hedonism than Paris.

On the eve of the Great War the French capital was at the zenith of that gilded age we now call La Belle Epoque.

Paris was the citélumiere, whose bright lights beckoned everyone wanting a good time.

Baedeker's 1910 travel guide remarked of the city: "The boulevards at night with their electric lights and brilliant illuminations, suggest a city of pleasure, always en-fête. the seductive capital, which no one quits without regret."

Ooh, la, la. There were so many sins to be satisfied in Paris. No establishment cooked food better than The Ritz on the Place Vend´me, where celebrated chef Auguste Escoffier ruled the kitchens.

Parisian sybaritic invention also extended to cabaret, seen at its raunchiest at the Moulin Rouge, home of the frilly "can-can" dance.

The nightclub's excitements were depicted for perpetuity in the art of the "bohemian" painter Toulouse-Lautrec.

Shopping? On the Boulevard Haussmann, Galéries Lafayette had constructed a flagship department store, where hosts of assistants, the midinettes, sold the latest couture to awed crowds.

Paris was the pleasuredome of the world. The American novelist Henry James amusingly wrote of the city's gravitational pull in his novel The Ambassadors, in which Lambert Strether of Massachusetts is dispatched to the city on the Seine to rescue young Chad Newsome from lax living.

Strether too falls in love: with Paris.

The German kaiser lacked James's subtlety. With characteristic delicacy, Wilhelm II called Paris "the whorehouse of the world".

Mind you, the French penchant for lotus-eating was enfeebling the nation.

France's desperately low birth rate had several causes but the willingness of French couples to defer or even abandon having children because "les enfants" would interfere with adult pleasures was large among them.

Joseph Caillaux was a French Finance minister and husband of the murderess, Henriette Caillaux [GETTY]

Contraception was widely available and extensively practised.

A memorandum prepared by the German General Staff triumphantly contrasted the Reich's population growth since 1880 with France's.

Whereas the Reich had grown from 42,000,000 to 62,000,000, France had managed a rise of only 2,000,000 to 39,000,000.

Underpopulated France, the Germans concluded, would "hardly be able to continue a long war".

Due to "birth dearth" France was forced to draft 85 per cent of her young men in order to have an army matching that of her forbidding Teutonic neighbour.

Many of the draftees caught in this wide-cast net were unfit according to the US historian Jack Beatty some conscripts in the Third Republic weighed as little as 80lbs.

To fill out the ranks of its army, France imported soldiers from its overseas colonies.

A cartoon in the Berlin satirical journal Kladderadatsch expressed everything about how Germany thought these black troops would perform as soldiers: They were depicted as apes in French uniform.

France's flat-lining population graph also caused "deficiency of aggregate demand", or lack of domestic consumption in manufactured goods.

The economy of Germany, populous and serious, was growing twice as fast as that of La République.

When Madame Henriette Caillaux went on trial for the murder of Le Figaro's editor, all the weakness of France and the loucheness of Paris was exposed.

Her finance minister husband made a prime exhibit.

Bald, middle-aged, with a squeaky voice, Joseph Caillaux was nonetheless effortlessly attractive to women, all of whom he flamboyantly squired around glittering Paris, haughtily regardless of opinion, utterly careless of his own marital status.

He was also, it was alleged, on the take but then, who wasn't accepting bribes in Paris? Le Figaro received bungs of roubles to promote Russian Tsarist interests.

Witnesses in the trial came from the highest ranks of French life even the president gave evidence.

Caillaux bused in toughs to intimidate critics.

Even the Daily Express installed a reporter in the courtroom.

The Caillaux affair did more than unveil the sexual and financial habits of the French elite, it provoked the sort of Left-Right clash which littered French history going back to the Revolution of 1789, via the anti-Semitic Dreyfus scandal to the Paris Commune and the 1848 uprising.

Paris's glorious boulevards were actually a testament in stone to the fractious nature of the French.

Their generous width was intended to make the erecting of barricades by protesters difficult.

