Rebel Rebel: How Mavericks Made the Modern World

By Chris Sullivan

A riotous history of people and things that broke the mould

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Jacques Mesrine- The Greatest Bank Robber that ever lived ?


At around mid day on November 2ND 1979, a BMW, driven by well dressed man pulled up behind a covered lorry at a set of traffic lights in Porte Clignancourt, a busy Parisian quarter. Within seconds the lorries tarpaulin was pulled up and a gang of men opened fire on the car, killing the driver and severely injuring his lady passenger, girlfriend, Sylvie Jeanjacquot. No gangland assassination, the gunmen were French policemen, while the driver of the car was none other than, Jacques Mesrine – France’s Public Enemy Number One.


Now the subject of a cinematic diptych, directed by Jean Francois Richet and starring Vincent Cassel, Mesrine, had taunted the cops for twenty years. He robbed more French banks than any man before or since, escaped from almost every gaol the authorities dared put him in, kidnapped high faluting billionaires posed for pictures in Paris Match and bragged about his exploits in print.



“With a boy like Mesrine you don’t get him with a bunch of violets,” said Robert Broussard, who, Commissaire Brigade Anti Gang 1972-82, was the man who pursued the scoundrel for a decade, and was said to have part orchestrated the execution. “ You don’t mess around. You just get him.”


Known as the ‘Robin Hood of The Paris Streets’, ‘the man with a thousand faces’ Mesrine gave some of his ill-gotten gains to the homeless. He was good looking, often courteous and kind- even to those he robbed - but could also be vicious and unrepentant. He had a string of gorgeous girlfriends, loved fine wine and good food and often robbed banks dressed in the most fashionable clothes. A master of disguise he would shave his head, grow a beard, wear glasses and don multiple wigs for rapid changes of appearance and planned his robberies with military precision. No common or garden malefactor, your man was one of a kind.


 “Mesrine surely committed some unpardonable acts at times and he also pulled off some exceptionally daring deeds," attests Cassel who plays him in the film. “ Some will think he’s despicable and reactionary, some will like the fact that he followed his own path right to the end, shouldered the responsibility, and will identify with him. Even, after nine months of shooting the film, I foundnd it hard to judge him.’


Yet, Mesrine was born in rather ordinary circumstances. He was not the product of a tough ghetto, nor did he emanate from a family steeped in crime, instead he was hatched on December 28th. 1936, in the middle class Parisian suburb of, Clichy-la-Garenne, where his father worked in the lace industry. A normal happy child, rumblings of discontent were first seen when he was expelled from the esteemed Catholic school, College de Juilly, for ‘aggressive’ behaviour. Subsequently, he was drawn like a moth to a flame to Pigalle, the capitals red light district, where Mesrine got his first taste of the criminal life. All changed in, in 1956, when aged 19, he was conscripted to fight in the Algerian War.


“It was Algeria that changed him,” stressed his tearful mother in an interview with French TV after his death. “He came back a different boy.”


While in Algeria, the French, renowned for their inexcusable torture and execution of any and all even suspected of insurrection, nurtured Mesrine’s less palatable side, made him a commando and ordered him to commit atrocities unimaginable to most.


 “ The tipping point was definitely the war,” attests Martine Malinbaum Mesrine’s lawyer between 1976 and 78. “ It gave him a taste for action and showed him that he wasn’t like everyone else.”


 On returning to Paris in 1956, the disenfranchised former soldier was soon able to weigh up the pros and cons of Gallic morality. He had taken part in the criminal slaughter of a population all in the name of imperial zeal. He had seen his superiors charge teenage soldiers to execute women and children at point blank range. He was not a happy man.  


 “He made a decision,” explained Broussard in an interview for the French TV show Daily Motion in 2001. “ After leaving the army aged 23 he decided to become a criminal. He wanted, even then, to be King, to be number one to have international standing.”


“He didn’t want to work in a factory,” clarifies director Jean Francois Richet. “So he goes to get money where you find money - in banks. He dreamed himself the life of a gangster, with honor, as he forged his own path.”


Needless to say, before you could cock a snoot, Mesrine rose to the top of his game displaying an amazing propensity to dispense his peculiar brand of justice and subsequent violence that , amazed his contemporaries and was matched only by his facility to rob banks.


Yet all did not go according to his meticulous plan as, by 1962, after marrying Maria de la Soledad, the mother of his three children, he was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months - none of which stopped him returning to his chosen career just a year later.


 As a direct consequence, he split with his wife and met Jeanne Schneider. It was love at first sight, his first words to her being “Me Tarzan, you Jane.’ Together they robbed all sorts including a gambling den that, owned by those you do not rob, caused Mesrine and Schneider to flee to Canada.


After a botched kidnapping of   textile and grocery millionaire, Georges Deslauriers, the two were incarcerated in the Perce prison in Quebec. A doddle for Mesrine, he engineered the pairs escape, they fled to Texas, were captured, extradited to Canada and condemned to 15 years in the Saint – Vincent-de Paul penitentiary in Laval outside of Montreal -the most secure lock up in Canada.


 But as was his wont, after just three years, in 1972, Mesrine absconded with dazzling aplomb, met up with his old chum, Quebecois terrorist Jean Paul Mercier, and 15 days later attacked the prison in an attempt to free the remaining 56 high security wing prisoners.  Accused of killing two forest rangers after the attempt, he was declared public Enemy number One in Canada, butm before fleeing to Venezuela, still managed to squeeze in a few spirited bank heists.


