|Henriette Caillaux (1874-1943) was a Parisian socialite and wife of the former Prime Minister of France who is remembered as an assassin.Born Henriette Raynouard, she was having an affair with Joseph Caillaux while he was still married but eventually he divorced and the two married. While serving as Minister of Finance in the government of France, Joseph Caillaux came under bitter attack from his political foes and at a time when newspapers took political sides, the editor of the Le Figaro newspaper, Gaston Calmette (1858-1914) had been a severe critic.Calmette received a letter belonging to Joseph Caillaux that journalistic etiquette at the time dictated should not be published.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 it he appeared to admit having orchestrated the rejection of a tax bill while publicly pretending to support its passage. Calmette proceeded to publish the letter at a time when Joseph Caillaux, in his capacity as Minister of Finance, was trying to get an income tax bill passed by the French Senate. The publication of his letter severely tarnished Joseph Caillaux’s reputation and caused a great political upheaval.
Madame Caillaux believed that 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.
On March 16, 1914, the elegant and sophisticated woman walked to the newspaper’s offices where she confronted the editor. After a few words, she pulled out a pistol and fired several shots point-blank into the man’s chest, killing him instantly.
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. At a time when feminism was still beginning to impact French society, most republican and socialist men paid no more than lip service to the feminist cause.
However, it was this male chauvinism that actually proved Henriette Caillaux’s best friend during the proceedings. She was defended by the prominent attorney Fernand-Gustave-Gaston Labori (1860-1917); he 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. With male beliefs that women were not as strong emotionally as men, on July 28th, 1914, Madame Caillaux was acquitted.
A 1985 made for French television movie called “L’Affaire Caillaux” and a 1992 book titled The Trial of Madame Caillaux by American history professor Edward Berenson, recounts the event.
The Press and L’Affaire Caillaux
Late in the evening on March 16, 1914, six shots rang out from the office of Gaston Calmette, the famed editor of Le Figaro. Adrien Cirac, an office aide, was the first to rush into the editor’s office. There he found Henriette Caillaux, the wife of France’s minister of finance, Joseph Caillaux, standing in front of a bookcase with her right hand still raised holding a Browning 6 mm aimed at the slumped figure of Gaston Calmette.
Moments earlier, Adrien Cirac had led Henriette Caillaux into the office. She was a strange and unexpected visitor to the offices of Le Figaro, but Calmette had not hesitated to receive her, saying,
it’s a woman…I cannot refuse to receive a woman. Calmette had reached the apex of a three month long slanderous campaign leveled against Mme. Caillaux’s husband just three days prior to her visit.
On March 13, Calmette had printed an embarrassingly intimate letter Joseph Caillaux had written thirteen years earlier to Berthe Gueydan, the mistress who later became his first wife. The publication of the letter, nicknamed Ton Jo for the sentimental valediction, not only publicized an affair, but also exposed Caillaux’s suspect political dealings. Mme. Caillaux would later claim that the personal attack and the perceived threat of the publication of her own scandalous lettres intimes from Joseph drove her to Calmette’s offices, where she committed the murder. As the police arrived to take Mme. Caillaux to the Saint-Lazare Women’s Prison, she calmly explained,
since there is no more justice in France…I resolved that I alone would be able to stop this campaign. The campaign to which she referred was, of course, the alleged slander published by Calmette.
After enduring a three month long pre-trial investigation, Henriette Caillaux appeared in the cour d’assises in Paris on July 21, 1914, just three weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo. In the weeks following the assassination in Sarajevo, alliances between the great European powers solidified, and tensions mounted. Despite these circumstances, Henriette Caillaux’s trial consumed the dailies circulated by Paris’s mass popular press. The trial spanned nine days during which time Paris newspapers printed little other than news of the unfolding drama in court.
To a degree, the trial merited this level of attention. The case featured the accused socialite murderess Henriette Caillaux, her famous husband Joseph, who had served as France’s prime minister on two occasions, and was conducted by two of France’s leading lawyers, Fernand Labori for the defense and Charles Chenu for the prosecution, both of whom had served as counsel in the notorious trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Drama and sensationalism dominated the trial and provided fodder for celebrity gossip, particularly in the testimony of Joseph’s first wife, Berthe Gueydan, who exposed private details of the scandalous start to the Caillaux couple’s adulterous relationship.
Throughout the nine day trial, these main actors took center stage in a court case dominated by emotion, romance, hot-tempers, and secret political dealings. With every dramatic turn in the trial’s events, the Parisian press was present to carefully report every detail. The papers related Joseph’s insulting interjection in the middle of Berthe’s testimony that masculinized her by stating that their natures were
at the time opposed and too similar. The press captured Berthe’s calculated moves to checkmate M. Labori as she granted him custody of the notorious lettres intimes, thereby forcing him to choose between betraying his client and withholding evidence from the court. The dailies reported Henriette’s dramatic fainting spells and described her husband as he
rushes, leaps, and ascends the railing, to take
his wife in his arms. And they faithfully recorded the violent altercation between the Calmette-supporter Henry Bernstein, the famed playwright, and Joseph Caillaux which resulted in
the greatest uproar and disorder and ended with the trial’s temporary suspension.