Politics in Belle Epoque France were poisonous.

To French nationalists, the anti-militarist Joseph Caillaux was a "traitor" because he had conducted secret negotiations with Germany in 1911 France had gained control of Morocco but in return given Berlin a slice of the French Congo.

The French Right did not want grants of land to Germany, they wanted the return of Alsace-Lorraine, "The Lost Provinces", which had been annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

Such bitter ideological division led ineluctably to regime churn. From 1909 to 1914 France had 11 governments. The Ritz's revolving doors turned less often.

Fantastically, Madame Caillaux was found not guilty of murder at her trial.

In a classic piece of chauvinism the jury decided that, overcome by "volatile emotions" due to her feminine nature, Henriette had committed a crime of passion. She walked free.

THE CASE is a favourite "counterfactual", or What If, for historians.

Without the shooting of Calmette, Caillaux would probably have been prime minister in July 1914.

Could a pacifist prime minister Caillaux have prevented the Great War? Unlikely.

The military clique around the German emperor was never going to pass over the golden pretext for war offered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

More plausible is a scenario whereby a peace-loving, Germanophile PM in France slowed the rush to war.

Caillaux might have merely changed the timetable to Armageddon.

In the event, France emerged blinking from the Caillaux trial courtroom on July 28, 1914, to find that Austro-Hungary had declared war on Serbia.

At this juncture, the French did not act out the script Germany hoped for, the script France feared.

The citizens of France, far from abandoning la patrie in her hour of need, rallied enthusiastically to her side.

Only one per cent of conscripts failed to turn up at their regimental depots French generals had pessimistically expected that figure to be 15 per cent.

Why did France fight? Well, it was a good life.

France had the highest living standards in Europe. L'amour, le vin, cordon bleu cooking were things worth defending.

In the words of the great French writer André Maurois, the generation of 1914 went to war convinced that their civilisation "was one of the loveliest and happiest in the world".


June 18, 1914, and Ten Days To Go

One hundred years ago today, the world had just 10 days to go before the assassinations that would spark the Great War, World War I.

I’ve tossed around, even blogged about ideas such as daily blogging events of the day 100 years ago today, etc., but I’ve found that without the carrot of a paycheck, it’s sometimes hard to motivate myself to really work on a regular daily blog post or a series of posts.

But I still survey news from 100 years ago each day, using Newspapers.com (pay service) and the Library of Congress’s collection of historic newspapers, which is free for anyone to use. I pin or tweet some of the stranger, funnier things and have posts here about stories that were particularly interesting and begged more research.

What comes home again and again as I read–and I also check out English and various European publications where available–is this was a world unaware. Most books about World War I touch on this right away, how the conflagration that arose from bullets fired into Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, quickly spiraled into a horrific wildfire.

Something about the prosaic nature of the news of 1914 prior to June 28 slams the point solidly home… though I’m sure none of it seemed prosaic at the time.

In London, the ongoing concern was women’s suffrage. English women seeking political franchise in the early 1900s were absolutely badass and took no prisoners in their drive to get the vote. In the first 6 months of 1914 they were regularly bombing, slashing, marching and beating their way into the public eye. On June 18th, English Prime Minister Asquith finally assented to a meeting with a deputation of protesters, in part to avert their leader’s hunger strike.

Just as the world’s eyes are on the World Cup today, American and English papers were paying close attention to the International Polo Cup. The English had just defeated the American team on June 15th, and the rivalry wasn’t all that friendly in print.

An English account of the victory made it sound as if all those polo grounds were missing was vuvuzelas.

The Telegraph also reported on a strange murder case in court in Berlin. Young Brunnhilde Wilden had become involved with two doctors at the same time, and from there, things had gotten weird:

A strange murder trial which involves difficult psychological problems was commenced at Elberfeld recently. The defendant, who is indicted on the actual capital crime, is Brunhilde Wilden, an attractive girl of 21 years, belonging to a substantial Dusseldorf family. By her side in the dock stands a medical practitioner, Dr. Nolten, her fellow-townsman, who is charged with having incited and abetted her.

