On the morning of Monday 19 July 1976 two employees of the Société Générale’s Nice branch trotted down the stairs to the steel door of the bank’s underground vault. The pair of keys required to open the vault door had to be turned simultaneously in locks too far apart to be operated by the same man. Société Générale prided itself on its security measures.
Each man inserted his key in the lock and turned it, expecting the door to swing open. Nothing happened. They tried again. Same result. It would be three and a half hours before anyone discovered the vault door had been sealed shut from the inside with a welding arc.
Scene of the Crime
At 09.00, half an hour after the first key failure, deputy manager Pierre Bigou sent for locksmiths. They arrived at 9.15 sweating lightly from the morning heat. It was going to be a warm day in Nice. Temperatures in the coastal resort regularly hit thirty degrees during the summer and today looked likely to top that. Holiday makers were already staking out plots on the beach.
The locksmiths took fifteen minutes to announce they could not open the door. They examined the bank blueprints and marked a neat X at the point where the vault wall was thinnest. They would have to drill a hole through the concrete to get inside. The bank manager Jacques Guenet took some convincing but customers had already begun to arrive in the bank to use their safety deposit boxes in the vault. One of his colleagues was fielding questions at the top of the stairs and trying to corral customers back into the main hall. Nothing to worry about monsieur. A minor technical problem madame. Your valuables are quite safe but there may be a slight delay. With the pressure building Guenet agreed to the locksmiths’ plan.
At 12.00 the locksmiths finally punched through the wall with power drills. The wall was so thick the hole seemed more of a tunnel. One of the locksmiths looked through into the vault. Inside was chaos: tipped cabinets, papers everywhere, jewels scattered on the floor.
‘Merde de putain,’ he said to Guenet. ‘You’ve been robbed.’
Commissaire Jacques Albertin and his team arrived within minutes of Guenet’s panicky phone call. Albertin had never dealt with a bank robbery before but he was no wide-eyed rookie. The career policeman had plenty of experience solving murders, drug deals and extortion rackets. Nice may have had the image of a sun drenched resort populated by tanned businessmen, playboys, and well-off retirees (the kind who kept their jewels in the Société Générale’s vault) but underneath the glitz it was a tough place.
When France ditched its last colonial possessions in the early 1960s the town’s already thriving underworld had been boosted by the arrival of white refugees from North Africa. The new arrivals, known as pied noirs, were accustomed to violence. Some had belonged to the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), a right-wing group that tried to hold back Algerian independence with bombs and bullets. Their activities sent the crime rate soaring.
Inspector Lecocq, the slimmest of the policemen, wriggled through the hole in the wall, losing his trousers in the process. The robbers were long gone. The policeman stepped through snowdrifts of paper bonds and cheques, love letters and compromising documents. Some amateur pornographic photographs pulled from a safety deposit box had been taped to the wall by the robbers. Lecocq recognised prominent Nice citizens among the sweaty bodies.
About 10% of the safety deposit boxes had been smashed open. The true value of what was stolen would never be known. The bank did not know what was in the boxes and some Société Générale customers were reluctant to enlighten them. The best guess was 30,000,000 francs, although some claimed 100,000,000 was nearer the mark.
Lecocq soon discovered how the robbers got into the vault. They had tunnelled through the far wall via the sewers. Tanks for oxyacetylene torches, jacks, and lamps were abandoned in the vault. Their owners had obviously been in the bank all weekend as piles of human faeces stank in the corners. Lecocq tried to ignore the stench as he peered into the tunnel leading to the sewers. He could see enough to realise it was shored up like a mine shaft. Whoever supervised it was a professional.
There was something else. The robbers had left a message. Written on the message board opposite the vault door were the words Sans Armes, ni Violence, ni Haine (without weapons, violence, or hate). They were followed by a circle struck through with a cross, its arms protruding beyond the edge of the circle. The Celtic cross. The emblem of the OAS.
Clues and Suspects
When the news of the robbery got out the Société Générale was besieged by customers. The Nice police had to divert officers from investigating the crime to protecting Guenet the bank manager. Some customers had lost their life savings and were in no mood to be told the authorities were doing everything they could. Threats, curses, and spit flew through the air whenever a member of staff was spotted. Other customers sat on the street and wept.
The police announced they would soon have the robbers in custody. That did little to console the crowd and less to encourage Albertin and Lecocq, who were aware that despite all the abandoned equipment in the vault they had little to go on. The robbers had left no finger prints. The gear was widely available and in the few cases that could be confirmed had been purchased from busy department stores.
