Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Crime Passionnel

A French Sensation

It is impossible to overstate the sensation the slaying caused.

The story was front-page news across France for months. British, Spanish and Italian newspapers also covered it with breathless prose. The case rated a story in the New York Times and a long epistle in the New Yorker magazine.

Initially, most Frenchmen were angry that their war hero had been taken from them. News accounts characterized Yvonne Chevallier as an uncouth hick who was outmatched culturally and intellectually by the young statesman. Who could blame Pierre for seeking more sophisticated companionship?

Yvonne had not mentioned the love triangle motive in her first interview with police. But she later confessed that she had been jealous of her husbands affection for the redhead.

Gradually, public opinion began to shift as the details of Chevalliers brazen affair and cold, cruel treatment of his wife began to leak out.

France-Soir newspaper logo
France-Soir newspaper logo

Jean Laborde, a reporter with France-Soir, cozied up to Yvonnes family and was given access to her letters. Again and again, she had sworn eternal love for Pierre, even as she revealed her anxiety over his relationship with Jeanne Perreau.

Americans living in Paris in those days observed with slack jaws the gasping manner in which the French treated love triangle crimes. This phenomenon made its way into the memoirs of a number of Yankee writers who witnessed laffair Chevallier

I never ceased to be intrigued by the way crimes passionnels spellbound the French, wrote journalist Stanley Karnow in Paris in the Fifties. They worshipped reason and cherished moderation as the traits that made humans superior to animals. But they would drool over the sight of wives, husbands, mistresses and loves enmeshed in sordid imbroglios, as though these tragedies were real-life theater.

Ben Bradlee
Ben Bradlee
The American journalist Ben Bradlee, longtime editor of the Washington Post, observed the Chevallier theater while working as a young reporter in Paris.

In his memoir, A Good Life, Bradlee described the Chevallier case as "one of the great French cultural events, a crime passionel."

Crimes of Passion
Crimes of Passion
Bradley wrote, The French press went crazy, throwing caution to the wind with police reporters, court reporters, sob sisters, psychiatrists, novelists, the works. The French felt they invented the crime passionnel. They were determined to leave nothing unsaid and they left nothing unsaid. The whole country was either outraged, or outraged that anyone would be outraged.

Yvonne Chevallier was accused of murder and confined to jail for more than a year while awaiting trial. The proceedings were moved to Reims, 150 miles northeast of Orleans, in a failed attempt to reduce the public spectacle.

By the time the trial began, on November 5, 1952, no detailreal or imagined--of the lives, relationships and affairs of the principals involved had gone unreported.

Karnow wrote, As her trial approached, the French press plunged into a feeding frenzy. Reporters, psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and other commentators advanced an array of theses on the Chevalliers relationship. Characteristically, in class-conscious France, much was made of their divergent backgrounds: she a peasants daughter, he the scion on an illustrious dynasty...But most opinion blamed Chevallier for his misbehavior.

The French penal code in those days included a love-triangle provision that was a vestige of the Napoleonic era. It absolved from punishment any man who committed homicide after finding his wife in bed with another man.

The Chevallier case was widely viewed as a clear-cut--albeit gender-reversed--example of the crime-of-passion provision.

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