It was believed Brun(n)hilde had become involved with Dr. Nolten but maintained her relationship with the other doctor, whom she was accused of killing.

Meanwhile, in Russia, someone had attempted to kill the Czar, which wasn’t prosaic at all. The Associated Press reported it thusly:

And in France, the papers and the populace were still consumed, as they would be until Franz-Ferdinand’s assassination on June 28, with the ongoing murder trial of Mme. Henriette Caillaux. Madame Caillaux had murdered newspaper editor Gaston Calmette in March, 1914, and her prosecution was a trial of the century sort of event for France at the time.

So the world was cranking on, as it will do. As it does today. There were skirmishes and battles elsewhere, in the Balkans, in Greece. In the United States, the constant slow boil of conflict with a turbulent Mexico to the south seemed to be sorting itself out… but no one was sure, yet. Depending on the paper and its editorial bent, war with Mexico was either still imminent or the threat was finally on the wane.

There were rumblings and explosions and murmurs and rumors, but no one knew the white-hot burst of fury to come.

I am perhaps too obsessed with the concept of history not precisely repeating, but rhyming. That’s why I’m so drawn to examining events a century ago and sometimes finding parallels. Or, where there are no direct parallels, at least asking the question: are we unwittingly closing in on some kind of flashpoint, as well? It would be too bizarre for it to happen precisely 100 years later no one can believe that and be entirely sane. Yet sometimes I wonder if we’re both living in a world with that potential and if there’s some unexpected place where it will occur.

Interesting as some of the things dominating the news 100 years ago today might have been, there were no portents. The world was humming along in a certain rhythm. There was mayhem, murder and calumny, but no one smelled the blood, mud and gunpowder to come.

If history does rhyme at all, even slant rhyme, this should keep us on our toes today. It might be okay to be a little bit nervous.


Books of The Times A Belle Epoque Killing That Wasn't a Murder

The Trial of Mme. Caillaux By Edward Berenson Illustrated. 296 pages. University of California Press. $25.

This is how Edward Berenson's fascinating "Trial of Mme. Caillaux" -- the unfolding of a crime of passion that captivated all France on the eve of World War I -- begins:

"On 16 March 1914 at 6 oɼlock in the evening Henriette Caillaux was ushered into the office of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro. . . . Mme. Caillaux wore a fur coat over a gown strangely formal for a late afternoon business call. Her hat was modest, and a large furry muff linked the two sleeves of her coat. Henriette's hands were hidden inside the muff.

"Before Calmette could speak she asked, 'You know why I have come?' 'Not at all, Madame,' responded the editor, charming to the end. Without another word, Henriette pulled her right hand from the mass of fur protecting it. In her fist was a small weapon, a Browning automatic. Six shots went off in rapid succession, and Calmette fell to the floor clutching his abdomen. Figaro workers from the surrounding offices rushed in and seized Mme. Caillaux. . . . ɽo not touch me,' she ordered her captors. 'Je suis une dame!' "

Here was no case that might have required the sleuthing services of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Maigret. The society woman held a smoking gun in her hand and never denied that she had committed the deed. It was a murder in cold blood, punishable under French law by life imprisonment or even death.

Henriette Caillaux shot the editor because he had conducted a campaign of vilification against her husband, Joseph, a wealthy former prime minister affiliated with the center-left Radical Party. Or was her motive more a familiar affair of the heart? She had been one of Joseph Caillaux's mistresses it was a second marriage for both. The Figaro editor, a rightist political enemy, had broken an unwritten Parisian rule by publishing a love letter written to a gentleman's mistress. Joseph Caillaux, a notorious boulevardier, had sent the letter 13 years before the trial to another woman, who later became his first wife, and it had been leaked to Figaro.

Political and social mores, the Napoleonic Code that discriminated against women legally and the venality of the press all came together in the affaire Caillaux.

