Henriette Caillaux, 1874-1943: Behind Every Great Man….

On March 16 1914,  Parisian socialite Henriette Caillaux went to the office of Gaston Calmette, editor of the French journal Le Figaro.  No appointment. Might she be allowed to see him? It was late, but the fellow agreed to the unusual request. How could he help the lady?

She got straight to the point.  From her muff she pulled a Browning automatic and fired four shots into the low-down dirty dog of a journalist.

A passionate woman, clearly. Old fashioned, too.  She was doing no more than standing by her man, her man being the center-left Radical Party politician Joseph Caillaux who was widely expected to be the Prime Minister in the up coming election.

That is, until the papers went to press.

So what was going on here?   Joseph Caillaux was a career politician, liberal wing.  By 1911 he was Prime Minister, which was alarming to the more conservative side of the aisle.  He was  against the extension of service bill which would stretch compulsory military  service from two to three years.  He was against the Entente Cordial with Britain, and the alliance with Russia.  He was for harmonious Franco-German relations, he had even brokered a peace during the Moroccan Crisis of 1911 with Germany, and he continued to be almost a germanophile.  Oh, and he was for introducing an income tax.

Caillaux had lost the post in 1912 but once his career picked up in 1914, the right wing papers again began digging for dirt, with Gaston Calmette leading the way.  They got some good stuff, too, various backroom deals, many of which you would expect from politicians of his stature.  Somehow the editor got a hold of some old letters from Caillaux to a Henriette dating from the period he was still married to his first wife.

This was crossing a line, even in those days, and Henriette was damned if the man responsible wasn’t going down as well.  A personal tragedy, to be sure, but more than that,  it arguably cost her husband the upcoming election.  Moreover, there were plenty of people at the time in France, and Germany, and elsewhere  who thought that had Caillaux prevailed and become Prime Minister again, he could well have forestalled the war.

Instead the job went to Raymond Poincaré . Or rather, remained with him.   Poincaré had no interest in co-existing peacefully with Germany – he had never forgiven them for taking Alsace-Lorraine in the the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871).  His handshake was with Russia (itself irritated by a loss against Austria-Hungary over Bosnia in 1908), which alliance encircled Germany with a considerable army.   Moreover, he was behind the extended mandatory army service three years from two, to make up for Germany’s overall population advantage.  Just in case of war.

Not that the tabloids were paying too much attention.  That last summer of 1914 they were far too busy with the various details, true, false, reported, and invented that surrounded Ms Caillaux and her trial.   No question that she did it, there was a witness and her confession.  What was she to do?

Get the Clarence Darrow of Paris, who would be Fernand Labori, defender of Dreyfus and Zola.  A few weeks of highly dramatic coverage that summer and eventually she got off on the grounds that as a woman she had been overwhelmed by uncontrollable passions.

The trial was a sensation.  How could it not be?  Imagine the wife of, say, Ben Bernanke (only a Bernanke with a shot at higher political office) fast talking her way into the editorial office of the Wall Street Journal and shooting the editor in chief? It was the talk of the summer of 1914.

On July 28 the verdict came down.

Not guilty, by reason of uncontrollable female passions.

That same day, Austro-Hungary invaded Serbia and the First World War began.

Eventually she took a degree as a mature student at the École du Louvre.  She turned up from time to time on slow news days when the tabloids needed some filler (as when she was in a car crash in 1925).  She died in 1943 in part two of the war she may or may not have had a hand in precipitating.

As to France , well, it is perhaps no coincidence that French journalists never breathed a word of Francois Mitterand’s left-handed family until the lady and her child showed up at his funeral.

Tough job, journalism.


A full account of the trial can be found in Edward Berenson’s   The Trial of Madame Caillaux

A discussion of her possible impact on the first war can be found in Jack Beatty’s The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began



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