It’s easy to believe that the mafia is only present in Italy, the USA or in Asian countries, but France has also been marked by the heavy presence of mafia activity inside its borders. It started in Marseille in the 1920s, but has grown into what is described as “aggravated crimes”, specifically in terms of organised crime in France.
Several regions of France were for the longest time under the control of very powerful “mobsters”, who’s activities ranged from drug trafficking, bank robbery, illegal gambling and intimidation tactics. While many of these organizations have since disappeared today, their name and their legend lives on…
1. Victor Lustig, the man who sold the Eiffel Tower!
Victor Lustig, born on the 4th of January 1890, is one of the most well-known scam artists of all time. He built this reputation throughout his many scams, which spread to several countries, scamming hundreds of people at the helm of the infamous Al Capone, who was somewhat of an evil genius at the time.
This man is especially famous for having sold the “iron lady”, better known as the Eiffel tower. In 1920, Victor Lustig convinced five of the biggest French metal recovery companies to sell the Eiffel Tower’s metal as scrap by passing himself off as an state official, then as the general manager of the PTT ministry (Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones).
One of the agents, named André Poisson took the bait and handed over an important sum of money to Victor Lustig as a bribe to be granted the contract. As soon as the money was handed over, Lustig fled to Vienna.
A month later, the scam artists attempted to come back and do the same to another business, who was far savvier than his predecessor and call Lustig out on his scam.
2. Jacques Mesrine, the gangster with a thousand faces
A famous serial killer in the 1970s, Jacques Mesrine is the most audacious French criminal of the last decade. Between high profile prison evasions and remarkably public bank robberies, the #1 public enemy made officials’ life a nightmare by ensuring a constant state of insecurity, taking advantage of a naive and corrupt French administration.
Jacques René Mesrine was born on the 28th of December 1936 in Paris into a wealthy family of shop-owners. Rejecting the premise of school, Jacques Mesrine began to frequent the infamous district of Pigalle, in Paris. At the age of 19, he married Lydia de Souza and departs for the Algerian war as a parachutist. He would go on to be recognised by General De Gaulle. Upon his return, Jacques Mesrine gets a divorce and starts to earn a living through gambling and small-scale robberies. Mesrine meets Maria de la Soledad, with which he has three children. In 1962, he is convicted for the first time for aggravated bank robbery. Once out of prison, his criminal activities only increase. In 1968, Mesrine flees to Quebec where he steps up his level of criminality. He attempts to kidnap a billionaire and is forced to go on the run, but is then caught by police forces. On the 21st of August 1972, Jacques Mesrine breaks out of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul prison with five other inmates. Despite his well known face, published by all the media, Mesrine was able to use his charisma and his ability to change his face to remain on the run. He would eventually come back to France, where he would rob a Crédit Lyonnais bank and lead the police on an extended car chase, combining more robberies, arrests and successful evasions to make the run last. On the 10th of Mars 1977, Mesrine publishes “The deathly instinct”, in which he claims 39 crimes. Mesrine uses his connections with journalists to make sure his message is heard. On the 4th of August 1978, despite still being wanted by authorities, he agrees to an interview with a journalist from Paris Match, where the “Public enemy #1” publicly states that he will never allow himself to be caught alive. The media goes into a frenzy, with public opinion following its lead. Mesrine would eventually be killed at the wheel of his car on the 2nd of November 1989, after a long car chase with police forces.
3. Albert Spaggiari
Albert Spaggiari was born on the 14th of December 1932 in Laragne-Montéglin, in the Hautes-Alpes region. An ex-soldier, parachutist, writer and photograph, he is most well known for being the brains behind the “heist of the century” of the Société Générale in Nice. After a spectacular evasion from prison, he managed to evade police forces on the run until his death in 1989. The inspiration to go avec the Société Générale in Nice came to him through the novels he read during this time, most notably anything by Robert Pollock. In his tale “Tout a l’gout”, the author describes a bank robbery that was pulled off by going through the sewers. He puts his plan into action on the Baie des Anges branch in the summer of 1976, when he uses the sewer system to enter his target. The operation would make national headlines as the “heist of the century” and would brand him for life. It is said to have been over 50 million francs worth of gold and jewels, which disappeared over the course of a weekend. The crew that pulled off the robbery took care to leave no evidence behind and erase all their fingerprints, leaving but one tiny clue for police officials: a message etched on the wall of the safe by Spaggiari, “No weapons, no violence, no hate”.
4. Michel Ardouin
Michel Ardouin is a truant who gained notoriety by, among other things, being a close business partner to the “public enemy #1”.
Born in Paris in a wealthy household in December 1943, he quickly breaks out of this environment and enlists in the navy at a very young age. After a spell in military prison, he turns to criminal activity, engaging in what is at that time a French speciality, prostitution. He then travels to Barcelona, after which he joins the Latino Connection gang as one of their hired killers in South America. During one of his contracts, his wife will be killed and he will be seriously injured.
At the start of the 1970s, he makes his return to France, still seeking revenge on his wife’s assassins. He teams up with Jacques Mesrine to commit over 90 bank robberies in a little less than a year and half. He is also responsible for helping Mesrine escape from the Compiègne courthouse on the 6th of June 1973, earning himself the nickname “Aircraft-carrier”. The nickname will stick, due to both his imposing stature of 1m87 and 120 kilos and his tendency to be heavily armed. After a spell in prison for drug trafficking, he attempts to change his life by writing his memoirs. Despite his new career, Michel Ardouin would go on to have multiple issues with the law for illegal gambling and possession of firearms. He would pass away on the 21st of January 2014.