Her celebrated lawyer, Fernand Labori, had represented Emile Zola and successfully defended Capt. Alfred Dreyfus against false charges of treason in the notorious, anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair. In her clever defense on the witness stand, Henriette Caillaux made two points. She evoked the romantic and idealized notion that women were ruled by their passions hers was simply a "crime passionnel." She also used new scientific language that stressed the nervous system and the unconscious mind.

Henriette Caillaux's testimony shifted back and forth between literary and scientific images. It was intended to make her appear a heroine of uncontrollable emotions to the jury, and a victim of deterministic laws to the experts. Literature made a woman of ungovernable passions sympathetic, even attractive criminal psychology placed her beyond the law.

After a seven-day trial in the Cour dɺssises in Paris, Henriette Caillaux walked out free. In less than an hour of deliberations, the all-male jury decided the homicide was committed without premeditation or criminal intent. The jurors accepted her testimony that when she pulled the trigger, she was a temporary victim of (as her lawyer put it) "unbridled female passions."

By digging deeply into the transcripts of the case and newspaper files, Mr. Berenson, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, has unearthed and reconstructed a highly readable story that touches upon many aspects of life during the so-called Belle Epoque in France.

Under one infamous article of the 1804 Napoleonic Code, "The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband." The author emphasizes that French attitudes toward women were an important part of the trial and its coverage in the press. Describing the newspaper illustrations, Professor Berenson writes, "Mme. Caillaux stands out starkly as a lone woman speaking to a sea of mustachioed male faces, as a woman subject to their gaze, open to their scrutiny."

Going beyond the trial itself -- and giving his book a modern feminist twist -- Professor Berenson notes that during the Belle Epoque men claimed the existence of natural and hierarchical differences between the sexes. After France's defeat by Prussia in 1870, some commentators attributed a decline in French power to moral decay and to changing relations between the sexes. The author says these commentators attributed France's weaknesses to the emancipation of women, the legalization of divorce and the emasculation of men.

What distinguishes "The Trial of Mme. Caillaux" is its portrait of society before the guns of August 1914 destroyed the illusions of the Belle Epoque. In an epilogue, Professor Berenson writes that World War I gave women important responsibilities on the home front and greater recognition. Even so, it took a second World War before French women won the right to vote.


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When a Paris Newspaper Pushed a Housewife to Murder

“Don’t touch me. I am a lady,” Henriette Caillaux barked at those trying to restrain her. It was March 16, 1914, and the well-dressed woman had just pumped four bullets into Gaston Calmette, editor of the right-leaning French newspaper Le Figaro. An impassioned Caillaux couldn’t bear the politically scandalous and personally embarrassing details that the journalist had been printing about her husband. So she donned a gown, bought a pistol and headed for Calmette’s office. Bleeding and bewildered, her victim muttered, “I only did my duty,” as he was carted off to the hospital, where he died.

France passed press freedom laws in 1881 that basically lifted all constraints, says Edward Berenson, a history professor at New York University and the author of The Trial of Madame Caillaux. A free press, and scant protection from libel or defamation, meant the gloves flew off when it came to public insults between politicians and journalists. Henriette’s husband, Minister of Finance Joseph Caillaux, a well-to-do Radical Party frontman with a fondness for proletarian causes, inspired plenty of political vitriol from the conservative Le Figaro. A few days before Henriette Caillaux’s murderous act, writes Lisa Appignanesi in Trials of Passion: Crimes Committed in the Name of Love and Madness, “Calmette had daringly crossed a line.”

The ideal of a bourgeois woman was what ladies aspired to.