After nine days of hearings and despite the testimony by witnesses against her, an abundance of evidence, and Chenu’s legal skill, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty after less than an hour of deliberation. The same day the papers announced Henriette Caillaux’s acquittal, tensions between the great European nations came to a head with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia. Surprisingly, when compared to the press’s coverage trial, the events leading to war received very little attention. The limited number of newspaper reports of the mounting tensions abroad was somewhat unusual. Soon after the rise of France’s mass popular press in the 1880s, French dailies averaged between 15 and 20 percent coverage of foreign affairs, with one of the largest French dailies, Le Matin, allocated on average 50 percent of its coverage to news from abroad.
Many of the larger papers limited their foreign affairs coverage during the week of the trial to accommodate the commentary, elaborate images, and complete transcripts of trial proceedings. Among the newspapers boasting the largest circulation numbers, the trial dominated the front pages: Le Matin devoted approximately 56 percent of its front page to the trial, Le Petit Journal only 26 percent, and Le Petit Parisien 42 percent. In contrast, Le Figaro, with a lower circulation but perhaps more closely aligned with the trial, devoted approximately 70 percent of its front page to the trial.7 In addition to the front page coverage, each of these papers printed between two and three pages of the complete trial transcripts. For L’Echo de Paris, a conservative Parisian newspaper, complete coverage of the trial meant excluding nearly all other news coverage from its four pages. The unprecedented trial coverage was achieved at the expense of foreign affairs coverage, which dropped well below average over the course of the week.
Family, Femininity, and Gender Reflected
Why did this trial dominate the Parisian press in the final weeks of July 1914? The trial possessed all the necessary characteristics required for an entertaining story. Murder, romance, celebrities, and politics filled the pages of the daily papers distributed in Paris the week of the trial. In many ways, the trial fed national curiosity and provided a diversion to looming international threats by entertaining readers with news that read more like a play than journalism. There were transcripts detailing court dialogue, columns describing wardrobe, and elaborate illustrations depicting each witness’s stance and attitude while they gave testimony. The papers cast Joseph Caillaux, Henriette Caillaux, and Berthe Gueydan as “the three protagonists,” and describe dramatic points in the trial as a “coup de théâtre.” At a time when most major daily papers entertained as well as informed readers, Henriette Caillaux’s trial created a unique opportunity of combining entertainment with reality.
However, more importantly than the question of why the press covered the trial to such an extent, is the question of what this coverage signifies. I contend that themes of family, femininity, and gender roles run throughout the press coverage of Henriette Caillaux’s trial and act as a social mirror reflecting complex mentalities French society had toward gender at the turn of the twentieth century.
I draw predominately from six Parisian daily newspapers that claimed varying levels of circulation in order to gauge how the press portrayed the trial. Of these six newspapers, Le Matin, Le Petit Parisien, and Le Petit Journal boasted the highest circulation figures and made up three of the four quatre grands. Together, the quatre grands printed 4.5 million copies a day and reached nearly half of all Paris. I also include Le Figaro, the conservative newspaper whose contributors included many prominent figures from the literary world. Le Figaro‘s it was intimate connection to the trial proceedings provide a unique perspective few other newspapers shared. Lastly, I examined L’Echo de Paris, a conservative and highly nationalistic newspaper, to represent a right leaning paper with smaller circulation figures and The New York Herald’s European edition printed in Paris to incorporate an outside perspective on the events of the trial.
The Parisian press gained notoriety in the Third Republic as unabashedly biased. The French newspapers were littered with slanted stories and used its influence on the public to perpetuate its own agendas. Yet, due to high literacy rates and wide circulation, the French press was considered widely influential in forming public opinion. Writing on the media in the Third Republic, Keiger notes that “many politicians equated the press with public opinion, so that, if governments had the support of the press…, they carried public opinion.” The press’s influence extended beyond the realm of politics to influence other areas of Parisian life. According to Robert Nye, the “images of criminality [newspapers] presented, their often explicit attributions of responsibility, and their suggestions on appropriate punishments are valuable indices of levels of anxiety” experienced within a society. In the case of Mme. Caillaux, newspaper coverage coalesced around questions of the importance of family and respect for traditional gender roles as emergent social issues in Belle Epoque Paris.
