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Jacques Mesrine, 1970, courtesy of Sygma / Corbis
Jacques Mesrine, 1970Courtesy of Sygma / Corbis

Jacques Mesrine: public enemy

Super-suave French bank robber Jacques Mesrine kidnapped billionaires, dated models and broke out of jail to pose on magazine covers

Taken from the August 2009 issue of Dazed:

At around midday on November 2, 1979, a BMW driven by a well-dressed man pulled up behind a covered lorry at a set of traffic lights in Porte de Clignancourt, Paris. Within seconds, the tarpaulin on the lorry was pulled up and a gang of men opened fire on the car, killing the driver and severely injuring his girlfriend, Sylvia Jeanjacquot. Despite the Mafioso nature of the killing, this was no gangland assassination – the gunmen were French policemen, and the driver of the car was none other than Jacques Mesrine, France’s Public Enemy Number One. 

Mesrine taunted the cops for 20 years and is now the subject of a cinematic diptych, directed by Jean-François Richet and starring Vincent Cassel. He robbed more French banks than any man before or since, escaped from almost every jail the authorities dared to put him in, kidnapped billionaires, posed for pictures in Paris Match and bragged about his exploits in print. 

“You don’t get a boy like Mesrine with a bunch of violets,” said Robert Broussard, the Commissaire Prinicipal of France’s legendary Anti Gang Brigade from 1972-82, 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.” 

Mesrine gave some of his ill-gotten gains to the homeless and was affectionately known to the public as “The Robin Hood of the Paris Streets” and “The Man with a Thousand Faces”. He was good-looking and often courteous and kind (even to those he robbed) but he could also be vicious and unrepentant. He had a string of gorgeous girlfriends, loved fine wine and good food and robbed banks dressed in the most fashionable clothes. He was also a master of disguise and would shave his head, grow beards, wear glasses and don multiple wigs for rapid changes of appearance. Mesrine was undoubtedly one of a kind and he planned his robberies with military precision.

“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 and will identify with him. Even now, after nine months of shooting the film, I find it hard to judge him.”

Surprisingly, 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 28, 1936, in the middle-class Parisian suburb of Clichy-la-Garenne, where his father worked in the lace industry. He was a normal, happy child, but the first rumblings of discontent were seen when he was expelled from the esteemed Catholic school Collège de Juilly for “aggressive” behaviour. Subsequently, he was drawn like a moth to a flame to Pigalle, the capital’s red light district, where he got his first taste of the criminal life. That all changed 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.” The French Army, infamous at the time for the torture and execution of anyone even suspected of insurrection, nurtured Mesrine’s less palatable side, making him a commando and ordering him to commit atrocities that would be 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 his return to Paris in 1959, the disenfranchised former soldier was quickly able to weigh up the pros and cons of Gaelic morality. He had taken part in the criminal slaughter of a population 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. 

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

“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” – Robert Broussard

“He didn’t want to work in a factory,” adds director Jean François Richet. “So, he went to get money where you find money – in banks. He dreamed himself the life of a gangster with honour. He forged his own path.” 

Mesrine rose to the top of his game incredibly fast, 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. In 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 of this incarceration, he split with his wife and met Jeanne Schneider. It was love at first sight, his first words to her purportedly being, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Together they robbed all sorts of places, including a gambling den owned by gangsters, causing them to flee to Canada. 

After a botched kidnapping of textile and grocery millionaire Georges Deslauriers, the two were incarcerated in the Percé prison in Québec. This institution proved a doddle for Mesrine – he engineered the pair’s escape and they fled to Texas where they were captured, extradited to Canada and condemned to 15 years in the Saint Vincent-de Paul penitentiary in Laval, the most secure lock-up in Canada. 

After just three years, Mesrine absconded with dazzling aplomb, met up with his old chum, Québécois 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 in the attempt, he was declared Public Enemy Number One in Canada. He swiftly fled to Venezuela, after squeezing in a few spirited bank heists. 

Returning to France in 1972, Mesrine 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.” Such flagrant disrespect did not go down too well with les flics and by March 8, 1973, he was caught again. But knowing he would be apprehended, Mesrine had already planned a daring escape. “What do you bet me,” he asked his police escort, “I’ll be out in three months?” 

On June 6, Mesrine was taken to the Palais De Justice in Compiègne but, feigning an attack of diarrhoea, he located a gun concealed in the toilet cistern by an accomplice and hid it in his belt. When asked to answer charges he 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, he was grassed up by a former partner in crime and on September 28, the police cornered Mesrine again – this time surrounding his apartment with hordes of armed officers. “He knew he was under siege,” said arresting officer Broussard. “So, I gave him the choice to come out unarmed or die. 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 also considered to be France’s Public Enemy Number One. It was then, while awaiting trial, that Mesrine got the taste for press attention. After reading a piece 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 De Mort (The Killing Instinct), in which he bragged about countless gruesome murders, none of which he had actually committed. To pour petrol on the fire, he put on a bravura performance at his trial that fuelled the burgeoning press fascination.

“I gave him the choice to come out unarmed or die. 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” – Robert Broussard

“And what did you do with the money you took in the hold-up?” asked the judge at the trial. “I put it in the bank, your honour,” quipped Mesrine. “That’s still the safest place to keep it.” 

Mesrine was sentenced to 20 years in a high-security prison. While behind bars, he wrote letters to friends and talked openly of escape, which prompted La Santé, already the most secure prison in France, to build a new wing just to hold him. Consequently, on May 3, 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 May 5, because it was raining. He postponed his escape until May 8 when he departed with notorious escapee François Besse. They were the first two men ever to escape from La Santé. Eight days later, the pair held up a gun shop in Paris before going to rob a casino in Deauville. 

Incensed by his incarceration, Mesrine went on a publicity drive. In March, 1978, he granted interviews with Paris Match and Liberation, emphasising that he was rebelling against injustice and battling to abolish maximum security and solitary confinement. Ever the publicity hound, he never missed an opportunity to pose for photos while brandishing his machine gun, his face often uncovered. 

However, 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 sent a wordy letter to Le Monde, accompanied by Polaroids of the naked, bloodied writer with his hands tied behind his back. This time, the country was overcome with loathing. In one fell swoop, Mesrine had lost public support. 

Mesrine 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 six million francs, but he 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, caused an outcry. The question remains whether the much-loved miscreant was given the chance to capitulate or whether 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 swear blind that the police told him to get out of the car after he was already dead,” maintained an 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, Sylvia 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.”