A blue lorry, a tarpaulin over the back, drew up alongside the BMW. The driver signaled to Mesrine that he wanted to cut across him to turn right. Mesrine waved him on and then noticed with apprehension that another lorry was drawn up behind him. The first lorry drove in front of him and stopped suddenly, right in the path of the BMW. From under the tarpaulin four men appeared, each with a gun leveled at the car. There was a split second’s pause before twenty-one bullets crashed through the windscreen, tearing into Mesrine. A car drew up alongside the BMW. The man in the passenger seat leant out and calmly fired a shot into the side of Mesrine’s head, like an officer finishing off a condemned man after execution by firing squad.
— Carey Schofield, Mesrine: The Life and Death of a Supercrook (1980)
So, who was the mysterious Robin Hood-like brigand whose corpse was dragged unceremoniously out onto the blood-soaked cobbles of the Place de Clignancourt on November 2nd, 1979 for all the world to see? Why was everyone, from the President in the Elysee Palace to the humble schoolmaster in Chateauroux, riveted to their television screens as news broke of Mesrine’s gory demise? What secret history did his violent death at the hands of a crack unit of the OCRB conceal?
High-velocity bullets, coated with brass so as to penetrate the windscreen and explode on impact with his skull, rendered the “man of a thousand faces” unrecognizable. His wife Sylvie Jeanjacquot tumbled out of the passenger door and ran down the street screaming: “You animals; why did you shoot my dog!” before collapsing to the floor with blood streaming from wounds to her head and arm.
Police surged around the car, giving high fives and draping a blanket over their victim’s shattered face. Mobile units cordoned off the whole area while the front door to Mesrine’s flat, some 500 meters distant on Rue Belliard, was prized open, the nervous investigative team advancing gingerly, until they were given the all-clear that there were no booby-traps inside.
France’s most notorious fugitive, responsible for numerous assassinations, bank robberies, burglaries, and kidnappings, as well as escaping from the famous La Sante prison, had emerged in the years prior to his lead-filled end as something of a charismatic and romanticized figure. Mesrine was the indomitable cigar-chewing Gaul, the bad-boy lover from the underground set, always surrounded by beautiful bikini-clad babes, a glamorous anti-establishment film noir gangster like Jean Servais’ sociopath, Tony, from Jules Dassin’s movie Rififi (1955).
Mesrine had allegedly learned his trade by serving an apprenticeship with Roger Degueldre’s elite Delta Commandos of the Organisation armée secrète (OAS), clandestine troops that moved along the grand boulevards and through the narrow alleys of North African cities like Algiers and Oran to the thumping hypnotic rhythm of the Pied Noirs, hammering on casserole dishes and saucepans, sounding out “Al-ge-rie Fran-caise” as dusk fell over the dusty Casbahs.
Persistent but unsubstantiated rumors circulate even to this day among criminal fraternities and the ever-dwindling ex-OAS circles around Marseilles hinting that Mesrine was involved in gun-running and extortion on the mainland in order to support the European Algerian cause on the other side of the Mediterranean. Some say it was Mesrine himself who planned and executed the publicity-grabbing hoisting of the OAS flag on top of one of the towers of the Notre-Dame cathedral in the fall of 1961.
Stories of his escapades resounded like the gelignite the OAS used in support of their patriotic cause. This clandestine, multi-sided insurgency saw them pitted not only against the guerilla units of the Muslim Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), who detonated bombs in French shops and restaurants, but also the Service de Documentation et de Contre-Espionnage: the French Intelligence Service and their turn-coat agents nicknamed barbouzes, or false beards.
A paranoid and suspicion-filled environment where one loose word could result in a knife attack in the shadows.
Mesrine quickly learned from the fearless loyalists of the OAS never to tell anyone anything they did not need to know. He would avoid using telephones and refuse to use his real name, instead preferring to use aliases like Edouard or Gilles, and would use expressions that conveyed a location for a rendezvous rather than an actual address.
