Jacques Mesrine: Le grand gangster

He claimed to have killed 39 people in his deadly career – and blamed his crimes on the French state. As two new films put Jacques Mesrine's grizzly life story on screen, John Lichfield unmasks the man behind the bloody myth

Of all the rumpled margins of Paris, the Porte de Clignancourt is the most unchangingly grim. The tattered stretch of avenue between the end of Metro line four and the Boulevard Périphérique has become depressingly familiar to generations of tourists bound for the largest Paris flea market.

Down this way, on a Friday afternoon 30 years ago this year, there drove a burly, middle aged man wearing a wig and a false beard. His girlfriend and her dog were beside him in a gold-coloured BMW. Like tens of thousands of other Parisians, they planned to escape from the city to spend a weekend in Normandy.

As they drove towards the ring road, a blue truck pulled in front of them. The canvas tail-gate parted, revealing four men holding rifles. They fired 52 shots, 14 of which struck the chest and head of the man in the wig.

His name was Jacques Mesrine (pronounced "Merrine"), then one of the most famous men in France. His assailants, or maybe his assassins, were police officers. They were part of a special squad created especially to combat him or maybe to execute him.

The police chief in charge of the showdown at the Porte de Clignancourt in 1979 swears to this day that he tried to arrest Mesrine. His family and lawyer insist that the police set an ambush and fired without warning. Mesrine had, on several occasions, jovially recommended that the police should shoot first and ask questions later.

There is one fact on which everyone can agree. By 2 November 1979, following his 20-year career of bank robberies, murders and kidnappings in six countries and three continents, four prison escapes, two compelling books and a dozen self-dramatising press interviews, the French state had had quite enough of Jacques René Mesrine.

Two new French films about Mesrine's life will be shown in Britain this month: Mesrine: Part One – Death Instinct and Mesrine: Part Two – Public Enemy Number One, directed by Jean-François Richet.

Le grand Jacques started as a minor criminal on the outer fringes of the far-right-wing terrorist group, the OAS (Organisation de l'armée secrète). He ended as France's most wanted man, a self-proclaimed, anarchist revolutionary.

In his final months, he threatened to fight a one-man war against President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's "bourgeois" state, starting with its banks. He justified his own brutality as a response to the alleged brutality of the government and especially of its high security prisons.

A legend has grown up, in book, film, song, rap and now blog, of Mesrine as a kind of Robin Hood de nos jours. The films suggest that, au contraire, Mesrine was a much more modern figure: an early-prototype media monster; a gangster more interested in his image than his earnings; a man who turned his life into a permanent biopic, with the enthusiastic support of the French popular press.

Vincent Cassel, brilliant in the lead role, refused to accept the first version of the screenplay which, he complained, was too romanticised. The author of the revised script, Abdel Raouf Dafri, said: "The honourable bandit is a meaningless notion. And Mesrine as a political activist? What a joke! His revolt against the high security prisons? An imposture. [When in prison] he had the screws lighting up his cigars for him.... Let's get real. Mesrine was a clown."

If so, why bother to make two films about him? Jacques Mesrine may have been a clown but he was also a vicious, professional criminal with an unusual capacity for abstract thought, an impressive writing style and an instinct for public relations. He was a Franco-American cultural hybrid, a kind of criminal version of Johnny Hallyday: American in many of his influences and, at the same time, utterly French.

As a middle-class boy growing up in the middling Parisian suburb of Clichy (only a couple of miles from where he died), Mesrine was a greedy consumer of American gangster books and films. He bore a curious likeness not to Vincent Cassel, but to Charles Bronson.

And yet his own literary works, L'instinct de mort and Coupable d'être innocent – written in prison and on the run – read in parts like a pastiche of Albert Camus. Mesrine tried to present himself in print as a kind of existentialist gangster, or, in his own words, "a kamikaze of crime".

"Stealing becomes a drug," he wrote. "You don't steal for love of cash; you steal for the thrill of risk.... You choose to cross the line, because you know it means you can never go back. You want to have nothing more to lose so that you are forced to have everything to win."

Mesrine was known as the "man of a thousand faces". One of his favourite tricks was to dress up as a policeman. He was also a man of a thousand disguises in his writings and his press interviews. Sometimes he asked to be considered a popular hero; sometimes he ridiculed the idea. His first book is partly a gripping, dark adventure story. Other passages bathe in psychopathic self-pity, but rarely in pity for his family and never for his victims.

Another Mesrine, softer and more thoughtful, has surfaced, bizarrely, in the last few months. One of the books published to coincide with the movies is Mesrine intime, a collection of love letters and poems which he wrote to his beautiful, young lawyer, Martine Malinbaum, in 1976 and 1977.

Mesrine was in the hated high-security wing of the Santé prison in southern Paris at the time. He became one of the first men ever to escape from there the following year.

Here is Jacques Mesrine in a languorous, poetic mood. "I envy the blind man whose world does not change when he sleeps. If his life is steeped in darkness, he is at least the lover of shadows...."