Returning to France in1972, he wasted no time in returning to his old ways. “He developed his own style then,” explains Richet. “He would rob several banks in a row - waiting for the police sirens and then getting into the car to take down a bank on the next street over.”


 To be sure, such flagrant disrespect did not go down too well with le flic and by the 8th March 1973 he was caught again. But, knowing he would be apprehended, Mesrine had already planned a daring escape, “What do you bet me” he said to his police escort. “I’ll be out in three months.”


On the 6th of June, Mesrine, was taken to the, Palais De Justice, in Compeigne but, feigning an attack of diarrhoea, he located a gun hidden in the toilet cistern by an accomplice, hid it in his belt and, when asked to answer charges, grabbed the judge and, using him as a human shield, made his getaway in a hail of gunfire.


Having enjoyed just a few months on the lam, having been grassed by a former partner in crime, on the 28th September, the police had Mesrine again- this time surrounding his apartment with hordes of armed coppers. “ He knew he was under siege,” said arresting officer Broussard. “So I gave him the choice.’ Come out unarmed or die.’ To which he asked if I was Commissaire Broussard with the beard and would I approach unarmed  - which I did. He then opened the door with the biggest cigar in his mouth invited me in and offered me glass of champagne.” 


From this moment on Mesrine was France’s Public Enemy Number One.


It was then, while awaiting trial, that Mesrine got the taste for press attention. After reading apiece in, ‘L’Express, that was not to his liking, he sent a threatening letter to the journalist that prompted his appearance on the front page of the publication. Constantly writing to the press about prison conditions he gave an extensive interview to Paris Match and penned a massively exaggerated autobiography entitled, L’Instinct Du Mort (The Killing Instinct) where he bragged of committing countless murders none of which he had actually undertaken.  To pour petrol on the fire he then, at his trial, put up a bravura performance that fuelled the press fascination. “ And what did you do with the money you took in the hold up?” asked the judge. “I put it in the bank, your honour,” quipped Mesrine. “That’s still the safest place to keep it.” Mesrine was still sentenced to some twenty years in a high security prison.


Undeniably, never one to keep schtum, while behind bars, he wrote letters to friends   and talked openly of escape, that prompted, La Sante, already the most secure prison in France, built a new wing to hold him.  Consequently, on the 3rd May 1978, the prison governor was tipped off that Mesrine was going to attempt escape two days later. He laughed it off as a practical joke. Indeed, Mesrine did not break out on the 5th - because it was raining - so he postponed it until the 8th when he departed with notorious escapee Francois Besse. They were the first two men ever to escape from La Sante. 


Eight days later the pair held up a gun shop in Paris. Ten days after that they robbed a casino in Deauville.


But incensed by his incarceration, Mesrine, in March 1978, went on a publicity drive. He granted interviews with Paris Match and Liberation   emphasizing that he was rebelling against injustice and battling to abolish maximum security and solitary confinement. A thoroughgoing publicity hound, he never missed any opportunity to bolster these articles   with photographs of himself brandishing a gun, face uncovered.


But the tide was turning for Mesrine. Infuriated by a piece written by right wing journalist and former policeman, Jacques Tillier, he lured the scribe to a cave, undressed him, beat him senseless, shot him three times and left him for dead. To add insult to injury, Mesrine, in a mis guided attempt to justify his actions sent a   wordy letter to, Le Monde, accompanied by Polaroid’s of the naked bloodied writer with is hands tied behind his back. This time the country was overcome with loathing.  In one fell swoop Mesrine had lost public support.


Undoubtedly, Mesrine, now on a mission, then attempted to kidnap the judge, M. Petit, who had sentenced him to 20 years demanding that, if all top security prisons in France were not closed, he would begin assassinating magistrates. But, the kidnapping of said magistrate backfired, with Mesrine only just evading capture by running down the stairs and shouting to the oncoming police, ‘Quick! Mesrine’s up there!’ as he sped past them.


After the kidnap of millionaire, Henri Lelièvre, Mesrine, received a ransom of 6 million francs but also attracted the unwanted attentions of French President Giscard d’Estaing who told his Minister of the Interior, ‘we really have to finish this Mesrine off.’ Just a few days later he was controversially shot dead.


The operation that ended Mesrine, even though pronounced a success by the police who were indeed applauded by d’Estaing, caused an outcry. The question remains was the ne’er do well given the chance to capitulate or was he was gunned down in cold blood. 


“ The police gave him the chance to surrender,” testified Broussard for once seeming less than honest in his TV interview, “ But instead of keeping still he got down out of the way of the machine guns and reached for a little bag where he had two hand grenades.”


“ I will swear blind that the police told him to get out of the car after he was already dead,” maintained eyewitness, Guy Penet, in an interview for the same program. “ I heard ‘don’t move. You’ve had it,’ after the gunfire. I have maintained that for 22 years and that is what I saw.”


 After Mesrine died the authorities found a cassette tape in a drawer in his apartment addressed to his last love Sylvie Jeanjacquot. “ Hello darling,” he said. “  If you read this I’ll have been killed by the police which is nothing we didn’t expect. I died with a gun in my hand and, even though I might not have had the time to use it, if I had I would have.”Jaques

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