5. Laurent Fiocconi, The Life of a Gangster
Born in Corsica in 1941 to an extremist father who died during deportation, he was harbored and educated by his brothers, who happen to be career criminals in the Pigalle district. They eventually introduce him to their trade. After a few robberies, he chooses to focus on drug trafficking, which will become his way of life until the end of his days.
He quickly moves up the ranks and meets the Marseillan gangster Francis le Belge in 1968, with whom he would go on to make the history books of international criminality. At only 28 years of age, Fiocconi makes his first million by trafficking a hundred kilos of heroin from Marseille to New York in a fishing boat christened “The whims of time”, thereby giving birth to the French connection, a criminal drug trafficking organization in New York. This quickly draws the attention of the American police, which start to focus on Pietralba’s son.
After a second trip, he is arrested in Italy and extradited to the United States. This doesn’t stop him, as he escapes from prison in New York by fashioning keys out of bread. He makes his way back to France, where he immediately takes off for a third trip. He will be arrested again shortly after. He escapes a second time – with the help of a bazooka this time – from an Atlanta prison, before fleeing to Columbia to hide out in 1977. It’s at this point where he discovers his particular talent for chemistry, which will lead to thirty years of incarcerations, family life, clandestine laboratories and lunch dates with Pablo Escobar, the drug baron.
6. Paul Carbone
If you were to wander around Marseille in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, you would quickly find that Paul Carbonne, along with his Italian associate François Spirito ruled the place. At the same time that they were running traditional illegal activites – prostitution, racketeering and contraband, they were developing the French connection by being the first to import opium into France, with the intention of using it to produce heroin and ship it to the United States. During the war, both men defer to the occupant’s side, primarily to preserve their own interests. They help the Gestapo during the entire occupation of the “ free zone”, in exchange for which they are allowed to continue their activities unimpeded.
Paul Carbonne is found dead in 1943 in an act of sabotage by the French Resistance, while François Spirito went into exile in South America once France was liberated to pursue heroin trafficking.
7. Gaëtan Zampa
A charismatic figure of Marseillan organized crime, Gaëtan Zampa, referred to as Tany Zampa, commits his first criminal acts in Paris, as a part of the Three ducks squad. Soon to be relocated to the Cote d’Azur region, the racketeer, who specialises in especially violent intimidation, diversifies his criminal activities in the 1960s to include prostitution, drug trafficking and gambling. He is even suspected of having ordered the hit of former Marseillan drug lord Antoin Guérini in 1967.
At the head of the French Connection, he has to deal with a ferocious adversary; Francis Le Belge. Once this kingpin is arrested, Tany Zampa goes after his former partner Jacky Le Mat, which he tries in vain to assassinate in 1977.
Having been the loser in a gang war against Matou and being closely watched by police forces after the murder of Judge Michel in 1981, the gangster would take his own life in prison shortly after.
8. Émile Buisson
Public Enemy #1 in France after the war, Emile Buisson frustrated law enforcement officials with multiple robberies as a part of the Front Traction gang. He was an insatiable robber and an expert in break-ins, fights and hold-ups of all types. He committed his first murder in 1926 upon seeing his brother in danger and started to gain notoriety with the first of many audacious acts: attacking an armoured carriage in Troyes in 1937, walking away with 1 800 000 francs. In a February 1934 Parisien heist, the bounty would go up to 4 000 000 francs. On the 10th of June 1950, before he was eventually arrested, he and his men attacked a tramway wage. They would also kill a cashier later on that year.
During his trial, he would go on to confess everything, which included 36 murders and assaults. Convicted of the death penalty, he was guillotined in Paris on the 28th of February 1956.
9. Jacques Imbert
Jacques Imbert, aka Jacky Le Mat, is practically the last kingpin left in Marseille. A member of the Three ducks gang, this career criminal excelled in the art of racketeering and prostitution until a morning in February 1977, when an assassination attempt by former partner Tony Zampa left him with 22 bullets in his body. What followed was a veritable gang war that would last until February 1987, when Tony Zampa committed suicide while incarcerate and his generals were completely wiped out. After having supported his friend Francis Le Belge during the famous “nightclub war” (1989-1994), he retired from his business to lead a peaceful existence in Marseille. That is until 2004, when officials catch up to him for an affair with cigarette trafficking, in which he would be linked to the Russian Mafia. He was released because of a lack of evidence.
10. Pierre Loutrel
The very first public enemy #1, Pierre Loutrel, aka Pierrot-le-fou, was a member of the French gestapo and then a leading figure on the golden era of criminality, going through a stretch with the French resistance. The occupation was a rough spell for him, where he went on a drunken stealing and killing rampage.
Under Nazi Occupation, Pierre Loutrel, better known as the monicker “Crazy Pierrot”, starts by being a passion collaborator, committing multiple cold blooded murders, before joining the ranks of the French Resistance. Once liberated, he establishes the infamous Forward Traction gang, specialised in committing robberies in Citroén cars. He gains a reputation as an impulsive and dangerous crime lord, which is where his nickname comes from. He is so crazy that he is often left to the side by his accomplices. Pierrot’s life would come to a far from glorious end after succumbing to injuries he accidentally sustained during a robbery in a Parisien jewellery store in 1946.