To demonstrate how themes of family, femininity, and gender roles emerged in the Parisian Press’s coverage of the Henriette Caillaux trial, I analyze the trial through the eyes of the press as represented by the above mentioned daily newspapers. I am less concerned with the actual events of the trial than I am with the trial’s representation in the press. Therefore, I do not intend to delve into Henriette’s guilt or innocence nor do I extrapolate from the proceedings the sincerity of the defense and motivations of the accused. Instead, I examine the text and illustrations printed in Parisian newspapers covering the trial to show parallels between the press’s portrayal of the trial and trends in gender in 1914 Parisian society.
State of the Nation
To fully comprehend these evolving trends in Parisian society at the turn of the twentieth century and how they emerged in the trial, it is important to situate the Caillaux Affair within the context of the historical framework. By 1914, France experienced a rise in nationalism and had increasingly come under the influence of the conservative right, a group highly suspicious of Germany and who rejected the left’s policies of détente with Germany. To a degree, the conservatives were rightfully weary of their German neighbor. In 1870, the French went to war with the soon to be German nation confident of victory in what came to be known as the Franco-Prussian War. French confidence began to wane as the war raged on and the Prussians laid siege to Paris. Throughout the siege, Parisians experienced massive unemployment, the tripling of mortality rates when the sanitation system broke down, and hunger as they turned to horses, dogs, cats, and rats for nourishment.
The dehumanizing and humiliating experience of the siege saw no reprieve with peace. The terms of peace granted Prussia all of Alsace and part of Lorraine, payment of a five billion gold franc indemnity, and allowed the Prussians to enter Paris triumphantly. During the Franco-Prussian War, the French government had collapsed and was replaced by the Third Republic, the Parisians had revolted and established the Paris Commune, and France had lost the major industrial centers of Alsace and Lorraine.
The years following France’s defeat witnessed a widening demographic and industrial gap between France and the newly formed Germany. Throughout the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, conservative factions of the French public became increasingly concerned by Germany’s growing strength in contrast to France’s relative weakness. Their demographic concerns were justified. In the sixty years preceding Henriette Caillaux’s trial, France’s population had grown by 9.5 percent while Germany’s population had increased by 74.9 percent. At the time of the trial, France had a population of 39 million, and the death rate outstripped the birth rate. By contrast, Germany had experienced rapid population growth in the last century, bringing its population to approximately 60 million in 1914.
France’s demographic weakness raised concerns for the security of the nation, and according to historian Karen Offen, following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, “leaders of the Third Republic were painfully aware of the international implications of the decline: the German victory underscored the relationship between population and national might.”
France’s dangerously low population growth was perceived as a threat to the nation’s security. France’s demographic weakness was compounded by similar discrepancies in industrial prowess. Germany had experienced rapid population growth and industrialization which far outstripped the industrialization France had undergone by 1914. These disparities in population and industrial productivity between the two countries made it unfeasible for France to compete with Germany.
From 1870 through the first years of the twentieth century, France’s diplomatic relationships with Germany fluctuated between the liberals’s policy of détente and the conservatives’s defensive hostility. Historian J.F.V. Keiger writes that following France’s defeat in 1871, “France’s foreign and defense policies were predicated on how to deal with the German ‘question.'” In part, the question of France’s relationship with Germany played itself out in the colonies. On July 1, 1911, a diplomatic standoff began between Germany and France in the Moroccan Port of Agadir. What became known as the Agadir Affair had originated with France’s violation of the Algeçiras agreements, which had prohibited France from interfering in events transpiring in Moroccan backcountry. Earlier that year, France had sent troops into Morocco to intervene on behalf of European citizens in a political upheaval in Fez. In response to France’s violation, Germany ordered a gunboat into the port of Agadir, which then brought Franco-German tensions to a head.
The liberal government under then Premier Joseph Caillaux opted to begin secret negotiations with Germany to avoid an outright conflict, the odds for which were not in France’s favor. An agreement was reached on October 11, 1911, that granted Germany claims on joint economic and financial venture and granted them part of the French Congo. In exchange, France received a protectorate over Morocco, which was far more profitable than the Congo. However, once Joseph Caillaux’s secret dealings with the Germans came to light, the French public was outraged. Le Petit Journal reported on November 8, 1911, that “the accord that was just signed is the definitive condemnation – by the Germans themselves – of the clumsy politics, unjust and without glory, which they have managed against France for more than ten years.” There was a general sense of betrayal and heightened suspicions of Germany that resulted from the Agadir Affair. These tensions and suspicions quashed all hope of achieving détente with Germany was lost and the two countries entered into an arms race.
While tensions with Germany varied in degree of intensity in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, French fears of the German threat mounted with the growing force of the nationalist movement. The nationalist movement was most powerful among French conservatives, but at the turn of the twentieth century, its influence extended beyond political identification. The nationalist movement responded to France’s demographic vulnerabilities by valorizing the family as the building block of population growth.
