France’s Favourite Criminal
- Mesrine: the Life and Death of a Super-crook by Carey Schofield
Penguin, 201 pp, £95.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 14 005607 6
The summer of 1979 was fine, so far as the French were concerned. In the great annual reshuffle of the social norms, which they have turned into a ritual with all the characteristics of a cult, the instant societies of the beach, the camping-site and the résidence secondaire were readily provided with the stockrooms from which conversations could be organised. There were three focal points. There was Spaggiari, who was the organiser and promoter of the casse du siècle, when he and his associates had profited from an earlier summer holiday to break into the vaults of a bank in Nice and rifle its secret strong-boxes. Several arrests had been made but the leader Spaggiari (known as ‘Bert’) had made a dramatic escape. More recently there was a certain Leroy, the trusted employee of a security company, who had suggested to his three fellow guards that he would spend the long summer’s night cleaning all their revolvers; once they were disarmed he had used his weapon to subdue them and disappeared with the large sum of money which they were supposedly protecting. And there was Mesrine, the murderer, kidnapper and bandit, Public Enemy Number One, whom the police could not hold, and whose exploits had demanded the attention of the French public for more than six years.
Vol. 2 No. 24 · 18 December 1980
From Anne Sington
SIR: I have not read Carey Schofield’s Mesrine: the Life and Death of a Super-Crook, so do not know whether the author or the reviewer. Douglas Johnson, is responsible for a cocktail of gratuitous prejudice and misinformation ( (LRB, 7 August). The socialist leader (whom Mr Johnson, perhaps wisely in the circumstances, leaves unnamed) did not ‘lie down on the pavement not far from the Bibliothèque Nationale’ and pretend to have escaped an assassination attempt. He knocked on the door of an apartment near the Jardin de l’Observatoire. His life was among those repeatedly threatened in the closing stages of the Algerian War. It is now widely accepted that he believed in the plot to kill him, lost his head and lent himself to a foolish masquerade. This gives no one a licence to make out his behaviour as more ridiculous than it was. Moreover, he no more ‘continued his career unharmed’ by this farce than did Senator Kennedy after Chappaquiddick.
The reviewer appears to believe that a consensus exists that the careers of a motley collection of Frenchmen ought to have been ruined by certain ‘chastening and humiliating experiences’, instead of which they ‘emerged unscathed’. Among these, figure ‘nuclear scientists arranging their power supplies’. This appears to be a case of wobbly syntax superimposed on muddled thinking. France’s ambitious and controversial nuclear programme is hardly chastening to the scientists responsible – who do not ‘arrange’ power supplies (whatever that means), their own or anyone else’s. The Pompidou Centre (whose architects were British and Italian) is not, as Mr Johnson appears to imagine, universally despised. Like atomic energy, it is controversial: a lot of people are against it, but a lot of people are for it, finding it visually stimulating, a courageous rising to a challenge. On what does Mr Johnson base the assumption that the schoolteacher who said he was glad Mesrine had been killed, because of his influence on the young, ‘doubtless’ and ‘avidly’ read all about the crook and regaled his young charges with an eye-witness account of his death?
I return, finally, to the opening sentence, which at once established the kind of thing the reader was in for. ‘The great annual reshuffle of the social norms, which [the French] have turned into a ritual with all the characteristics of a cult’, seems to be just a pretentious way of saying that the French enjoy their long summer holiday. Perhaps after this one should not have read on.
Douglas Johnson writes: Miss Anne Sington is quite right. I should have mentioned Mitterrand by name when I was recalling the ludicrous role which he played in the days of the Poujadists, the memory of which does not seem to have affected his political destiny (the likelihood of being defeated for the third time in a presidential election). I have heard the Pompidou building praised. One French person expressed pleasure that even though they had no petrol, they now had an oil refinery in the centre of Paris. I had always thought that the French had a cult of holidays, especially in the summer, but I could be wrong about this, at about Mitterrand’s prospects or the Pompidou Centre’s aesthetic qualities.