July 20

This Day in History

World War I

Jul 20, 1914:

Caillaux trial begins in Paris

As war threatened in the Balkans, the attention of much of the French people focuses instead on the sensational case of Madame Henriette Caillaux, whose trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette, editor of the newspaper Le Figaro, opens on July 20, 1914, in Paris.

Joseph Caillaux, a left-wing politician, had been appointed prime minister of France in 1911. He was forced out of office the following year, however, after he was accused of being too accommodating to Germany. Chosen again as a cabinet minister in 1913, the relatively pacifist Caillaux was under almost constant attack from the right. In his personal life, Caillaux was relatively indiscreet, parading his mistresses around during his life as a bachelor and carrying on a secret love affair with one of them, his future second wife, while he was still married to his first wife.

Although Caillaux was an old friend of Raymond Poincare, elected president of France in March 1913, he and Poincare had become political adversaries even before World War I began the following summer. Shortly after his election, Poincare supported legislation that would increase the required length of military duty in France from two to three years, a measure that seemed necessary to many as a way of offsetting Germany's enormous population advantage–70 million to 40 million–in the case of a war. Despite opposition from Caillaux and other liberals, including the country's Socialist leader, Jean Jaures, the bill passed in August 1913. When Caillaux continued to attack it, he became the object of a major smear campaign led by Gaston Calmette, the most powerful journalist in France and the editor of the leading right-wing journal Le Figaro.

Beginning in December 1913, Calmette claimed he could and would publicize certain documents that would prove Caillaux, while serving as minister of finance in 1911, had obstructed justice in a financial scandal in which he may have been personally involved. Moreover, Calmette threatened to publish love letters exchanged between Caillaux and his second wife, Henriette, while he was still married to his first wife.

When Calmette threatened to publish intercepted wire communications supposedly showing Caillaux's sympathy to Germany–a claim that spurred a protest by the German government against the interception of its official correspondence–Caillaux went to Poincare and asked him to prevent Calmette from revealing the documents. If Poincare declined to do so, Caillaux pointed out, he himself would make public intercepted cables in his possession that revealed the French president's secret negotiations with the Vatican, a revelation that would certainly anger Poincare's secular and anticlerical supporters. The French government subsequently issued an official denial of the existence of the German cables, but Calmette continued to threaten to publish Caillaux's love letters.

On March 16, 1914, Henriette Caillaux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro in the rue Drouot. After waiting for an hour to see the chief editor, she walked with him into his private office and fired six shots at him from her automatic pistol. Struck by four of the bullets, Calmette died that evening.

While to the east, in Vienna and Berlin, plans proceeded that would begin the First World War, Parisians–and many others in France–were riveted by the Caillaux affair, and completely unaware of the imminent crisis in Europe. In addition to being a sensational crime, the case was also a clash between left- and right-wing politics in France. Madame Caillaux's trial for Calmette's murder began July 20, 1914. Eight days later, the jury acquitted Madame Caillaux, on the grounds that hers was a crime passionnel. The same day, July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

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