The Family as France’s Foundation
The value placed on the family was clearly visible in public attitudes toward divorce. France legalized divorce in 1884, but by 1914 the law still sparked tremendous controversy. Le Matin took advantage of this controversy in February 1908, by publishing a series of readers’s letters advocating and opposing divorce. Many of divorce’s supporters argued for the necessity of having the right to escape marriages marked by infidelity, illegitimate children, and suffering in unhappy marriages. However, many of divorce’s opponents aligned the dissolution of families with the weakening of France. One reader responded in a survey on February 9 that “if you want a great France, strong and prosperous, if you want to affirm the stability of our beautiful country and assure its repopulation with healthy and strong men, form indissoluble families.”
Three days later on February 12, another reader wrote, “it is only the homeland in danger and the defense of the territories that can separate spouses,” and in so doing, aligned the unity of family with the defense of nation. Parisians closely identified maintaining strong, unifies families with patriotism and the nation’s defense against threatening outside forces.
At the center of healthy families was a respect for traditional gender roles. Men were to assert their masculine duties of protecting their honor and the honor of their families, while wives were to adhere to a subservient, domestic lifestyle. The recent emergence of the feminist movement in France threatened traditional roles as women began to step outside their spheres and into the world of men. In some extreme anti-feminist circles, loud-spoken individuals painted the feminist movement as a foreign disease infecting French society and undermining traditional values. Yet, as French historian Edward Berenson argues, in more reserved circles “feminism, even in its mildest version, aroused the most exaggerated, and contradictory, species of masculine fears.” These fears arose in response to women breaching traditional gender norms and adopting more masculine roles.
On January 1, 1900, the newspaper Le Gaulois printed in its front page an editorial comparing the women of 1900 to those under Napoleon, claiming that “education changed their form…we gave to women a mature instruction” and “they were subjected to redoubtable contact with ideas” through which they grew “accustomed to looking at truth, in the boldest manner,” and “they become virilized.”
According to the editorial, women who moved outside of their traditional domestic roles to receive a worldly education previously reserved for men would take on other manly characteristics. Women who challenged traditional gender roles lost their femininity and thereby threatened the stability of the family. For this reason, Feminists were perceived as threats to traditional social order and women’s place in the family, and conservative elements of society rejected the feminist movement and behavior that affronted traditional female roles.
Scandal and Divorce
When Henriette Caillaux’s trial opened on July 20, 1914, it found itself well within this historical context that was increasingly dominated by nationalist pride that valorized the family and supported traditional gender roles. The controversy of divorce’s threat to family stability swiftly followed the opening remarks on the first day of the trial as Henriette Caillaux took the stand for the judge’s inquiry. The judge began by asking Mme. Caillaux about the circumstances surrounding her divorce. His direct opening question reflected the imposed centrality of issues of marriage, divorce, and adultery to the case. While these issues were secondary to the main events of the trial, the presiding judge deemed the placement of Henriette in the context of two marriages to be of utmost importance. In 1908, Henriette divorced her husband of fourteen years. She had been having an affair with Joseph Caillaux over the course of the previous year and had decided to leave her first husband to marry Joseph. Joseph, also, was married at the time of their affair to Berthe Gueydan, but unlike Henriette, he had no children by his first marriage. The couple’s adulterous relationship and morally questionable divorces made the integrity of family a theme developed by several newspapers covering the trial.
Henriette’s response to the judge’s questioning reflected careful navigation of social norms. She began by identifying herself with her peers, stating:
“I was raised like all the other young girls of my time… I never left my parents until the day of my marriage.” She then confessed that soon after her first marriage, which took place when she was only nineteen years old, “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.”
Henriette characterized herself as a woman of the time: she had the same upbringing as her peers and the same expectations for a happy marriage, and she placed her family above her personal needs. Parisian society could not blame a woman for desiring happiness in marriage; after all, by 1914, happiness in marriage had become a realistic expectation. Henriette’s desire for a happy marriage was not uncommon for women in the Belle Epoque, and her postponement of personal satisfaction for the sake of her children suggested to the public that she was a woman who upheld family values.
Divorce was a point of contention in the Third Republic, in addition to being widely considered unpatriotic. Divorce undermined family and was thus seen as linked to France’s purported moral decay. In his article on divorce in the Belle Epoque, Berenson writes, that the link between moral decay and divorce, “commentators claimed, had spread to the family itself, an institution progressively weakened by feminism, individualism, and divorce” with depopulation as the “inevitable result.” Immorality, divorce, adultery, and feminism were intimately linked in the conservative minds of the right. Parisian press in opposition to Henriette Caillaux exploited these connections to portray her as unwomanly and thereby associated with the moral decay perceived as subverting French society. By contrast, newspapers that wrote sympathetically of Henriette overlooked her checkered past to emphasize her respect for social norms and her attempt to live by them.