The sewers held even fewer clues, although the police did find out how the gang had approached the vault. The river Paillon ran through Nice from the hills above the town and emptied out into the sea. For part of its route through the town it entered a man-made underground tunnel the size of a road. In summer the tunnel was dry. The thieves had driven along it then broken through a wall into the sewer system and from there into the vault. The gang had rubber dingies and lilos to transport their equipment through the sewers which, unlike the river route, were knee deep in water.
The Celtic cross turned out to be a dead end. It was the symbol associated with the OAS but it was also the symbol of a myriad of other defunct right-wing groups, like Jeune Nation and Occident. It had even been used by a foreign group, the British National Party. And the OAS had been inoperative since the early 1960s.
In the absence of leads the police fell back on the old standby of informers. Within hours of the crime grim faced policemen were paying visits to bar owners, pimps and petty criminals. A job this big and no-one knows anything? Don’t lie to me. Maybe you were in on it? Maybe you want to come down the station? But if anyone knew anything about the crime of the century they were not talking.
When news of the bank robbery hit the newspapers the trickle of information turned to a deluge. Suddenly everyone had an opinion on who did it. In the coming weeks hordes of elderly Nice residents would ring the police to claim foreign hippies were behind the heist. Or it was the Italian Mafia, Arab criminals, the neighbour who had borrowed their lawnmower and never returned it. Anyone with a grudge or a prejudice contacted the police. They even received a tip from the US that the mastermind behind the robbery had turned up in America and tried to join the CIA.
In all the chatter the police can be forgiven for overlooking an anonymous informant who approached them within days of the robbery with the claim he possessed a complete list of the robbers’ names. He wanted a million francs for the list and another million when the suspects were apprehended. As a mark of good faith he supplied a few initials. The head of the gang was ‘AS’.
Negotiations for the list fell through and the informant vanished back into the Nice underworld, taking with him (although no-one at police headquarters would realise it for three months) the best chance to crack the case wide open.
Another important lead was not overlooked. Two policemen from Plan du Var reported a suspicious event from the 9 July. They had been called in by the wife of a local businessman who was sure her husband was having an affair. The husband was looking after a country villa for a friend and the keys had disappeared from their usual place in a drawer. His wife leapt to the conclusion her husband had installed a mistress in the empty house. French police rarely bother themselves with incidents this trivial so the wife framed the incident as a possible burglary. The keys are missing and I’m worried someone might have broken into the villa. We’re looking after it for a friend. I would feel terrible if anything happened to it while he was away. Could you just check …? Merci.
The two policemen dutifully drove up to the villa where they found four men and several cars. The men insisted they had every right to be there – the owner had leant them the keys for a party. The wife was called in and then her husband. He verified the story. He had leant them the keys. For a party. And he was in charge of the villa while his friend was away. What was the problem? The policemen were suspicious but no crime had been committed so they took everyone’s names and left.
The villa was ideally located for a robbery HQ. Out in the countryside with few neighbours but still close by the main road to Nice. The police team investigating the robbery, now led by veteran Commissaire Jacques Tholance, swooped on 27 July.
It was empty. Littering the property were oxygen tanks, gloves and other debris that made it clear the villa had been the nerve centre for the bank job. Its inhabitants had vanished the night of the robbery and not been seen since. Tholance flicked through the names collected by the local policemen. Watch them all, he told his officers. These are our men.
As the Nice police organised surveillance other leads surfaced. A man sold some gold ingots at his bank. The ingots were stamped with a serial number that identified them as having been stolen from the Société Générale. A car rental business contacted police with the news a car had been returned with the female driver’s diary still in the boot. In it she recorded her suspicions that her boyfriend was involved in the robbery. Elsewhere in Nice a high class call girl confided to her friends that her boyfriend had recently come into a lot of money from a ‘big job’.
The police watched and waited. On 26 October they pounced.
Caught In The Net
Inspector Tholance’s team brought in thirty-five suspects. Within a few days twenty-seven were free. It quickly became apparent that the worst crime for many was to have been friends with someone the police were interested in. Those suspects who were serious contenders for the Société Générale job had cast iron alibis for the weekend of the robbery. Tholance was left with eight men and one of those was only still in custody because he had confessed to embezzling money from his employer in a completely separate crime.
Tholance concentrated on two of his remaining suspects. He strongly suspected Francis Pellegrin and Alain Bournat, both members of the Marseilles underworld, had been involved in the robbery. The inspector leant on them, interrogated them time and again, and threatened them. Eventually they cracked and named the ringleader – the man who had planned, organised, funded and led the robbery – as Albert Spaggiari. Initials ‘AS’.
