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The Trial of Madame Caillaux

The Trial of Madame Caillaux

by Edward Berenson

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Edward Berenson recounts the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a powerful French cabinet minister, who murdered her husband's enemy Le Figaro editor Gaston Calmette, in March 1914, on the eve of World War I. In analyzing this momentous event, Berenson draws a fascinating portrait of Belle Epoque politics and culture.


Edward Berenson recounts the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a powerful French cabinet minister, who murdered her husband's enemy Le Figaro editor Gaston Calmette, in March 1914, on the eve of World War I. In analyzing this momentous event, Berenson draws a fascinating portrait of Belle Epoque politics and culture.

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The Trial Of Madame Caillaux

By Edward Berenson


Copyright © 1992 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91443-8


Henriette Caillaux and the Crime of Passion

Madame Caillaux was by her own description a "bourgeoise." Her parents lived comfortably not far from Paris in the town of Rueil. And she grew up with the expectation of a proper and early marriage. This Henriette Rainouard accomplished at age nineteen when she moved directly from her parents' home to that of her new husband, Léo Claretie. Twelve years her senior, Claretie wrote for Le Temps and possessed a modest reputation as a man of letters. The couple had two children, without whom, Henriette claimed, the marriage would not have lasted as long as it did. In 1908, after fourteen years together, Henriette asked Léo for a divorce. She had become involved with Joseph Caillaux a year earlier, and Léo allowed their union to end at once. There could be no question, however, of a quick marriage to Caillaux; he was still wedded to Berthe Gueydan, his wife of less than two years. Berthe proved more reluctant to give up her spouse than Claretie had been, and she succeeded in delaying Henriette and Joseph's marriage until October 1911.

Once Henriette had realized her dream of marrying Joseph Caillaux, all was well. Or at least everything could have been, she declared on the first day of her trial, "if our lives had not been poisoned by slander." She had found in her marriage to Caillaux "the most complete happiness." She was blessed with a husband who cared for her, a daughter, and an unusually comfortable domestic life. Together, she and Joseph possessed inherited property and investments worth more than 1.5 million francs, placing them among the nation's wealthiest families. They enjoyed, as she put it, "a large fortune that allowed us to live in great comfort." The photo in figure 2, taken long before the Caillaux Affair, depicts that comfort with a look of happiness and serenity.

Unfortunately for the happy couple too many skeletons remained in both closets for their bliss to last. Joseph's political hubris had made him countless enemies, and the couple's adulterous premarital relationship would allow these opponents to cast their political attack in moral terms. As the trial proceeded, the right could condemn Caillaux's political stance, not on its own terms, but as the inevitable product of corrupt values.

Adultery, divorce, wealth, scandal, and high politics—here were the ingredients of a real-life melodrama that would unfold in late July 1914 from one judicial session to the next. For Parisians, with their love of spectacle, their addiction to the feuilleton, it was not to be missed. And because the French legal system placed virtually no restraints on the press, editors and columnists felt free to comment extensively on every aspect of Madame Caillaux's trial. Newspapermen seldom waited for a jury's decision before declaring a defendant guilty or innocent, and in the case of Madame Caillaux they made their judgments long before the trial even began. During the pretrial instruction, a procedure similar to our own highly secret grand jury investigation, the press published nearly all the evidence presented even though to do so was, strictly speaking, illegal. Thus, well before the trial opened on 20 July 1914 in the Paris Cour d'assises, Henriette Caillaux's case had already been elaborately tried in the court of public opinion.

In this atmosphere of journalistic license, the French press possessed more power to shape the outcome of trials—especially trials involving sex and politics and defendants like Madame Caillaux—than did the press of many other countries. "The English would never allow the press to comment so extensively on a matter before the courts," declared the conservative Mercure de France in an article on the affaire Caillaux. They would never permit journalists "to prejudice the verdict and publish the key documents of the trial. All this would constitute for them the crime of 'contempt of court,' which is severely punished."

Once the trial actually began, journalists were all the more eager to narrate and comment because its cast of characters represented practically the whole of the Third Republic's social and political elite. And because the press focused so much attention on the Caillaux trial, the principals in the case took what advantage they could of the almost unprecedented publicity. The Caillaux and their opponents knew that what they said and did in the courtroom would shape the press's presentation of the case and thus the public's perception of their respective claims. Perhaps they realized as well that press accounts would affect the jury too, whose members were not prevented from discussing their case with family and friends or from reading about it themselves. In effect, France's citizen magistrates, men drawn largely from the literate but far from independent-minded ranks of the lower and middling middle class, witnessed each case twice. They heard it first inside the courtroom as members of the Cour d'assises and then outside it as part of a reading public influenced by the emphases and interpretations of mass journalism. By reading the papers, they could relive—and revise—the impressions they had formed in court the day before.