The question of divorce was certainly formidable, but it was second to the public nature of Henriette’s affair with Joseph Caillaux. While much of French society feared that divorce undermined the family, it placed growing value on happiness and sexual fulfillment in marriage. According to Michèle Plott, “between 1860 and 1900…to a far greater extent, upper-middle-class women could construct a sexual sense of self while remaining respectable,” and in fact, “many respectable middle-class women expected to find sexual satisfaction in marriage.” The growing acceptance in France of women’s sexuality and the expectation of sexual fulfillment in marriage resulted in society’s growing acceptance of women engaging in acts of adultery, and it grew increasingly acceptable for women who did not find happiness in marriage to turn elsewhere.
While society accepted women’s adultery, it did not accept the scandal that accompanied public knowledge of such affairs. Women engaged in extramarital relations were expected to keep the knowledge of it within the confines of their intimate circle. The paradox of Belle Epoque society was that the perception of morality and purity of the family was idealized while the reality of discrete immorality was accepted. Parisian society thus deemed it acceptable for a woman to seek sexual fulfillment outside of wedlock if the marriage was devoid of it, but it was unacceptable for a woman to allow her extramarital affairs to be made public. Gaston Calmette’s campaign threatened to make Henriette’s affair public by publishing intimate love-letters on the front page of Le Figaro. Her extreme reaction to the threat of her affair’s publication, that is the murder of M. Calmette, was cast by favorable newspapers as playing by social rules rather than subverting them. By contrast, newspapers hostile to Henriette took advantages of the opportunity to emphasize the morally questionable start to the marriage of Henriette and Joseph, in which two families were dissolved.
Biasses in the Press
Le Matin‘s front page report of the trial’s first day proceedings ran sympathetic headlines that emphasized Henriette’s fear that Calmette would have exposed her affair with Joseph. The headlines printed across Le Matin‘s front page directly quoted Henriette’s testimony and were selected by the editors to summarize the important points from the day’s proceedings. One headline read, “I feared the publication of the lettres intimes, I feared for my husband, for myself, for my daughter.” Le Matin used this quote to highlight the portion of Henriette’s testimony that reflected her concern first for her family and then for her own reputation. This headline made clear to the reader that Henriette feared the consequences of the affair’s exposure for her husband and his career and for her daughter and the consequences she would experience as a result of the dishonorable beginning to her parents’s relationship. Le Matin‘s depiction of Henriette’s fear overlooked the morally questionable affair to direct the reader’s attention to her laudable love and concern for the wellbeing of her family.
Le Matin ran a second headline below the first that emphasized the private, personal nature of the lettres intimes. The second headline read, “it was all flaunted, my intimacy, my most dear secret, but also the most hidden, my womanly honor was made bare.” Whereas the first headline emphasized Henriette’s concern for family, the second contrasted her socially acceptable pursuit of love with Calmette’s threat of exposure. This headline implies that Henriette found happiness in her affair with Joseph and that she recognized the importance of her affair’s secret nature. She desired to adhere to the social norms which dictated the affair remain private if it were to remain socially acceptable. Le Matin’s choice of headline conveys the idea that the exposure of Henriette’s affair was no fault of her own, but rather, that of outside forces which threatened her honor as a woman. Le Matin’s description appealed to public sympathy by casting Henriette as the victim who was faced with the threat of exposure and inadvertent violation of social rules.
More subtly, Le Petit Parisien also emphasized aspects of the trial that cast Henriette Caillaux in a favorable light. The Parisian press included complete transcripts of the trial proceedings in their dailies. To make the long transcripts more manageable, the press divided them into sections with section headings. Section breaks and headings were subject to each paper’s own discretion and each determined where their breaks would fall and what they would be titled. Sections functioned to bring the reader’s attention to certain passages and the section titles served to shape the reader’s perception of the content contained within.
In its July 21 coverage of the trial, Le Petit Parisien inserted a section break at a point in Mme. Caillaux’s testimony that emphasized the private nature of the lettres intimes and M. Calmette’s violation of a woman’s privacy. The newspaper titled the section “The ‘Ton Jo’ letter was a private letter” to introduce Henriette’s statement that “it is well evident that in publishing the ‘Ton Jo’ letter, M. Calmette entered into the private life of the Minister, but in short he also entered into the private life of a woman, the recipient of this letter.”
Le Petit Parisien drew the reader’s attention to a passage portraying Henriette Caillaux as a victim, whose respectability as a woman was threatened indirectly by M. Calmette’s attacks on her husband. Henriette Caillaux was not responsible for the controversial political decisions made by her husband that had instigated the attack from the right; however, she was directly affected by what appeared as negligence on M. Calmette’s part. Therefore, public exposure of Henriette’s affair was not an instance of her social deviancy, but rather M. Calmette’s disregard for feminine honor.
