World

The last smile of Jacques Mesrine

Marci McDonald November 12 1979
World

The last smile of Jacques Mesrine

Marci McDonald November 12 1979

The last smile of Jacques Mesrine

France

It was the tag end of an uneventful Friday lunch hour on Paris’ tattered Place de Clignancourt when the waiter of a corner café noticed a silver BMW suddenly cut off by an unmarked delivery van and surrounded by trucks. In the 10 seconds that followed, police burst from the van’s sliding panels, pumping an explosion of sub-machinegun fire into the windshield and roof. At the wheel, the driver half-opened his door, quivered with a last spasm of life and slumped, pinned by his seat belt and 18 bullets, one hand frozen in its lunge for two grenades on the seat beside him, the other limp beside the .38calibre Smith & Wesson strapped to his waist.

Thus ended the saga of Jacques Mesrine, France’s Public Enemy No. 1, who had thumbed his nose at French and Canadian police and delighted the populace with his showman’s derring-do ever since he leaped from a 45-foot Paris prison wall to freedom 18 months ago. In his subsequent string of capers, the onetime petty crook had metamorphosed into a folk hero who could infiltrate a security cordon around the judge who once sentenced him to 20 years, or call in at a Deauville precinct to leave his regards, unnoticed, before pulling off a $20,000 casino heist up the road.

He wrote indignant letters to the press whenever he felt his honor questioned, launched a crusade to abolish maximum-security prison wings and sent his regards to the red-faced inspectors on his track, ending cheerily, “Happy hunting.” Aided by a succession of adoring females and a dazzling aptitude for disguise, he died finally as he had lived, apparently lightheartedly, on his way to a weekend in the country, an

attractive brunette named Sylvie Jeanjacquot seriously wounded at his side.

Swarming over the car, the top inspectors Mesrine had so long mocked slapped each other on the back. Within minutes, Prime Minister Raymond Barre had congratulated les flics and the government showed ill-concealed relief at a change of headlines from the hints of scandal which had plagued France all week after the suicide of Labor Minister Robert Boulin. Implicated in questionable Riviera real estate dealings, he wrote to the press accusing his cabinet colleagues of making him a scapegoat.

As news of Mesrine’s end spread, however, the ministry of the interior found itself trying to explain why it had taken 80 gendarmes to fell one Scarlet Pimpernel. A police director was finally left quoting Mesrine’s own words: “He always said,” explained the commis-

sioner, “that whoever draws first will be the winner.”

Mesrine, 42, son of a wealthy Paris embroiderer, studied architecture before being drafted into the Algerian war, where he won two medals for bravery and acquired his taste for violent adventure. He worked on the model of the French pavilion for Expo 67 before starting his series of prison escapes at Montreal’s St. Vincent de Paul penitentiary, where he was held for kidnapping industrialist Georges Deslaurier.

Canadian police once posted a wanted notice reading: “Attention, Mesrine is most dangerous when he smiles.” But perhaps he still managed the last laugh, as a martyr of sorts who predicted his own end. “There’s no risk that I’ll grow old,” he told Isabelle de Wangen from Paris Match 15 months ago. “I know very well that all this will finish badly.”

Marci McDonald