Mesrine was no Rimbaud (more of a Rambo). But, reading these literate letters and poems of mostly polite sexual yearning, it is difficult to imagine that their author claimed to have murdered 39 people. It is also impossible to know whether Mesrine was sincerely smitten by his glamorous young lawyer, or was killing time in solitary confinement, or was just taking the mickey.

Maître Malinbaum says that they reveal a gentler, more sensitive Mesrine, "bold, poetic and full of suffering". Thirty years on, she is a senior lawyer at the Paris bar. She continues to fight to have the French state condemned for what she insists was the "assassination" of her client on 2 November 1979.

Largely thanks to her persistence, a judicial investigation into the events at Porte de Clignancourt was kept faintly alive until 2006. The state was finally cleared without trial. Mesrine's golden BMW, peppered with bullet holes and splattered with dried blood, was sent to the breaker's yard in 2007.

Still Maître Malinbaum has not given up. She hopes to bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that "governments cannot go around assassinating people, even if they are the worst enemies of the nation".

Just how wicked was Jacques Mesrine? And why?

His parents blamed the war in Algeria. His father, a small businessman, said that "Jacky" was "never quite right" after he came back, with a medal for valour, from the most brutal of all of France's colonial wars. (In truth, young Jacques had already been in trouble at school for beating up his headmaster.)

Although officially a parachutist-commando, Jacques Mesrine volunteered for special duty. He became, amongst other things, one of the soldiers ordered to execute Algerian prisoners by putting a bullet in their head after they had been tortured.

According to his first book, he decided when he returned to France in 1959 to attack "society" for damaging his "humanity" in a "false cause". He also gave at least three other reasons for the muddled descent into criminal activity of a handsome, intelligent, educated, middle-class boy who was loved by his parents.

Mesrine hung about on the edge of the anti-de Gaulle, pro-French-Algeria OAS terrorist group. While working as a textile salesman, he frequented criminal bars in Pigalle. He began to commit burglaries. He confessed in his book that he had, at this time, brutally murdered an Arab fellow-crook who had beaten up a shared girlfriend.

He married a respectable, shy, Spanish girl. He tried to go straight. He was arrested during a bank robbery and sent to jail. He tried to go straight again but was made redundant from his job at an interior design company.

He became a robber and hitman, linked to an Italian crime family. His wife attempted to commit suicide and finally left him. His three children (whom he seems to have adored) moved in with his parents.

By 1968, Mesrine was well known to the French, Swiss, Italian and Spanish police, but still unknown to the French public. He fled to Canada with his new girlfriend and accomplice, Jeanne Schneider. (She was a former prostitute whose jealous pimps Mesrine claimed to have murdered.)

It was in Quebec, not France, that the Mesrine legend began to take shape. The couple were employed as nurse and chauffeur by a handicapped millionaire, Georges Deslauriers. They kidnapped him and demanded a large ransom. The millionaire managed to free himself.

The couple, dubbed the "French Bonnie and Clyde" by the Canadian press, fled to the US in January 1969. They became tourists and witnessed the launch of the Apollo moon rocket at Cape Canaveral. They were arrested in Arkansas and returned to Canada.

It was on his return to Quebec in chains that Mesrine first emerged as a rebel and a wit as well as a crook. Pressed by a Canadian television crew to say something, he smirked and – recalling General de Gaulle's famously undiplomatic remark of 1967 – said: "Vive le Québec libre."

Mesrine was sentenced to 10 years in jail. In 1972, he achieved the impossible and broke out of a Canadian high-security prison. With a Québecois accomplice, he began a high-intensity crime spree, which included, inter alia, holding up two banks within 10mins of each other and the same bank twice in three days.

He attempted to break back into the high-security jail to release friends, but succeeded only in seriously wounding two policemen. A week later he and his Canadian friend were recognised by two forest guards. Mesrine and his friend murdered them out of hand.

He fled to the US and then Colombia. Finally, he returned to France via Spain. Under a bewildering series of disguises and false names, Mesrine began a series of raids on banks and payrolls (including his trademark of two hold-ups on the same day). He was arrested in March 1973 and escaped from a courthouse in Compiègne by taking the judge hostage with the help of a gun hidden in a courtroom toilet.

With this coup, Mesrine finally became a French national celebrity. The press branded him "public enemy number one", a title borrowed – to Mesrine's delight – from the FBI phrase book.

In September 1973, he was re-arrested by his nemesis, commissaire (police chief) Robert Broussard, the man who would organise the operation at the Porte de Clignancourt six years later. While awaiting trial in the Santé prison – a grim fortress surrounded by the chic avenues and streets behind Montparnasse – Mesrine wrote his autobiography, L'instinct de mort.

He claimed to be someone who had made a rational, philosophical, decision to live a life of risk rather than the life of a petit-bourgeois. "Some people like golf or skiing. My relaxation is armed robbery." He also claimed to be a war-damaged revenge-seeker and an anarchist seeking to challenge an unfair society. "If I have rubbed the word pity from my vocabulary, it is because I have seen so many injustices."