Le Figaro was intimately connected with the trial as its own editor, Gaston Calmette, was murdered by the accused. Unsurprisingly, the newspaper was particularly hostile in its treatment of Henriette. Le Figaro was more nuanced in its bias than other, more widely circulated dailies. It relied primarily on the printed text and photograph captions to sway the reader’s opinion. Le Figaro hostility toward Henriette Caillaux was most clearly conveyed in the photograph captions dispersed throughout the newspaper. One such caption quoted from Henriette’s testimony, claiming, “I did not yet know if I would be going to a tea or to Le Figaro.”
By isolating this phrase outside of the context of the testimony, Le Figaro depicted Henriette as casual and nonchalant in her decision to murder Gaston Calmette. It suggested that Henriette considered murder on par with going to tea with friends. In doing so, Le Figaro cast her as a cold and heartless woman, unfazed by the thought of committing murder. Whereas sympathetic papers stressed Henriette’s fear of exposure, Le Figaro suggests that Henriette was far from emotional in the hours preceding Calmette’s murder.
Le Figaro continued its assault against Henriette’s feminine nature by portraying her as a cold and unwomanly through the caption, “my father put me in the habit of always carrying a little revolver in delicate situations.” If Henriette was accustomed to carrying a gun, she was also familiar with using it. Describing the prosecution’s strategy, Berenson claims that in Belle Epoque society, a woman’s ability to operate a gun was an “apparent departure from female propriety.” Henriette’s familiarity and ownership of a gun situated her in a masculine role.
Furthermore, by drawing the reader’s attention to Henriette’s familiarity with guns, Le Figaro pointed to the question of motivation. Why would Henriette possess a gun? She was a married woman and it was her husband’s duty to protect her honor. As Robert Nye argues, Belle Epoque society was governed by “the rituals of a code of honor that idealized the feminine and required men to defend their families, but they denied to women the quality of honor that would permit their inclusion” in the masculine sphere.
Therefore, if Henriette were truly a feminine woman, she would have no need to carry a gun, unless she intended to usurp her husband’s duty to defend her honor. Le Figaro’s strategic caption implies that Henriette’s nature is at odds with traditional gender roles, which dictated she defer acts of violence in defense of honor to her husband. The newspaper’s subtle accusation that Henriette was in opposition to her role as a woman and a wife, questioned her respect for family and adherence to traditional family values.
Belle Epoque Feminity: Comme il Faut?
Similar to the divorce controversy was the question of women and femininity. French women at the turn of the nineteenth century increasingly questioned traditional gender roles. Le Matin had reported on the first feminist march on Paris on July 6, 1914, taking place just two weeks before the opening of Henriette’s trial, and columns like “Le Jeune Fille ‘Comme il Faut'” made regular appearances on the front pages of the Parisian dailies. Henriette’s trial was not exempt from the feminist discussion, and the French press manipulated the contrasting stereotypes of feminine and feminist to reflect their biases and sympathies throughout their trial coverage.
The trial featured two leading women who in a sense were foils of one another. While the papers cast both women in varying degrees of sympathetic light, themes did emerge. Papers that favored Henriette Caillaux portrayed her as a frail, delicate woman with her frequent outbursts of sobs and repeated fainting spells, while they depicted Berthe Gueydan, Joseph Caillaux’s first wife, as an aggressive woman with marked “bitterness and lassitude.” The newspapers exploited social themes that pitted the feminine against the feminist and established a binary through which they bestowed pardon and condemnation on these two women.
The press reports favoring Henriette Caillaux stressed her submissive, feminine character not only in their descriptions but also in the images they published in their papers. The above illustration appeared in Le Petit Parisien and represents Henriette Caillaux’s postures on the day M. Labori read the notorious lettres intimes. The artist sketches a submissive woman, whose eyes are constantly averted and who positions her body in a submissive attitude. Three out of the five sketches show Henriette’s head bowed. Interestingly, in the two sketches in which men appear, Henriette is in this bowed, submissive attitude. Nothing in her attitude or appearance would seem to threaten the upright and aggressive postures of the men in the sketches.
In the three sketches in which Henriette appears alone, she also appears lost and weak. She is hardly discernible in the first drawing, having bowed her head so low that only the top of her hat is visible. The center sketch is the only one of the five in which she is drawn standing upright; however, her upright posture is far from aggressive, as it shows her looking lost and concerned with her arms drawn toward her as she gazes across the audience. The final sketch depicts Henriette with a raised head and a hand grasping the bar as she blankly stares out into the courtroom. Her attitude seemed weak, timid, and worried. Despite appearing in the minority of sketches, the men dominate this illustration with their aggressive, erect stances. Henriette’s humble, submissive attitude in relation to these men affirms her feminine character and adheres to traditional, submissive feminine gender roles.
