Monday, 18 July 2016

A real French 'crime passionel'

For Paris in July 2016, hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea I found this interesting real life event about a 'crime passionnel'.

While reading The Sleepwalkers I came on to a fascinating, real ’crime passionnel’ which happened in France in 1914. As mentioned in the book:
”In Paris, the news from Sarajevo was pushed off the front pages by a scandal of momentous proportions. On 16 March 1914, Madame Caillaux, wife of the former prime minister Joseph Caillaux, had walked into the office of Gaston Calmette, editor of Figaro, and fired six bullets into him. The reason for the murder was the campaign the newspaper had waged against her husband, in the course of which Calmette had published love letters she had written to Joseph Caillaux while he was still married to his first wife”
Henriette Caillaux (from Wikipedia)
Intriguing to say the least. It can’t be left without a little bit of research on Wikipedia, and here is what I came up with.

Henriette Caillaux was a Parisian socialite, who, in 1893, married Léo Claretie, a writer twelve years her senior. They had two children. In 1907 she began an affair with Joseph Caillaux while both were married. She divorced in 1908 but Joseph Caillaux’ divorce was more complicated and was delayed. Once they were both free they married in 1911. 

Joseph Caillaux was at the time Minister of Finance and came under attach from his political foes (we are now in 1914). One severe critic was Gaston Calmette, the editor of Le Figaro. He received a letter belonging to Caillaux, and although journalistic etiquette at the time dictated it should not be published, he did so nevertheless. The letter indicated improprieties committed by Caillaux concerning a tax bill and the publication of the letter tarnished his reputation and caused a political upheaval. 

Henriette Caillaux believed that Calmette might publish other private letters, indicating that Caillaux and she had had intimate relationships while he was still married to his first wife. In her own mind she only saw one possible solution; that her husband would challenge Calmette to a duel. Regardless of the outcome it would destroy their lives. At this point she decided to take the only action she could think of to protect her beloved husband. She was sacrificing herself. 

Joseph Caillaux (from Wikipedia)

At 5 pm on 16 March 1914, she went to the offices of Le Figaro to see Calmette. In his office Henriette said a few words before pulling out a .32 Browning automatic pistol, concealed in her muff. She fired six shots and Calmette was hit four times and critically wounded. She made no attempt to escape,  just waited for the doctor and the police. She refused to be transported in the police car and used her private car driven by her chauffeur. Calmette died six hours after being shot. 

As one can imagine, the trial dominated French public life at the time. She, a rich and famous person with good connections, saw a trial which 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.”

The prominent lawyer Fernand Labori was hired for her defence. He managed to convince the 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”. She was acquitted on 28 July 1914 with the notion that women were not as strong emotionally as men! She and her husband went on to live until 1943 and 1944 respectively. She later on wrote a thesis on the sculptor Jules Dalou, and both of them seemed to continue with their lives as before.  

Well, this could possibly only happen in France? In France, where a ’crime passionnel’ is a more common thing than in other countries. Where it is comme il faut to have a lover and a mistress? I think the French has a more relaxed attitude to these things, even if they keep affairs secret, and not necessarily approve of the more serious deed as in this case. 


  1. I like the part about the muff.

    best... mae at

    1. Great isn't it. Imagine what women could hide there!