Tholance was shocked by the revelation. A Frenchman of Italian descent, Spaggiari owned a well-known photography shop in Nice although in recent months the day to day running of the shop had been left in the hands of the manager while Spaggiari retreated into the countryside with his wife to raise chickens. The photographer had been in Nice since 1968 and become an honorary member of Nice’s high society through his skill behind the camera. He was first choice for any upper crust function. Tholance had a bad moment when he realised his chief suspect had recently, after the robbery in fact, accompanied the Mayor of Nice on a trip to Japan. He recovered a little when it was discovered Spaggiari had not been part of the official party. He and his wife had gone as private citizens. But even so the man two criminals were accusing of organising the crime of the century was a big fish with a lot of influential friends.
But the law is the law. Tholance’s men arrested Spaggiari at his photography shop on 27 October and brought him down to the police station. It was immediately obvious that despite his surface polish Spaggiari was a tough customer. The forty-three-year-old with dark hair, a pointed chin, and a wolfish smile would not answer any questions.
Tholance tried the same tactics that had broken his last two suspects. But pressure and threats had no effect on Spaggiari. When the Commissaire looked into his chief suspect’s background he realised why.
Albert ‘Bert’ Spaggiari was born in Laragne-Montéglin, south-east France, on 14 December 1932. His father died when he was three. His mother, who ran a lingerie shop in nearby Hyères, quickly remarried. Spaggiari hated his stepfather and his chief memory of the man was from 1940 when France surrendered to the Germans. The radio announced an armistice and the little boy mistakenly proclaimed ‘that means we’ve won!’ His stepfather slapped him hard around the head.
Spaggiari was a tearaway, constantly in trouble. He was expelled from one school for fighting with a black Ivory Coast student who showed too much attention to the headmaster’s daughter. He stole, even from his own family. At seventeen he skipped out and joined the Parachute Regiment.
After the humiliation of the Second World War President Charles De Gaulle’s France looked to its overseas colonies to re-establish national pride. But the war had given imperial subjects a taste of freedom they were reluctant to give up. Indochina (present day Vietnam and surrounding territories) had been a French possession since 1887 but the natives who took up arms during the war to pick off Japanese soldiers from deep in the jungle kept on fighting after the armistice, this time for independence. Ho Chi Minh’s Communist army was strong in the north of the country and the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, complete with Albert Spaggiari, was at the forefront of the fight to destroy it.
Indochina’s sweating foliage, ghost-like enemy, and native population of uncertain loyalty made for a bloody and brutal war. Spaggiari thrived. The young thief from Laragne-Montéglin became a tough soldier, wounded twice and decorated for bravery in battle. But once a thief, always a thief. In 1953 Spaggiari was arrested with a friend as he broke into the Milk Bar in Hanoi and was shipped back to France in irons. Sentenced to five years imprisonment he missed the battle of Dien Ben Phu in which besieged French forces were finally overwhelmed by Viet Minh soldiers. The defeat marked the passing of French Indochina.
Spaggiari was released in 1957 and worked for a while manufacturing safes, an ironic activity. He married a nurse, Marcelle Audi (a slim good-looking brunette always known as Audi), in what proved to be an enduring marriage if one founded more on friendship than love, as Spaggiari’s constant affairs showed all too clearly. The pair tried their luck in the French colony of Senegal at the end of the fifties but that country achieved independence in 1960 and the Spaggiaris headed back to France.
In the wake of his experiences in Dakar, Spaggiari became involved with an organisation determined not to let a similar independence come to Algeria – the OAS. For some the OAS was a defender of western values, for others just a gang of terrorist thugs. Within a month of contacting the organisation Spaggiari would be staring at the President of France through the sights of a rifle.
Target De Gaulle
The OAS was formed in 1961 by a group of French Algerian exiles in Madrid. Men like Pierre Lagaillarde, Jean-Jaques Susini and General Raoul Salan had been driven out of the French colony for their opposition to Algerian independence. President De Gaulle had initially supported their position but as the costs of fighting the native Algerian FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) became apparent the war hero changed his tune. Gradual disengagement from Africa was now the party line.
The OAS used the same tactic of bombs, murders and propaganda as the FLN but with the aim of convincing France to keep its North African territory. De Gaulle’s propagandists declared the organisation a group of right-wing fanatics, some even claiming it was fascist. The OAS pointed to the (few) indigenous Algerians within its ranks, the books by Lenin on Susini’s shelves, and respectable resistants like Georges Bidault, who abandoned his place at the peak of the French establishment to join the organisation. But that could not disguise the fact that most of those who flocked to its ranks were on the far-right, often soldiers or ex-soldiers, who would kill to defend ‘western civilisation’ and keep Algeria part of France.