Four days later, Le Petit Parisien printed a similar drawing depicting Mme. Caillaux in a submissive, vulnerable light. In the sketch captioned, “What one saw of Mme. Caillaux while the lawyers spoke,” Henriette appeared alone in three postures, all of which depicted only a portion of the top of her head. The images showed Henriette weak and weeping while seated at the dock as her lawyer, M. Labori, read the lettres intimes before the court. Le Petit Parisien sympathetically portrayed Henriette as a woman attempting to hide her shame as she is publically exposed. The drawings suggest that while Mme. Caillaux could not hide her adulterous past, she could hide her person and thereby attempt to maintain a sense of feminine decency.
Le Petit Journal printed sketches that cast Henriette Caillaux in a similarly sympathetic light by drawing on themes of weakness, uncertainty, and vulnerability. In its July 22 drawing of Henriette sitting at the dock, Le Petit Journal’s artist captured the image of a woman whose weak eyes and mouth make her appear tired and sad. She can barely raise her head above the dock’s railing, and the incline of her head coupled with her sad, tired features, gives her a pleading, helpless air. It is as if she cannot help herself but requires the pity and charity of others to bring her out of her condition. In the drawing, she is accompanied by a guard to ensure she behaves while in court. The guard’s presence is almost laughable next to the docile, submissive depiction of Henriette Caillaux. Le Petit Journal’s drawing emphasized Henriette’s gentle and weak femininity that posed no threat to traditional gender roles.
In contrast to Henriette, Berthe Gueydan appeared on the stand as a strong and forceful woman in papers sympathetic to Mme. Caillaux. The above series of drawings were printed in Le Matin the day following Mme. Gueydan’s testimony on the witness stand. The drawings cast her in an aggressive, confident, and assertive attitude. In three of the four drawings, Mme. Gueydan stands with a casual and easy lean and holds her head high. Berthe Gueydan is alone in a man’s world, surrounded by men in the background, and yet her stance suggests that she is comfortable and at ease in this environment. Unlike Henriette, Berthe’s body language depicted in Le Matin is aggressive, strong, and not distressed by being alone in a masculine environment. Berthe’s confidence is matched by defensive and harsh body language in the final drawing. Even while sitting, Berthe keeps her head up and her elbow out. Her manner of sitting is far from the delicate, passive sketches of Mme. Caillaux bowing her head before the men in the court. Berthe’s attitude in these drawings is assertive in a man’s world and could easily be read as threatening masculine power.
Le Petit Parisien‘s depiction of Berthe Gueydan also differed markedly from the timid and weak drawings of Henriette Caillaux. On July 25, the newspaper printed a pair of sketches showing Berthe Gueydan in profile. These images contrasted drastically with the images of Henriette, captioned “Mme. Caillaux’s various attitudes during yesterday’s hearing,” that were printed directly above them. In the photo to the left, Berthe appears old and haggard with her drooping mouth, dark eyes, and slightly sagging head. Rather than seeming soft and feminine, Berthe is depicted as a tired, hardened, and unapproachable woman. Whereas the newspaper portrayed Henriette overcome with emotion and her handkerchief in hand, it represented Berthe as stern and emotionless. Le Petit Parisien paired the picture on the left with the drawing to its right. This second sketch conveyed a different image of Berthe Gueydan, but one equally unwomanly. In the second image, Berthe is shown tight lipped and glaring at the reader with her straining neck aggressively thrusting her head forward. Her aggressive and hostile depiction is again at odds with the submissive, feminine ideal valued by more conservative elements of French society. Through this somewhat hostile representation, Le Petit Parisien distanced Berthe from feminine emotions and stereotyped gender norms.
Ironically, these two images depict Berthe wearing a hat reminiscent of the red Phrygian cap of the French Revolution. The deeply symbolic Phrygian cap was at once a symbol of national liberty and of the violent overthrow of the ancien régime. The French Third Republic was well familiar with this symbolism: Paris had erected a statue of Marianne, a symbol of the French Republic, wearing such a hat in 1883 in the Place de la République. Rather than emitting a sense of patriotism, Berthe wearing Marianne’s Phrygian cap only reinforced her threatening character. Berthe’s unwomanly and hardened image aligned her with masculine characteristics. Her image subverted traditional gender roles and thereby undermined a core element of the family. In the minds of many of the French press’s readers, as previously demonstrated, a threat to the family was by nature a threat to the national strength. Therefore, Le Petit Parisien’s sketches of Berthe wearing a patriotic Phrygian cap were more of a mocking caricature than a move to bestow patriotic valor on Joseph Caillaux’s former wife.
Unsurprisingly, Le Figaro strongly opposed the binary depiction that favored Henriette as submissively feminine and Berthe as aggressively masculine. The conservative newspaper described Mme. Caillaux as “cold-blooded” and marked by “impatience,” “disappointed ambition,” and “disheartened snobbery.”