Thus when Judge Albanel asked Madame Caillaux to tell the jury "everything that seems useful to you," she knew she would have an unfettered opportunity to speak not just to the court but to the nation at large. As can be imagined, Henriette Caillaux had much to say, and she proceeded to testify for several hours, interrupted only by the judge's occasional queries. A skillful speaker could take handsome advantage of such oratorical freedom, and Henriette more than held her own.

Because Madame Caillaux admitted to having shot and killed Gaston Calmette, her defense had to turn on extenuating circumstances, on the insistence that she should not be held responsible for her crime. The stakes were high, for if the jury were to find Henriette Caillaux responsible she could be subject to life imprisonment at hard labor or even to the penalty of death. If, however, she could convince the twelve citizen magistrates that her own emotions or the actions of other people had rendered her less than fully accountable, then under French law the jurors would have the option of returning a verdict of "guilty with extenuating circumstances." Such a verdict would save her from capital punishment or life imprisonment but would mean a minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment at hard labor. The only way Henriette Caillaux could avoid punishment altogether was to convince the jury that the circumstances on and around 16 March 1914 had been so extenuating as to require a verdict of "not guilty." Since Henriette admitted having shot Calmette, such a verdict would not be easy to obtain. All her testimony was nonetheless directed toward this end. To achieve it, she portrayed herself as the victim of passions beyond her control, as a woman rendered irresponsible by emotions more powerful than will itself. Uncontrollable impulses, she maintained, had silenced the normal promptings of consciousness, making her lose control over her own actions. Calmette's campaign against her husband—and against herself as well—had upset Henriette to the point of allowing her nerves a brief but free reign. She was not, therefore, responsible for what she had done; hers was a crime of passion.

In explaining herself this way, Madame Caillaux made her appeal on two different, but related, levels. On the one hand she evoked an older romantic discourse, one that indulged, even idealized, women ruled by their passions. And on the other she invoked a newer scientific language that gave a powerful, almost determining, role to the nervous system and the unconscious mind. Thus Madame Caillaux moved back and forth in her testimony between literary and scientific images of the crime of passion, appealing to the jury as a heroine of uncontrollable emotions and to the experts as a victim of deterministic laws. Together, the two discourses heightened her chances of acquittal. Literature made the woman of ungovernable passions familiar and sympathetic, while criminal psychology placed her beyond the law.

French editors and journalists understood the defendant's effort to portray herself as a passionate heroine, as the tragic author of a crime passionnel, for even as they described her manner and her appearance they did their best to undermine or to endorse the image she had endeavored to create. Conservative papers read guilt in her appearance, while those to the left of center generally noted suffering, pathos, and passion. In its opening portrait of Madame Caillaux, the rightist and anti-Caillaux Illustration asked its readers to imagine not a wronged victim or a female ruled by emotion but a careful player who measured her every word. For L'Illustration's chroniqueur, Henriette's dress itself betrayed an emotionless banality of character, a character that could command no sympathy:

Her silhouette, soberly draped in black lightened only a bit by the blonde hairs beneath her simple plumed hat, is that of a young woman, discreetly elegant. It is the silhouette of a "bourgeoise," to use Madame Caillaux's expression, but of a bourgeoisie without character or distinction. She is almost neuter with her expressionless eyes, her thin nose, her thin lips, her heavy profile ... the slightly cracked timbre of her voice. Though a bit harsh at times, jerky, staccato, measured, her voice reveals none of those sudden irruptions that betray emotion, passion, pain. No spontaneity, but much deliberation behind her exposition.

Thus for L'Illustration Madame Caillaux's aura, youthful and elegant at first glance, was stolidly bourgeois upon closer inspection. The sober black suit topped by a simple feathered hat aimed for elegance but highlighted instead the ordinariness of her looks, the dullness of her character (see L'Illustration's sketch, figure 3). The thin nose and lips, the cracked but measured voice gave away her lack of passion. She was so plain as to be unfeminine, even "neuter." This was no romantic heroine capable of great crimes of passion. Unspontaneous, methodical, she planned her every move. The passage's meaning could hardly be more clear: Madame Caillaux's crime had to be premeditated; she bore full responsibility for her act.

