France’s enemy number one: Armed robber Redoine Faid is now on the run after a spectacular jail break

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John Lichfield charts the 40-year-old's progress from teen delinquent to the notorious crime boss inspired by Hollywood gangsters

Paris

Redoine Faid has finally achieved the star billing that he has craved all his life. He is France’s “public enemy number one”.

As a young delinquent in a troubled suburb north of Paris, Faid took his inspiration, and modus operandi, from American gangster movies. “Take away the [lessons taught by] cinema and you would have 50 per cent less crime,” he once told Michael Mann, the director of Heat (1995), his favourite film.

In a raid on a security truck in 1997, Faid and his associates wore ice-hockey masks like the hero-villains of Heat. Three years ago, when he envisaged giving up crime for a career in the movies, he boasted: “I see everything in cinemascope.” Faid’s other hero is Jacques Mesrine, the most celebrated French criminal of modern times. Mesrine also turned his life into a kind of movie script, with interviews and letters to newspapers, before he died in a police ambush on the northern outskirts of Paris in 1979.

Wherever Faid may now be hiding, he will be delighted to see that the French media has labelled him the “new Mesrine”.

Last Saturday morning, 40-year-old Faid – a petty criminal turned armed robber, turned author, turned cinema consultant, turned armed robber again – spectacularly broke out of jail in Lille. As he was about to enter the visitor’s room to meet his brother, he produced a pistol from a bag. He fired a shot in the air and took four prison guards hostage. A box of paper tissues he was holding contained plastic explosives and fuses. Over the next 30 minutes, he blasted his way through four gates  and reached the prison car park.

An accomplice drove him away. They abandoned the first car – and their final hostage – after a few minutes and drove away on the A25 motorway in a pre-positioned second vehicle.

If Faid had pitched such an unlikely scenario in his putative “new career” as a film executive, he would have been rejected as a time-wasting “wannabe”. Now it is the French government, and the French prison service, which stand accused of bungling amateurism.

Faid, the French-born son of Algerian immigrants, is the subject of a European arrest warrant. He has been placed on Interpol’s “red”, or most wanted, list. The last time he fled France, in the 1990s, he turned up in Israel, wearing a kippa and pretending to be Jewish.

In a book of interviews and a TV documentary in 2010-11, Faid presented himself as the reformed symbol of a new generation of French organised crime. He said he was known as “doc” or “brain” – a leader of the gangs from the troubled suburbs of French cities who had moved from drug dealing and petty theft to challenge the traditional Corsican “milieu” of large-scale banditry.

After “30 years of crime”, of which he had spent 10 years in jail and three years on the run, it was all behind him, he insisted. “My life has been a heap of shit,” he said. “On the run, I lived constantly in fear of death and the police… It was hell. I couldn’t see my family. That was tough. It makes you think.”

Within a couple of months, he was arrested for his alleged part in a €2m (£1.7m) raid on a security truck. He was also accused – but denied – playing a role in a botched armed raid in May 2010 which ended in a shoot-out in which a 26-year-old policewoman died.

Before his break-out last weekend, Faid was awaiting trial for robbery and complicity in murder, and was facing a possible lifetime in jail.

Faid was born in Creil, north of Paris in 1972. In his book Braqueur: des cités au grand banditisme (“Robber: from housing estates to organised crime”), he said he began stealing and drug dealing at the age of eight. He took part in his first armed raid at 18. Faid said he saw himself as a “social climber of crime”. He wanted to break away from petty delinquency and go where the real money was – inside banks or “tirelires à roulettes”, which translates as “piggybanks on wheels”, or security trucks.

From drug dealing on the streets, he graduated to organising shipments of cannabis from Spain in high-powered limousines or “go fast” cars. For one of his first bank raids in the early 1990s, he copied the 1991 movie Point Break starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. In the film, the robbers wore masks of former US presidents. Faid’s gang appeared as Charles de Gaulle and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Like the actors in the movie, they told their victims: “Thank you for voting for me.”

In 2009, recently released from prison, Faid met the man he called his “mentor” or “university professor” – Michael Mann, the director of Heat. He told him he had watched his movie more than 100 times to analyse the methods used by the fictional robbers to attack an armoured security van.

“I told him that he was my best technical adviser,” he said in his book the following year. “With my mates, we would watch his movie like a training film on what to do, and what not to do, to be a successful bandit.”

In 1999, after a couple of years on the run, Faid was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 32 years in jail. A model prisoner (on that occasion), he was released after 10 years and plunged briefly into a new life as a celebrity ex-bandit.

After the publication of his book, he toured TV studios wearing a designer grey suit and open-necked white shirt like a successful young executive. He was the charming and eloquent subject of a TV documentary. He met movie bosses, including Thomas Langmann, who produced a TV bio-film on Jacques Mesrine as well as the Oscar-winning silent movie, The Artist.

The man who had taken his criminal ideas from the movies now wanted to complete the circle and advise film-makers on how to write and direct gangster films. “My experience is vital,” he said. “If the script-writers want to be authentic, they need experience like mine.”

This was, he said, the only way he could prevent himself from returning to a life of crime. “Boredom is the enemy of going straight… After being pushed around and lobotomised in jail, these new possibilities are helping me to start a new life. If I was just hanging around, I would plunge back in (to crime) again.”

According to the state French prosecution service, Faid was organising attacks on security trucks at the time that he made that comment in an interview in May 2011.

After last week’s prison break a career in the movies now appears unlikely. So what next?

There are several parallels between Faid’s life and that of another son of Algerian immigrants who made headlines in France last year. Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse “scooter killer”, graduated from petty crime, not to banditry, but to Islamist extremism and terrorism.

Merah also tried to star in his own movie. During his murderous attack on a Jewish school, he wore a miniature camera around his neck and sent the footage to a French TV station.

Mohamed Merah also has something in common with Faid’s criminal hero, Jacques Mesrine. Both ended their days in a hail of police bullets.

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