Killer, robber, master of disguise … and now the biggest movie star in France

Why is gangster Jacques Mesrine an icon across the Channel 30 years after his death? UK film-goers are about to find out

The many guises of French gangster Jacques Mesrine (1936 – 1979). Photograph: RDA/Getty Images

No less than the British or the Americans, the French have always loved their movie gangsters, especially if they have an intellectual or political edge. The latest addition to this canon arrives in the UK next month with two films Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1, starring Vincent Cassel in the lead role. Both films tell the story of Jacques Mesrine, the legendary master-criminal who was killed in Paris in 1979. They have been massive critical and box office hits in France, where Le Monde has described them as “brilliant exercises in style”. For the critic of the fashionable and influential magazine Les Inrockuptibles, they are “a searing political indictment” of recent French history. The first film, Killer Instinct, was nominated for nine Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) in January. And Mesrine is everywhere in France – a fashion icon, a role model for youth and a cultural phenomenon.

How did this happen? And what does it tell us about France in 2009 that its biggest star is a long-dead mobster from the 1970s?

Although the name of Mesrine is unknown to most UK readers, it occupies a place in the French cultural imagination every bit as important as Zinedine Zidane or Edith Piaf. In the 1970s Mesrine was dubbed public enemy No 1 by the police but also regularly topped magazine polls as the most popular man in France. He courted publicity and would appear regularly on the front of Paris Match, half-disguised, smoking cigars and toting a Kalashnikov, discussing his love affairs and describing the French government as inept and corrupt.

The director of the two films, Jean-François Richet, set out to capture this strange moment in French postwar life. “I wanted to tell a micro-history,” he says. “Not the history of France through Napoleon Bonaparte but through a man you might have passed in the street.”

Mesrine – who was nicknamed “Monsieur-tout-le-monde” (Mister Everybody) for his skill at disguise – has become a hero to the current generation of rebellious youth in France. In the tougher parts of Paris, Lyon and Marseille, hip-hop kids sport T-shirts showing Mesrine pointing a pistol, and the slogan “Profession Ennemi Public – Mesrine, pour toujours et à jamais” (Profession Public Enemy. Mesrine – forever and always).

On a wall at Porte de Vanves in southern Paris, just as you head for the dreaded council estates at the edge of the city, graffiti in homage to Mesrine reads: “Papa Mesrine – pas mort!” (Daddy Mesrine – not dead!).

Mesrine has also become an idol to the current generation of French rappers. “I’d rather have a dead copper under my wheels, just like Mesrine, than just drive a Subaru,” runs a line from Seth Guéko, the up-and-coming white rapper from the Paris suburbs who has declared himself the “spiritual son of Jacques Mesrine”. Other heavyweight rap stars, such as Akhenaton and Rim’K, praise Mesrine as the French Scarface or the new Che Guevara.

How Mesrine achieved this status is the story of the two films. He was born in 1936 into a fairly well-to-do family in the prosperous suburb of Clichy-la-Garenne. In the 1950s he fought as a paratrooper in the Algerian war – allegedly in torture squads – and on his return to France decided to make a career as a criminal. His work – mainly robberies – took him to South America, Switzerland, the Canary Islands and Canada. He was famous for daring prison breaks and was soon nicknamed the French Robin Hood.

He enjoyed deliberately provoking the French authorities and developed great media savvy. During one trial he famously threw his handcuffs into the face of a judge, loudly declaring him “a cretin and an incompetent”.

Mesrine was described in the press as an “intellectual gangster” on account of his articulate and combative style in interviews. He was very cheeky, very smart and could be very funny: one of his favourite techniques, for example, was to launch bank raids almost simultaneously in adjacent streets. As the police were setting off to bank raid number one, he and his gang were already laughingly looting another bank less than half a mile away, leaving the finest Parisian detectives resembling the Keystone Cops.

This is all great fun and the two films rattle along at a cracking pace, depicting Mesrine’s capers and crimes. But there is also a political meaning here. The first film opens with the shooting of Mesrine on a street in northern Paris on 2 November 1979. This is a highly charged scene. All French people of that generation have seared on their memories the front-page photos of Mesrine slumped in a blood-spattered heap over the windshield of a car. The joker who had taunted the police on the front covers of Paris Match had now met his end in the full glare of the media who had colluded with his tricks and games.

The killing was followed by public anger over whether this was legitimate police action or – most likely – a military execution ordered by a government which, in its anger and frustration, had lost all sense of restraint or control. The police were personally congratulated in private by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Despite several legal investigations launched by Mesrine’s family, there has never been a full public explanation.

This was a period when, under the aegis of a decaying right-wing government, the French police and secret services were both notoriously acting beyond the law. More to the point, there was a direct precedent for the killing of Mesrine. On 20 September 1979 the ultra-left journalist Pierre Goldman had been shot dead in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. The murder was claimed by the far-right vigilante group Honneur de la Police (Police Honour), who vowed to clean France of “all criminals and leftists”. The police quickly and ignominiously abandoned the Goldman case despite a public outcry led by such distinguished figures as the actress Simone Signoret and the singer Maxime Le Forestier.

This was precisely why Mesrine’s death shocked all of France. It seemed, indeed, to many on the French left that his assassination, in the wake of the Goldman killing, signalled that a secret civil war was now well under way, with the aim of sweeping up the remnants of the generation who had led the near-revolution of May 1968. More to the point, by the time of his death, Mesrine had moved politically to the far left. He was close to the revolutionary activist Charles Bauer, whom he had met in prison, and was beginning to campaign for prisoners’ rights.

UK audiences will appreciate these two films as thoroughly entertaining gangster epics (Gérard Depardieu is particularly menacing as Mesrine’s heavyweight mentor during Mesrine’s early days in Pigalle). But for French audiences there is clearly a deeper and more potent agenda at work: from Mesrine’s experiences during the Algerian war in the 1950s, the tumult and anarchy of the French 1960s through to the right-wing vendettas of the 1970s, all of France’s recent traumas are here in microcosm. It is this fact which also explains Mesrine’s appeal out in the troubled suburbs of nearly all big French cities, where riots and skirmishes with heavily armed and militarised police are a fact of daily life. So, if not quite on the scale of The Godfather or Goodfellas, these films are still more than the French standard gangster movie. And you can’t help thinking that Jacques Mesrine – the gangster as arch-prankster – would still enjoy the fact that his ghost is still causing trouble in 21st-century France.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is released on 7 August and Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 on 28 August

Mesrine: the facts

1936 Born 28 December in Paris.

1955 Marries Lydia de Souza (it lasts one year).

1956 Goes to war in Algeria.

1961 Marries Maria de la Soledad.

1962 Sentenced to 18 months for attempted bank robbery.

1967 Maria de la Soledad leaves him.

1969 Imprisoned in Canada for murder and kidnap.

1972 Escapes prison. Robs two banks in a single day.

1973 Sentenced to 20 years in France; escapes during trial. Steals FF1.5m from a printworks.

1977 Publishes his memoir Killer Instinct, in which he boasts of having committed 39 murders.

1979 Shot dead by police on 2 November.
Ollie Brock