It is generally thought that his experiences at this time filled him with a genuine contempt for his Arab adversaries and an instinctive dislike for Les Flics, who he believed were merely hirelings defending the traitorous de Gaulle. De Gaulle himself was associated with a very disturbing childhood memory detailed in Schofield’s sensationalist biography:
It wasn’t until after the Germans had left that he saw most of the Resistance by daylight. They looked dirty and tired. They arrived by car this time, at the farm where Mesrine was living. Women with shaved heads were standing among them, being jeered at and insulted. The men were laughing at them, throwing things at them, tipping wine over them. They tore one woman’s dress off, raped her, and beat her unconscious with a rifle butt. Jacques had never seen a naked woman before, nor had he known people who usually seemed good and kind be so brutal. A few days before he had found a man in a ditch near the farm, face down. Scores were being settled, the people who had felt aggrieved and outraged for so long were exacting revenge. Hatred was evident everywhere and Mesrine said years later that for him the Liberation of France surpassed in horror the Occupation.
The FLN repeated such horrors, and Mesrine bore witness.
They dragged a young honeymooning French couple off a bus in the Aures Mountains on All Saints Day in 1954 and shot them; the mindless murder of dozens of Europeans by fanatical fellagha armed with clubs, sticks, axes, knives, and pitchforks while chanting “Jihad!” on August 20th, 1955 in Philippeville; the ambush, mutilation, and killing of 19 French troops of the 9th Colonial Infantry Regiment in the Palestro Gorge in May 1956; the mass murder of hundreds of Europeans who had their throats cut by a raging mob in Oran at the time of Independence.
These murderous events kept his overwhelmingly mercenary instincts sufficiently in check so that he continued to be part of the highly committed OAS network long after Algeria became independent on July 3rd, 1962. The OAS leader, Raoul Salan, had been confined to the Tulle prison, and Degueldre, singing The Marseilles, was executed by firing squad. Rather than receiving the customary coup de grace, he was instead shot in the shoulder in order to prolong his agony.
Barbarity, along with plenty of OAS cash, saw Mesrine involved in intrigue in the house of the Governor of Palma de Mallorca in December 1965, after which he was flown to Madrid and interviewed by the French ambassador. Many believed that he was acting on behalf of a splinter-group of the OAS with connections right up into the French government. It’s a supposition that might explain the very light sentence he received for the burglary and why he was almost immediately allowed to return to Paris. There, he was later commissioned to steal a top-secret document from a government office by the very men who had stood shoulder to shoulder with Jean Bastien-Thiry, the air force lieutenant-colonel who came so close to killing President de Gaulle in revenge for his facilitation of the Oran genocide. Mesrine mesmerizingly fulfilled his obligations within four hours of agreeing to the theft, proudly brandishing the document before the surprised eyes of the nationalists who had sought it for so long.
These ideological undertakings were a far cry from the depraved nightclub underworld of petty criminals, prostitutes, and drugs with which he was soon to become intimately associated — taunting female victims with a flick-knife and becoming embroiled with pickpockets, bigamists, and arsonists. This trajectory led him to make several statements about attacking maximum-security prisons in the mid-1970s. This led to his coming into contact with the counter-cultural ideas of the ultra-Left Italian Red Brigades. The Brigades were more than willing to forgive his neo-fascist OAS past in order to claim him as an asset due to his excellent knowledge of firearms, his proven ability to rob banks, kidnap industrialists for ransom, and for his renowned fearlessness. Mesrine was not unlike Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader in Germany, who had won the sneaking admiration of thousands upon thousands of left-leaning liberals all across Europe.
This nihilism is perfectly encapsulated in Jean-Francois Richet’s two-part biographical movie Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One (2008). A showcase for the ebullient Vincent Cassel, winner of the Best Actor at the Cesar Awards, the piece also took the prizes for Best Director and Best Sound Effects. Mesrine has been favorably compared to the American movie Scarface (1983). Richet’s cinematic denouement depicts Commissioner Broussard, the man who had pursued Mesrine for years, arriving at the scene of his ambush, ordering the hysterical and bleeding Sylvie to be taken away by ambulance and then grimly looking down at the wanted man’s corpse.
The script by Abdel Raouf Dafri carefully avoids reference to the “Kabyle smile” slashed throats of pied noirs in Oran or the emotional eulogy made by a man whose wife had been gang-raped and her vagina mutilated by the FLN at Philippeville. These are images that Mesrine would have been very wise to remember given his long affiliation with the OAS — but in the end, they became distant memories as he slid into the cesspit of criminality and pseudo-Marxist-Leninist terrorist activity.
A flawed hero to a lost but noble cause.
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