Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 14 November 2009

France's love of rogues and rule breakers

A prevailing view that laws are made to be broken means criminals are often very popular with the French public which, as Emma Jane Kirby reports, can make the police's task all the more difficult.

Actors depict 30s gangsters Bonnie and Clyde in BBC Timewatch: The Real Bonnie And Clyde
The French admire criminals and gangsters in films as well as real life

Last Thursday morning, I switched on my radio to hear the news as usual and was startled by the high-pitched voice of a reporter who, breathless with excitement, was telling France that a security van driver who had just collected more than 11 million euros from the Bank of France had disappeared with the loot.

It transpired that 39-year-old Tony Musulin, who was described by friends as being a little odd, had been planning his heist for some time.

Before he absconded, added the radio reporter - unable to hide the note of admiration in his voice - Musulin had carefully cleared his bank accounts and apartment.

The report ended by triumphantly informing the listener that French police did not have a clue as to where the fugitive was now.

In fact Tony Musulin has become an overnight internet star here. He now has a fan club on Facebook, which describes him as a hero who has carried out the model non-violent crime of the century.

My personal favourite entry on the site reads simply "Tony - Best Driver 2009".

'Charming' gangsters

The fact is the French love rogues and rule breakers.

Jean-Pierre Treiber
The government has complained that the media's interest in Jean-Pierre Treiber has turned him into a hero

Many people here subscribe to a code of life known as Systeme D - a sort of living by your wits that ever so slightly bends the rules of the established system.

French films regularly - one might say obsessively - celebrate the criminal culture. French gangsters are almost always charming, capital sort of chaps who are a lot smarter than the dimwit cops out to get them.

No point in moralising, everyone knows here that laws are made to be transgressed - as long as you do it with style of course.

In September, a man accused of the brutal murder of two women escaped from a jail in Burgundy.

Not fascinating in itself but Jean-Pierre Treiber - who has always protested his innocence - hid inside a cardboard box in the prison workshop and had himself "delivered" to the outside world as part of a consignment of stationery.

On the run ever since, Mr Treiber has managed to outwit police at every turn, sending letters to his girlfriend and even posting his prison identity card to a French magazine.

Suckers for romance (even though the balding, jug-eared ex-forester is not exactly a looker), the French are cheering him on.

The government has complained that the media's interest has turned him into a hero and has hampered the police's efforts to recover him.

Film makers meanwhile are already penning the scripts.

Captured on film

Treiber's story reminds me of another great name in French criminal history, the bank robber Michel Vaujour whom I happened to meet in the cinema a few months ago.

Carla Bruni-Sarkosy and Nicolas Sarkosy
Squeaky-clean Mr Sarkozy does not stand a chance unless he and Carla set themselves up as the French Bonnie and Clyde

Mr Vaujour, who spent 27 years inside, was of course at the picture house to promote his new film, which might be best translated into English as "Don't bother freeing me, I'm on the case me-self".

The film, which is a fascinating psychological account of how the ex-bank robber coped in jail, is also a celebration of his fortitude at jail breaking.

His most dramatic escape was in 1986 when he fashioned a replica gun from a bar of soap and barged his way on to the prison roof where his obliging wife (having cleverly learned to fly a helicopter in her spare time) hovered above the prison and scooped him up and away to freedom.

Naturally that specific episode is a film in its own right. After the screening, Michel Vaujour kindly took questions from the audience.

I wanted to ask him whether he regretted his criminal ways but question time was dominated by a host of well educated, well dressed, Parisian women who were tearfully thanking him for his honesty, his humility and his humanity.

Good to be 'bad'

The other day, President Sarkozy hit an all-time low in the opinion polls.

When he was elected in 2007, he promised he would base his presidency on transparency and in the summer, when the Elysee accountants mistakenly placed some of his private expenses in the column marked "state accounts", the French leader was quick to pay back every last penny of the money that had gone missing.

The president's poor ratings came in the same week that Jacques Chirac, his predecessor, was ordered by French magistrates to stand trial on embezzlement charges.

In the latest popularity survey, Jacques Chirac was voted the most popular French politician alive today.

Poor squeaky-clean Mr Sarkozy does not stand a chance - unless of course he and Carla get themselves a pistol each and set themselves up as the French Bonnie and Clyde.

No pressure but the French leader needs to get bad fast if he is to win another election.

I notice a new entry has recently appeared on Facebook saying simply "Tony Musulin for president".


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