The daily Le Matin, somewhat more sympathetic to the Caillaux, drew its portrait with different strokes: Madame Caillaux's entrance was "studied perhaps, but full of mastery and self-possession." Her "modest black suit, barely brightened by the mauve of her blouse, is perfect for the occasion!" And appearing in this "discreet outfit," continued the chroniqueur, "with her eyes lowered, her pale coloring, her blonde hair, Madame Caillaux was a woman who seemed genuinely mired in unhappiness." Le Matin's description was far more nuanced than L'Illustration's had been, for on the one hand Caillaux seemed to exude a kind of confident self-control, but on the other she betrayed a modesty and lack of pretention in the ensemble she wore. Absent from Le Matin's account were all intimations of ordinariness and banality of character, and its writer took pains to affirm her vulnerability—and therefore her femininity—as well.

No one expected sympathy for Henriette from Le Figaro, and throughout the trial the deceased editor's colleagues prosecuted her on nearly every page. Their description resembled L'Illustration's: a superficial elegance that failed to mask her essential ordinariness. She had a "physiognomy that hinted vaguely at a kind of Parisian elegance, but without distinctiveness and without charm." Overall, her look gave her "the banality of a shopgirl," the banality, that is, of the female commonly seen during this period as representing the vanity and superficiality of women at their worst. But despite this blandness of appearance, "in her testimony she was harsh, dry, and without any emotion whatever." Le Petit journal went even further, suggesting that her features themselves revealed pride and premeditation. "Physically ... she produces the impression of a conceited and willful woman. Her eagle's beak of a nose ... gives to her profile a daring and haughty character exaggerated by the pale thin lips." Finally, the right-wing Echo de Paris claimed that her black suit and feathered black hat conferred on Madame Caillaux "the physiognomy of a funereal Valkyrie." She was a death rider from the depths of Wagner's imagination.

No doubt such descriptions did much to sway newspaper readers for or against Henriette Caillaux. Even more important were the psychological and sociological theories of crime and criminal behavior they had popularized since the 1890s and exhibited extensively during the trial itself. These theories tended to assign responsibility for crime not to the conscious will but to forces over which individuals had no control: inherited traits, environments conducive to crime, and impulses emanating from the unconscious or "suggestions" acting upon it. People committed crimes, the experts increasingly maintained, not by choice but because heredity, environment, and psychology drove them, often against their will, to violent and evil deeds.

The crimes for which France's leading criminologists considered all individuals, and women in particular, least responsible were crimes of passion. Such crimes occurred, so the experts argued, when violent emotions triggered motor impulses arising from the unconscious—seen not as a Freudian repository of repressed wishes and unknowable desires but as a physiological switchboard that transmitted nervous charges to the rest of the body. These impulses could quickly and easily overwhelm an individual's rational faculties. As a result, a normal person could temporarily become an emotional automaton. Because such a transformation could theoretically happen to anyone, the experts claimed, it was difficult to hold the authors of certain "passionate" crimes responsible for their actions.

With these deterministic theories widely disseminated in the press, where true-crime stories and popular installment novels had done much to arouse sympathy for heroines of the crime passionnel, Madame Caillaux benefited from both positivistic science and romantic literature. Both had made French men and women of the Belle Epoque reluctant to punish individuals caught in the grip of passion, emprisoned in an irrational state that science itself now deemed capable of engulfing almost anyone.

When Madame Caillaux took the stand on 20 July 1914, she began by describing the emotional effects of Le Figaro's campaign against her husband. She knew he was honest and honorable, but the newspapers and the politicians were saying he had committed the most incredible crimes. According to them, he had given the Congo to Germany's emperor in exchange for privileged financial information that led to a fortune on the Berlin stock exchange. And with that illicit money Joseph was said to have bought Henriette a jeweled crown worth 750,000 francs. Joseph Caillaux, in other words, had shorn the nation of a prized colony in order to shower his wife with diamonds. Had this kind of reportage been confined to Paris's lowbrow scandal sheets, Madame Caillaux told the court, she might have been able to dismiss it. But what was so distressing about the sordid affair is how widely these lies were spread and believed. Calmette's Le Figaro was enormously influential, and the editor's good name gave credence to what he said. Everywhere Henriette went people seemed to mock her, to subject her to insult and derision. "Everyone greeted me with ironic smiles.... [And] I felt that they all were making fun of me and that I was slightly ridiculous."

One day while sitting in the visitors' gallery of the National Assembly, Henriette found herself in the midst of a hostile crowd. When her husband mounted the tribune, people began to shout: "Caillaux, Congo; Caillaux, Congo. Go back to Berlin! Go back to Berlin!" The whole gallery seemed to erupt against her. "I was forced to steal away in shame. I didn't want to say anything; I was like a crazy person ... I was overwhelmed with emotion."


Excerpted from The Trial Of Madame Caillaux by Edward Berenson. Copyright © 1992 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Edward Berenson is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830-1852 (1984).

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