Keeping in mind that at that time, every French newspaper was read by at least two adults, Le Figaro, on March 13, had splashed across its front page a 13-year-old letter from Joseph Caillaux to his then-married mistress, who would become his wife … until she was cast aside for Henriette. This, writes Appignanesi, violated a “privacy of a sexual nature at a time when sexual matters were confined to the brothel, the bedroom and the confessional.” To top it off, Calmette promised a whole series of sexual revelations, which Henriette reasonably feared would further embarrass her husband and also shame her by revealing her own adultery. What would her circle of high-brow friends say? The case was “startling,” says Berenson, because the newspaper “paraded their private lives, including the extramarital affairs … before the public. That broke a taboo.” It wasn’t illegal, but, until Calmette, it simply hadn’t been done.

Cover of the March 29, 1914, Le Petit Journal depicting the murder of Gaston Calmette by Henriette Caillaux.

To defend their reputation, men would duel, with the first sign of blood — swords were preferred to guns, says Berenson — ending the match. But how could a woman of the Belle Époque restore her honor? A “ ‘real woman’ had now become simply that nervy, emotional, suggestible, virtuous, domestic creature, hysterical by turn and weak of intellect,” writes Appignanesi. So Henriette — as une vraie femme — turned to an impassioned female criminal defense as her rallying cry. A “real woman” was someone who didn’t work, was modest and retiring and didn’t flaunt her sexuality, Berenson explains — commonly held notions that had not yet been challenged by feminism. “There was nothing in France like the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K.,” he says. The ideal of a bourgeois woman was what ladies aspired to. Calmette’s mudslinging “was a real, serious affront” to Henriette, doing “grievous harm” to her social standing, which made her “momentarily lose her mind,” Berenson says.

The “crime of passion” defense was pretty standard in the late 1800s in France, the idea being that perpetrators weren’t responsible for their actions because they’d been consumed by a “momentary fit of passion,” Berenson explains, their “conscious will … overwhelmed by uncontrollable emotions.” Henriette’s lawyer even had a psychiatrist offer an analysis to the court, noting that “two beings and two wills inhabited [her].”

On July 28, Henriette was acquitted. She had gotten away with murder, and the next day’s Le Matin, another national paper, carried a divided front page: half devoted to the Caillaux trial, the other half declaring “Austro-Serb WAR Declared: Europe-wide War May Still Be Averted” — a fitting reflection, perhaps, for the end of an era. Henriette Caillaux’s crime, writes Appignanesi, “was the last to bring together all the Belle Époque’s contradictory understandings of madness, feminine psychology and sexual relations.” War, after all, would soon give Europe far greater concerns than that of an irrational vraie femme.


Shooting of Gaston Calmette

Background

While serving as Minister of Finance in the government of France, Caillaux came under bitter attack from his political foes. The editor of the Le Figaro newspaper, Gaston Calmette, had been a severe critic. Calmette received a letter belonging to Caillaux that journalistic etiquette at the time dictated should not be published. The letter seemed to suggest that improprieties had been committed by Caillaux. In this letter he appeared to admit having orchestrated the rejection of a tax bill while publicly pretending to support its passage. Calmette published the letter at a time when Caillaux, in his capacity as Minister of Finance, was trying to get a progressive taxation law passed by the French Senate. The publication of his letter severely tarnished Caillaux's reputation and caused a great political upheaval.

The shooting

Henriette Caillaux believed that Calmette would publish other private letters that would demonstrate that Caillaux and she had had intimate relationships while he was still married to his first wife. She felt the only way for her husband to defend his reputation would be to challenge Calmette to a duel, which, one way or another, would destroy her and her husband's life. Madame Caillaux made the decision to protect her beloved husband by sacrificing herself.

