France’s Favourite Criminal

Douglas Johnson

  • 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.

These three heroes resembled each other in several ways. Each appeared to be the robber of the rich, rather than a crook from whom ordinary people had much to fear. Spaggiari’s victims were known to be embarrassed because they had lost valuables and monies which were unknown to the tax authorities; Leroy had made off with the weekend takings of four supermarkets; Mesrine was a specialist in robbing banks and had most recently kidnapped a millionaire and attacked a casino. British observers must have been flattered to see that the model for such behaviour was always Robin Hood. There was the conviction that all three were far from being common criminals; they appeared to be intelligent, not only in their crimes but also in their handling of the media and the boosting of their personal publicity. There was also the suspicion that politics were somehow involved. Spaggiari had been an associate (how close no one could say but everyone could look knowing) of the controversial mayor of Nice, Monsieur Médicin; Leroy had been a member of the secret army which worked for the French Algerian diehards; Mesrine had also worked for this force and had made a number of political statements. L’Humanité insinuated that Mesrine’s campaign against high-security sections in French prisons had gained him favoured treatment from some representatives of the Establishment.

But above all, what created the enthusiastic interest of the public was that all three had made fools of the police and the judicial system. Spaggiari had leapt from a courtroom window onto a waiting motorbike, and ever afterwards had discussed (from the safety of his temporary exile) whether his gesture towards the judge, as he disappeared from sight, was one of menace or of contempt. It is easy to imagine the wry faces of Leroy’s colleagues when they were discovered, after the weekend, locked in an empty strongroom, each notably revolverless, and Leroy had not only shown insolence when he left a message for the police in his abandoned car, saying ‘arrivederci’, but resource, since the police then calculated that he was heading for Italy, a mistake which caused them to lose valuable time. Mesrine was a master of the art of making the police look absurd, as he made his escapes, carried out several robberies and a kidnapping disguised as an inspector, and publicly befriended his opponents in a condescending camaraderie which must have caused as much apoplexy in the commissariats as it caused hilarity in the general public.

This is an interesting phenomenon. It is always said that in France it is only ridicule that is fatal. But recent experience seems to modify this dictum. The most prominent of French socialist leaders has continued his career unharmed by memories of the night when he lay down on the pavement, not far from the Bibliothèque Nationale, and pretended to have escaped an assassination attempt. Another politician, urging television viewers to vote non in a referendum, reached his conclusion with a powerful plea to vote oui – an eloquent lapsus which in no way affected his reputation. A well-known illustrated paper published a harrowing account of the last moments of Maurice Chevalier, which appeared before the old trouper’s death – an unfortunate mistake which does not seem to have changed either its sales or its habits. French sailors guarding Israeli submarines at Cherbourg, nuclear scientists arranging their power supplies, and the horde of architects and planners whose reputations ought to have been ruined over the Pompidou Centre and the tower blocks of La Défense, all emerge unscathed from their chastening and humiliating experiences. But the French police and the judiciary are more sensitive. Their red faces are expected, and they actually occur; they are the subject of commentary and a source of national relish; the shame of the corps is shared by every individual member. It does not matter if the politicians or journalists or civil servants render themselves ridiculous or are made into laughing stocks – every man can hence to his idle bed. But the police and the judiciary must have a virtue to their enterprise. They are vulnerable. The public notices their discomfiture and they are aware of being scrutinised.

It is undoubtedly because of these circumstances that the shooting of Mesrine in November last year became something of a police festival. The man who had escaped from so many ambushes that it was confidently suggested by some that he had himself been a policeman and that he must have maintained some of his contacts with the force, found himself surrounded as he was driving through the Place de Clignancourt. Before he could open the door of his car high-velocity bullets were pumped into him with all the intensity of a massacre. Afterwards the police congratulated and embraced each other, as Carey Schofield puts it in her book, like members of a football team who had just scored a goal. The Minister of the Interior rushed to the Elysée Palace in order to receive the congratulations of the President. Commissioners and inspectors hastily called a press conference so that their triumph could be shown and told to the farthermost parts of the land. Everywhere French policemen walked taller and looked bolder as they saw an end to the jeers and cat-calls of those who had been anxious to point out that Mesrine was still at large.