Mesrine said that he had killed 39 people (almost certainly a vast exaggeration), but boasted that he had never robbed the poor or killed an innocent or unarmed person. Murdering the two forest guards in Canada was, he said, "legitimate self-defence".

The book is brilliant, uneven and incoherent. Its unifying force is an extraordinary, perverted vanity. Whatever first motivated Jacques Mesrine, by 1977 he was driven by love of his own legend.

During his five years in prison, he wrote letters and articles and gave interviews attacking the conditions in the high-security wing of the Santé. He linked up with an ultra-leftist revolutionary, Charlie Bauer, who seems to have influenced Mesrine to think, or at least pose, as a political activist.

In May 1978, in circumstances that have never been made clear, Mesrine achieved his greatest coup: escape from the Santé. A couple of weeks later, he and his fellow escapee, François Besse, robbed the casino at Deauville, seriously wounding two customers, including a British woman. A series of other spectacular raids – and equally spectacular press interviews – followed.

A police unit was set up to track Mesrine. On 4 August 1978, while every policeman in France was looking for him, he gave a lengthy interview to Paris-Match threatening to murder or kidnap the interior minister, Alain Peyrefitte, and declaring: "I will never surrender. Now, it is war."

In November he tried to seize a judge who had sentenced him to prison. He failed, but not before he had sprayed the judge's young grand-daughter with tear gas.

Despite a nationwide hue and cry, Mesrine managed, in June 1979, to kidnap a millionaire and obtain a 6,000,000-franc (£600,000) ransom. In September, a right-wing cop-turned-journalist, Jacques Tillier, accused Mesrine in print of being a dishonourable crook, who cheated his associates.

Mesrine was incandescent. He tricked Tillier into going to a remote cave for an exclusive interview. Mesrine stripped and tortured him. He then shot him three times: first in the face "to stop him talking crap", then in the arm "to stop him writing crap", and finally in the leg "for the pleasure of it". Tillier, implausibly, survived and is now the editor of a newspaper in Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

In October 1979, commissaire Broussard received a tip-off that Mesrine was living with his new girlfriend, Sylvia Jeanjacquot, near to the Porte de Clignancourt. On 2 November, 15 vehicles and 50 policemen were assembled to prevent him making his weekend migration to Normandy.

Commissaire Broussard loudly insisted at the time, and has done ever since, that his men shouted "Police!" before they opened fire. Eye-witnessed suggested otherwise. So did Sylvia Jeanjacquot, who lost an eye in the fusillade. Mesrine did not have a chance to shoot back, but he was carrying two grenades and a Browning pistol.

In his flat, the police found enough weapons to invade Luxembourg and an audio-taped testament, meant for Sylvia. Over the music from the movie Midnight Express – a movie about prison brutality – Mesrine told his girlfriend that, if she was listening to the tape, it must mean that the police had succeeded in firing before he did.

After posing for years as a misunderstood hero, he added: "What is terrible is that some people will try to make me into a hero and there are no heroes in crime. There are just men out on the edge who do not respect the law."

Of the two new films opening in the UK next month, the first, Death Instinct – about Mesrine's early life – is the more compelling. It sticks closely to the screenplay of Mesrine's life up to circa 1973, as described in 1977 by Mesrine himself. The second movie sets out in a heavy-handed way to deconstruct the Mesrine myth.

"For some people Mesrine was just a killer; for others he is Robin Hood," said the director, Jean-François Richet. "He was neither one nor the other and that is what fascinates me about him. The films are not the police version of events. They are told from the point of view of this little guy from Clichy, who wanted to live out his dreams and write his own legend, but finds himself trapped in the prison (of his own life) from which there was no escape."

The second of the two Richet films is unambiguous about events at the Porte de Clignancourt. Mesrine's death is presented as a police execution. This infuriated the long-since-retired commissioner Broussard, 73, who has publicly urged the French state to sue the film-makers.

Both the ex-commissioner and Mesrine's lawyer protest too much. By November 1979, a peaceful arrest of Mesrine was no longer conceivable. As a living myth of his own creation – and, by that time, more interested in his legend than his life – Mesrine could scarcely return tamely to prison. He had scripted a Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy-style finale.

The movies – especially the first – were reasonably successful at the box-office in France last year, but not as successful as the makers had hoped. Cassel and Richet won Césars for best actor and director, but neither of the titles won the predicted "French Oscar" for best movie.

If they had been poorer films, and encouraged rather than deflated the Mesrine myth, they might have been more successful. Debunking myths is fine, but difficult to make into popular cinema.

The Mesrine legend, once very powerful, especially on the bohemian Left and amongst French rappers, may finally be dying in any case.

At the Porte de Clignancourt this week, another generation of "little guys from the suburbs" was trying to make a living. Figures flitted under the ring-road flyover selling contraband cigarettes. A young black man was furtively selling a car beside the road.

Could he indicate where, precisely, Jacques Mesrine was killed? "Mesrine?" he asked cheerfully. "C'est qui, Mesrine?"

'Death Instinct' is in cinemas on Friday; 'Public Enemy Number One' is released 28 August

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