At 5pm on 16 March 1914, she entered offices of Le Figaro, wearing a fur coat and with her hands in a fur muff, [3] and asked to see Gaston Calmette. When told he was away but would return within an hour, she sat to wait. [4] Calmette returned at 6pm with his friend, the novelist Paul Bourget and agreed to briefly see Madame Caillaux, to Bourget's surprise. [4]

After being shown into Calmette's office, Henriette Caillaux exchanged a few words with him, then pulled out a .32 Browning automatic pistol she had been concealing within the muff and fired six shots, Calmette was hit four times and was critically wounded. [5] Henriette Caillaux made no attempt to escape and newspaper workers in adjoining offices quickly summoned a doctor and the police. She refused to be transported to the police headquarters in a police van, insisting on being driven there by her chauffeur in her own car, which was still parked outside. The police agreed to this and she was formally charged upon reaching the headquarters. [3] Gaston Calmette died six hours after being shot. [5]

Trial

Henriette Caillaux's trial dominated French public life. It featured a deposition from the president of the Republic, an unheard-of occurrence at a criminal proceeding almost anywhere, along with the fact that many of the participants were among the most powerful members of French society. She was defended by the prominent attorney Fernand Labori who convinced the jury that her crime, which she did not deny, was not a premeditated act but that her uncontrollable female emotions resulted in a crime of passion. The belief that women were not as strong emotionally as men resulted in her acquittal on 28 July 1914.


A Spectacular Murder Rocks France

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 108th installment in the series.

March 16, 1914: A Spectacular Murder Rocks France

On March 13, 1914, the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro published a private letter written by Joseph Caillaux, a former prime minister now serving as finance minister, to his first wife when she was still his mistress. Among other things, the letter revealed that Caillaux had secretly worked against a tax law he claimed to support, casting him in a bad light politically this was conservative revenge for his alleged German sympathies and continuing opposition to the controversial Three-Year Service Law. Worse yet, Le Figaro’s editor, Gaston Calmette, threatened to publish more letters showing that Caillaux later cheated on his first wife with his then-mistress (now second wife) Henriette Caillaux.

Three days later, in the early evening of March 16, 1914, Henriette Caillaux visited the offices of Le Figaro and waited an hour to meet Calmette, who was out. When he returned, Caillaux followed him into his office, where she asked him, “Do you know why I have come?” Calmette replied, “Not at all, madame,” at which point Caillaux drew a revolver hidden in her fur hand muff and fired six shots, hitting Calmette four times. He died of his wounds six hours later.

Madame Caillaux later explained that she felt compelled to kill Calmette because the alternative—a duel between the muckraking journalist and her husband—would destroy her husband’s political career, even if he survived (remarkably, her crime didn’t seem to have the same effect, as Caillaux served in the government for most of the First World War).

Unsurprisingly, this sensational crime riveted France and the world, and the ensuing court case had all the makings of a legal circus. Fernand Labori, who previously represented the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and the writer Émile Zola during the Dreyfus Affair, would defend Caillaux the roster of witnesses called to testify featured some of the most powerful people in France, including the sitting president, Raymond Poincaré (an unprecedented occurrence) and foreign newspapers dispatched world-famous journalists like Walter Duranty and Wythe Williams to France to cover the trial.

Fascinating as it was at the time, the Caillaux scandal would still probably have been forgotten if not for the coincidental timing of the trial. As it happened, Madame Caillaux’s trial began July 20, just three days before Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, and the legal drama engrossed the French public during the critical final days of July, just as their British counterparts were distracted by the prospect of mutiny and civil war in Ireland. Thanks to these diversions, in August 1914 for millions of ordinary French and British citizens the Great War would seem to come “like a bolt from the clear blue sky.”

Image courtesy of Le Petit Journal , used under Creative Commons license.


CAILLAUX, JOSEPH

CAILLAUX, JOSEPH (1863–1944), French politician.

Joseph Caillaux was one of the most paradoxical leaders of the French Third Republic (1870–1940). Despite his origins as a grand bourgeois, Caillaux championed fiscal reforms accused of soaking the rich. Against the native nationalism of his conservative milieu, he advocated compromise and conciliation with the "hereditary enemy" across the Rhine. And in a political culture that expected outward observance of strict moral codes, Caillaux flaunted his mistresses and did not shy away from divorce, which was legalized only in 1884.