And meanwhile the bleeding body stayed slumped in the car, maintained in its position by the scat belt, which was securely fastened, according to the law. Why did it stay there for so long? Were the police frightened of a possible explosion from the grenades which Mesrine had boasted were always in his car? Did the paper formalities necessitate a prolonged process of tape measurements? Had the special unit which had the mission of getting Mesrine failed to make arrangements for the collection of the corpse and the disposal of the car? It seems more likely that the authorities were anxious to achieve the maximum of publicity and to display the body until every photographer had been satisfied. Policemen mingled with the crowds, and if they had not taken part in the shoot-out they expressed their disappointment that they had not been able to put at least one bullet into their enemy. Other policemen explained the dangers of their jobs. Being on traffic duty seemed harmless enough, but just think, I could have stopped Mesrine and told him to be more attentive to the red lights, and what would he have done then? Naturally no French crowd is complete without the sententious voice of the schoolteacher. ‘It’s just as well he’s dead,’ came the predictable comment. ‘I’m a teacher and the young were beginning to be fascinated by him. It was time he was shot.’ Thus the voice of morality, doubtless spoken by one who had avidly read everything about Mesrine’s exploits and who even now will be telling his young charges how he saw Mesrine dead and will thus add to the legend (‘At one moment I thought the body moved ...’).

Mesrine was given a religious burial in the presence of his mother. There were large crowds in attendance, but the attention of the police was on the floral tributes, the largest of which was accompanied by a blank card. Within a few days, Mesrine’s mother and daughter brought a legal action against the police for having shot Mesrine without giving him the chance to surrender, and one of his accomplices, hidden in the depths of the countryside, escaped capture. This last episode showed that it was not just Mesrine who could not be caught, and confirms the belief that the French police were too anxious to use hundreds of men in their operations, thus creating confusion amongst a variety of units which did not know one another and allowing the wanted man to slip away.

Why was Mesrine the sort of man he was? Carey Schofield, for all that her book has obviously been written in some haste, has the good sense to avoid any oversimplified psychological mock-up of her hero. We learn that the happy childhood in Clichy was broken up by the war; we are told that Mesrine’s relations with his father were very complex – the two were often separated and the son would do daring and terrible things in the hope that when he saw his father again he would show anger, disapproval, even rejection. But this never happened and Mesrine’s superego was sent on a trail which could only end in disaster. Or so we can gather from this book; the author is wise enough not to commit herself to such a version of a criminal career.

It is possible to see Mesrine as an ordinary hard-working person, whose trade just happened to be robbery and violence. Much that seems romantic and exotic is in reality easily explicable. Why did Mesrine so untypically humiliate a journalist from Minute, stripping him naked and wounding him, then sending photographs of the victim to Le Matin? These were not the actions of a man whose mental stability was collapsing, but rather the precautions of a wary criminal who suspected that the journalist carried an electronic device which would bring the police to him. Why did Mesrine go on and on as a criminal when he was longing only to settle in to his house in Marly le Roi and change the wallpaper? For the simple reason that he had very little money left. Often Mesrine’s spectacular robberies brought him the most disappointing sums. He was therefore always looking for new victims, and he was working hard, building up a mass of information about individuals whom he might kidnap: their habits, their horses, their cars, servants, children, dogs. And as he sat in his flat in the 18th Arrondissement drawing up list after list, so the police, too, were patiently following up more than a hundred people who might work for Mesrine. Eventually the police found a man who led them to the house in the Rue Belliard. A few minutes later an elderly man with a stick came out. It was the turn of the police to be lucky, since the man on duty had seen Mesrine when he had been arrested in 1973. He recognised him and all was soon over. Except for the legend.