Caillaux, Joseph

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CAILLAUX, JOSEPH (1863–1944), French politician.

Joseph Caillaux was one of the most paradoxical leaders of the French Third Republic (1870–1940). Despite his origins as a grand bourgeois, Caillaux championed fiscal reforms accused of soaking the rich. Against the native nationalism of his conservative milieu, he advocated compromise and conciliation with the "hereditary enemy" across the Rhine. And in a political culture that expected outward observance of strict moral codes, Caillaux flaunted his mistresses and did not shy away from divorce, which was legalized only in 1884.

As a young man, Joseph Caillaux studied law and economics at the elite École libre des sciences politiques, becoming a specialist in government finance. He was elected to the National Assembly in 1898 and, the following year, at the tender age of thirty-six, named minister of finance. Caillaux's cautious republicanism together with his economic expertise recommended him to the prime minister, René Waldeck-Rousseau, who sought conservative ballast for his left-leaning "government of national defense," formed in the wake of the Dreyfus affair.

During this early period, Caillaux's political views remained relatively conventional; it was his style and demeanor that stood out. At a time when male politicians and business leaders dressed in basic black, Caillaux looked like a "dandy straight out of Balzac" (Vergnet, p. 1) As for his personality, commentators found him so unique that "Even the genius of a Shakespeare could never have captured him" (Vergnet, p. 3). His imperious, manic behavior aroused hostility, and when he moved to the left after 1905, his parliamentary opponents were all the more determined to silence him. But Caillaux's political skills were such that he managed to steer a highly controversial income tax bill though both the Assembly and the Senate. Republican politicians had been working to enact such a tax since 1848.

On becoming prime minister in 1911, Caillaux antagonized his opponents still more by compromising with Germany over opposing colonial claims. Rather than risk war over Morocco, Caillaux agreed to give the Kaiser a portion of the French Congo in exchange for a German withdrawal from the port of Agadir. Outraged nationalists toppled Caillaux's government after only three months in office.

Elected president of the center-left Radical Party in 1913, Caillaux was the logical choice for a new term as prime minister in December of that year. But President Raymond Poincaré preferred a more pliable politician, and Caillaux had to settle once again for the ministry of finance. He nonetheless dominated the new government, and opponents feared he would abrogate a new law requiring three years of military service rather than two. Though Caillaux's sometime allies on the socialist left wanted to scale back military service, there is no evidence the finance minister shared this position. No matter, the editor of Le Figaro, Gaston Calmette, undertook a ferocious press campaign designed to oust Caillaux from office. The editor accused the former prime minister of treasonous machinations with Germany, stock market manipulation, and illegal judicial interventions. Le Figaro's attacks culminated with the publication on 13 March 1914 of a personal letter the finance minister had written thirteen years earlier. The letter revealed some political double-dealing on Caillaux's part and included an affectionate closing that suggested he and the married Berthe Gueydan, later his first wife, were having an intimate affair. In publishing a personal letter, Calmette had violated a journalistic taboo, shocking Caillaux's current wife, Henriette. The latter became convinced, or so she later claimed, that Le Figaro would now reveal embarrassing letters Joseph had written her.

On 16 March 1914, Henriette Caillaux entered Calmette's office and shot him six times at point-blank range. The editor's horrified colleagues handed her to the police, smoking gun in hand. Her husband resigned from the cabinet, and four months later she stood trial for murder. Joseph Caillaux dominated these proceedings as he had the French parliament, but it was Henriette Caillaux's testimony that swayed the jury. No feminist femme fatale, she claimed to be a weak-willed woman governed by passions beyond her conscious control. Just three days before the outbreak of World War I, Madame Caillaux was acquitted of all charges.

Despite the favorable outcome, the "pro-German" and morally compromised Joseph Caillaux was excluded from the wartime cabinet, his once-brilliant career in shambles. Caillaux's fortunes sank so low that France's wartime premier, Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), had him arrested for treason. But Caillaux returned briefly to the finance ministry in the mid-1920s and was elected to the Senate, where he served continuously until the fall of France in June 1940. He died at home in Mamers (Sarthe) shortly after the liberation of Paris in 1944.

See alsoAnticlericalism; Clemenceau, Georges; France; Radicalism.


Allain, Jean-Claude. Joseph Caillaux. 2 vols. Paris, 1978.

Berenson, Edward. The Trial of Madame Caillaux. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1992.

Caillaux, Joseph. Mes mémoires. 3 vols. Paris, 1947.

Vergnet, Paul. Joseph Caillaux. Paris, 1918.

Edward Berenson