As a young man, Joseph Caillaux studied law and economics at the elite École libre des sciences politiques, becoming a specialist in government finance. He was elected to the National Assembly in 1898 and, the following year, at the tender age of thirty-six, named minister of finance. Caillaux's cautious republicanism together with his economic expertise recommended him to the prime minister, René Waldeck-Rousseau, who sought conservative ballast for his left-leaning "government of national defense," formed in the wake of the Dreyfus affair.

During this early period, Caillaux's political views remained relatively conventional it was his style and demeanor that stood out. At a time when male politicians and business leaders dressed in basic black, Caillaux looked like a "dandy straight out of Balzac" (Vergnet, p. 1) As for his personality, commentators found him so unique that "Even the genius of a Shakespeare could never have captured him" (Vergnet, p. 3). His imperious, manic behavior aroused hostility, and when he moved to the left after 1905, his parliamentary opponents were all the more determined to silence him. But Caillaux's political skills were such that he managed to steer a highly controversial income tax bill though both the Assembly and the Senate. Republican politicians had been working to enact such a tax since 1848.

On becoming prime minister in 1911, Caillaux antagonized his opponents still more by compromising with Germany over opposing colonial claims. Rather than risk war over Morocco, Caillaux agreed to give the Kaiser a portion of the French Congo in exchange for a German withdrawal from the port of Agadir. Outraged nationalists toppled Caillaux's government after only three months in office.

Elected president of the center-left Radical Party in 1913, Caillaux was the logical choice for a new term as prime minister in December of that year. But President Raymond Poincaré preferred a more pliable politician, and Caillaux had to settle once again for the ministry of finance. He nonetheless dominated the new government, and opponents feared he would abrogate a new law requiring three years of military service rather than two. Though Caillaux's sometime allies on the socialist left wanted to scale back military service, there is no evidence the finance minister shared this position. No matter, the editor of Le Figaro, Gaston Calmette, undertook a ferocious press campaign designed to oust Caillaux from office. The editor accused the former prime minister of treasonous machinations with Germany, stock market manipulation, and illegal judicial interventions. Le Figaro's attacks culminated with the publication on 13 March 1914 of a personal letter the finance minister had written thirteen years earlier. The letter revealed some political double-dealing on Caillaux's part and included an affectionate closing that suggested he and the married Berthe Gueydan, later his first wife, were having an intimate affair. In publishing a personal letter, Calmette had violated a journalistic taboo, shocking Caillaux's current wife, Henriette. The latter became convinced, or so she later claimed, that Le Figaro would now reveal embarrassing letters Joseph had written her.

On 16 March 1914, Henriette Caillaux entered Calmette's office and shot him six times at point-blank range. The editor's horrified colleagues handed her to the police, smoking gun in hand. Her husband resigned from the cabinet, and four months later she stood trial for murder. Joseph Caillaux dominated these proceedings as he had the French parliament, but it was Henriette Caillaux's testimony that swayed the jury. No feminist femme fatale, she claimed to be a weak-willed woman governed by passions beyond her conscious control. Just three days before the outbreak of World War I, Madame Caillaux was acquitted of all charges.

Despite the favorable outcome, the "pro-German" and morally compromised Joseph Caillaux was excluded from the wartime cabinet, his once-brilliant career in shambles. Caillaux's fortunes sank so low that France's wartime premier, Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), had him arrested for treason. But Caillaux returned briefly to the finance ministry in the mid-1920s and was elected to the Senate, where he served continuously until the fall of France in June 1940. He died at home in Mamers (Sarthe) shortly after the liberation of Paris in 1944.


The more things change…

As I looked at the front page of a recent local paper, featuring yet another account of the lurid sex/murder scandal du jour, I thought of the striking parallels to the situation in France 100 years ago.

By mid-July, 1914 the crisis building in the wake of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination was roiling Berlin, Moscow, London, Vienna, and Sarajevo, but the French remained focused on the murder trial of Henriette Caillaux, second wife of former premiere, Joseph Caillaux. Madame Caillaux was accused of shooting a newspaper editor antagonistic to her husband. The trial was a full blown media circus, the O.J. trial of the day, for then as now, it is much easier to gawk at messy personal lives than messy international conflicts.