In contrast, Le Figaro sympathetically cast Mme. Gueydan as a woman plagued by the hardship of a “sad picture of a household, where, after love was lost, the husband had nothing left but hate and wanted to throw the woman he once loved to the street.” Yet Le Figaro‘s slant was expected as Henriette had shot its editor, and does not accurately reflect the majority of newspapers’s characterization of the two women. In fact, as Berenson notes, “commentators outside Le Figaro‘s orbit – even those quite hostile to Henriette Caillaux – presented Berthe Gueydan as tough, aggressive, and capable of caring for herself.”
While Le Figaro’s representation of the two women opposed that of the majority of Paris’s popular press, the conservative newspaper also drew from stereotypes to advance its biases. In the image above, Le Figaro depicted Henriette Caillaux as the most prominent figure in the male-dominated courtroom. Unlike the submissive qualities emphasized in sympathetic newspapers, Henriette is drawn as the dominant figure, towering over the men in the courtroom. Her prominent placement endows her with a sense of authority as she looks down on the bowed heads of lawyers and guards. Both lawyers and guards are responsible for preserving order; however, in Le Figaro’s sketch of Henriette, she has ironically usurped the order by defying the authority and dominance given to these men by their traditional gender roles.
Le Figaro contrasted Henriette with its sketches of Berthe Gueydan. Far from the aggressive, masculine caricature found in rival newspapers, Le Figaro fashioned Mme. Gueydan into an emotional, distraught, and helpless woman who had been betrayed by an unfaithful husband and usurped by his mistress. In the image printed on the front page of Le Figaro’s July 24 issue, the image of Berthe Gueydan appears soft and delicate. Her sense of fragility is intensified by her raised eyebrows and parted lips, which create a helpless, lost image of Mme. Gueydan. Le Figaro’s image personifies the themes of betrayal and injustice the newspaper bestowed on Berthe in its columns. In doing so, Le Figaro played on the divorce controversy to ignite pity amongst its readership to further the newspaper’s bias against Henriette Caillaux.
On the sixth day of the trial, M. Labori stood before the courtroom overflowing with reporters and spectators and began to read aloud the notorious lettres intimes, for which Henriette Caillaux had reportedly been willing to kill to prevent their publication. Le Matin had described Henriette as she entered the court that morning as “more pale than ever and, already, giving signs of extreme distress.” Despite the “almost super human effort…not to give vent to her feelings and scream,” Mme. Caillaux, overcome with emotions, fainted as M. Labori finished his readings, having experienced what Le Petit Parisian termed, “an attack of nerves.”
The trial was suspended until Henriette Caillaux was able to return, but even then, according to reports from The New York Herald, “she was frightfully pale,” and “a helpless, semi-inanimate form” for the remainder of the hearings. Yet not all journalists present had the same interpretation of the notorious letters and Henriette’s climatic fainting spell. In contrast to the sympathetic tones taken by many newspapers, the conservative Le Figaro dismissed the hype surrounding the letters, claiming that they contained “nothing. Absolutely nothing” and asserted that “the letters were an alibi for her.”
Instead of a woman ashamed and frightened that her affair would be publically exposed, Le Figaro claimed that the hype surrounding the letters was merely an act. The paper implied that Henriette hid behind a feminine disguise to appear as an adherent of social rules that permitted women to have private love affairs when trapped in an unhappy marriage, so long as they guarded against their public exposure.
French newspapers had found their success in the Third Republic, but along with it they also found their notorious reputation for bias reporting. In the case of Henriette Caillaux’s trial, Parisian newspapers slanted their descriptions of the trial in terms of the integrity of the family and the affirmation of traditional gender roles. For many newspapers, the image of Henriette Caillaux as a weak and feminine woman was manipulated by editors and reporters favorable to Henriette Caillaux. By situating Henriette in the context of family and gender, the newspapers appealed to the existing social framework in Belle Epoque society. Newspapers that hoped for her acquittal described a woman subject to her own emotions, who, despite all efforts, was unable to master the emotional distress the public exposure of her scandalous affair caused her. Her weak, frail nature was the antithesis of masculine strength, and as such, her character appeared to pose no threat to male authority.
Extreme biases did exist in the press, and not all newspapers shared the same biases in Henriette Caillaux’s trial. Yet, while French dailies were divided in the biases they had toward Henriette Caillaux and Berthe Gueydan, they were unified in their use of femininity and gender roles to cast the two women as opposing characters. Sympathetic and hostile newspapers alike drew from themes of family and femininity existent in 1914 Parisian society to bias their papers and influence their readers. Headlines, section titles, commentary, and images carried the undercurrents of overarching social questions of femininity, feminism, changing gender roles, and how they fit within the context of the family. The gender question took a prominent place in the coverage of Henriette Caillaux’s trial and was used as leverage to support or oppose her acquittal.
Books of The Times; A Belle Epoque Killing That Wasn’t a Murder
By herbert Mitgang – The New York Times
March 11, 1992
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 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. 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. . . . ‘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. 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.