Joseph Caillaux, the son of Eugéne Caillaux, a conservative politician, was born in Le Mans, France, on 30th March, 1863. After obtaining a law degree in 1886 he joined the Finance Ministry as a deputy inspector.
A member of the Radical Republican Party, Caillaux was elected to the Chamber of Deputies by 12,929 votes to 11,737. After acquiring a reputation as an expert on economic matters was appointed minister of finance in 1899, a post he held until 1902.
In 1906 Caillaux returned to government when Georges Clemenceau, the prime minister of the Radical Republican government, appointed him as Minister of Finance. Caillaux introduced several important reforms but failed in his attempt to establish an income tax system.
In 1907 Joseph Caillaux began an affair with Henriette Claretie, a married woman, and the mother of two young children. 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 remained unpopular with conservative forces in France because of his views on progressive taxation. He was also 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."
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.
After an amnesty in July, 1924, Caillaux was appointed by Paul Painleve as his finance minister. He also served briefly in this post in 1935. Three years later Caillaux supported Edouard Daladier in his attempts to negotiate an agreement with Adolf Hitler. After the failure of appeasement he retired from politics and refused to become a member of the Vichy government.
Joseph Caillaux died in Mamers on 22nd November, 1944.
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 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."
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.