Henriette’s husband, Joseph Caillaux, had lost the previous election to conservatives, and was running for re-election in 1914, insisting that France roll back its aggressive militarism. In addition, as a former accountant, he was convinced that an income tax was essential to run a modern state. The campaign grew vicious. The editor of the conservative paper, Le Figaro, obtained and published a letter Caillaux had written to his first wife, when she was his mistress and married to another man.

Henriette, who cared deeply about her position in society, was terrified at the prospect of publication of letters she and Joseph had exchanged when both were married to others. On the afternoon of March 16, Henriette rode in a chauffeured car to a gun dealer, bought a Browning automatic pistol, and had the dealer take her to a basement firing range to teach her how to use it. She then demanded to see the editor of Le Figaro, with the gun hidden in her muff. She fired six bullets, hit the editor four times and killed him.

At her trial, Henriette claimed she only intended to frighten the man. She closed her eyes, she said, and aimed at the floor, but missed and hit the editor. Her defense team must have been stellar, for as G.J Meyer put it, on July 29, “A chivalrous jury found Madame Caillaux not guilty, and France’s newspapers awoke from their trance to discover that Europe was on the brink of war.”

By July 29, there was probably only one man in Europe who could have averted war. Jean Jaures’ ideas paralleled those of Joseph Caillaux. As a socialist, he was beyond the pale of “repeatable” politics, but I think of him as the Jimmy Carter of his day. Meyer writes, As a leader, a thinker, and simply as a human being, Jaures stood out like a giant in the summer of 1914. Like Caillaux he was widely hated, but only for the most honorable of reasons: he had dedicated his life to the achievement of democracy and genuine peace not only in France but across the continent.”

Jean Jaures, 1904, by Nadar. Public domain.

Jaures was the greatest orator of his time, and clearly saw that a European war would be a disaster with no winners, only losers. In his last newspaper column, published on July 31, he wrote, “The danger is great but not insuperable if we keep our clearness of mind and strength of will. If we show the heroism of patience as well as the heroism of action.”

That day he went to Brussels to speak to an emergency gathering of socialists, including a delegation from Germany. He and a group of colleagues spoke to Abel Ferry of the French foreign ministry, demanding action to stop Russia from mobilizing. Ferry said it was too late. “Everything is finished, there is nothing left to do.” When Jaures protested, Ferry said, “You won’t be able to continue. You will be assassinated on the nearest street corner.”

Two hours later, Jaures and a friend entered a cafe on the Rue Montmartre where an unemployed 29 year old named Raoul Villain recognized him. Villain, though well educated, was aimless and confused. He had a gun and a plan to travel to Germany to kill the kaiser. Seeing Jaures take a seat with his back to an open window, he changed his mind. A few moments later he fired two shots into Jaures’ head. The next day, France and Germany mobilized and the following day, World War I began.

The first world war was a tragedy that no one wanted to happen. Accounts of the run-up to war read like a Thomas Hardy novel, where the smallest “innocent” action leads to a huge tragedy. More than any other historical event, the first world war haunts me with a sense of evil pervading human affairs. To be sure, in the next war, in the holocaust, evil is more obvious. We can point to a small group of bad men and believe, or at least hope, that we are different from them. That’s not so easy to do with world war I.

None of the heads of state wanted this kind of war, but they consistently made wrong decisions, which pushed the world over the brink. The litany of “if only’s” is haunting as well. If only someone had told the Archduke’s driver of the change of route, the “inciting incident” might not have happened. And what if some dark karma or twist of fate had not brought Raoul Villain to the Rue Monmartre at the same time as Jaures?

History gives a perspective missing from the present moment, but the history of July 1914 poses a fearful question – what sinister future may be coiling behind the scenes while we distract ourselves with this year’s latest scandal?


Watch the video: Hondelatte raconte: Laffaire Laurence Maille récit intégral (June 2022).


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