As French Algeria moved into its endgame in the early 1960s the OAS reacted with the desperation of men with their backs against the wall. They plotted to kill De Gaulle. An attempt to blow up the President’s car on the Pont-sur-Seine in September 1961 almost succeeded. Other attempts failed to get off the ground or were compromised.
In October 1961 Albert Spaggiari drove into Spain in his Citroen 2CV to visit Pierre Lagaillarde, one of the OAS founders. Spaggiari had his own plan to assassinate De Gaulle: the President would be passing through the town of Hyères in a motorcade whose route took it directly by Spaggiari’s mother’s shop. The would-be assassin proposed to shoot De Gaulle from a sniper’s post in the loft.
Why the future robber of the Société Générale in Nice wanted to kill the President of France is unclear. Spaggiari subsequently painted his actions as a dedication to the cause of French Algeria. Others have claimed he expected to financially rewarded. He was not a member of the OAS at the time and his approach to Lagaillarde indicates Spaggari was working on out of date information. Although Lagaillarde was one of the organisation’s founders he had fallen out with the others and been stranded in Spain when Salan and Susini returned to Algeria. Susini’s contacts with the Madrid police ensured the bearded Parachute reservist remained in a gilded Spanish cage, able to issue communiqués and press statements but prevented from leaving the country. The man Spaggiari had contacted was a general without an army.
Even worse, Lagaillarde was opposed to assassination attempts on De Gaulle, thinking them counter-productive. He told to Spaggiari to wait until he got a direct order before going ahead with the plan. On 8 November 1961 Spaggiari lay in the loft above his mother’s flat with a Mauser rifle watching De Gaulle’s car passing in front of his rifle sights. He did not fire. The order had not come.
Lagaillarde had been arrested soon after Spaggiari’s visit. The Spanish authorities exiled him to the Canary Islands for the best part of the year. The reasons for arrest aren’t clear: rumours blame everything from Susini’s spite to General Franco getting twitchy over assassination plots to suggestions that Spaggiari may have been used as a tool to get Lagaillarde locked up. Most agree that the exile would have been unlikely to authorise an assassination even without the arrest.
The OAS chief didn’t seem to blame Spaggiari. He got in touch from the Canary Islands and ordered him to group up with other militants and hide a printing press. For the next few months the would-be assassin printed propaganda for Lagaillarde’s faction of the OAS. Then in March 1962 the police swooped and arrested the group.
‘I was given away by one of the men I had with me,’ said Spaggiari. ‘He was an extraordinary type, a real expert thief; he knew every conceivable method of breaking down a door or opening a safe. He had done six months on the Russian front in the French volunteer contingent [ie. he was a wartime collaborator] and was arrested by the police when on the run. The police proposed a deal: either he denounced some of his mates who would be given no more than three months or he would serve the full six years due to him. Believing the police to be honest, he had no hesitation in giving us away.’
Spaggiari served four years in St Martin prison. While he was inside De Gaulle finally authorised withdrawal from Algeria and pied noirs poured into France fleeing the FLN. The OAS continued to struggle (there was attempt on De Gaulle’s life as late as 1966) but the battle had been lost.
On Spaggiari’s release the ever patient Audi was waiting and the pair moved to Nice. An amnesty for OAS members in the late 1960s wiped the slate clean and Spaggiari left his adventuring days behind him. The former jailbird opened a photography shop in Nice and soon became a favourite for wedding pictures. The Spaggiaris’ climb up Nice’s social ladder had begun.
The photographer’s growing status was unaffected by his past. Nice was a right-wing town with a large reserve of sympathy for the those who fought for French Algeria. The mayor Jacques Médecin, it was claimed, was friends with many ex-OAS militants. No-one raised an eyebrow when a 1973 book Objectif De Gaulle about attempts on the President’s life was found to contain a chapter on Spaggiari’s abortive assassination. The book’s authors down played their connections to the shadowy world of OAS veterans (one even used a pseudonym) but Spaggiari was happy to tell readers about his plan to kill De Gaulle.
‘I only regret one thing,’ he said, ‘not having received the order to pull the trigger when De Gaulle passed underneath my window’.
Despite claiming to have put politics behind him Spaggiari had moved even further to the right. His country villa The Wild Geese, where he raised chickens, had a photograph of Adolf Hitler on the wall near some SS runes. The police would later find a sub-machinegun and explosives buried under a chicken coop. Spaggiari travelled to Paris for political meetings and belonged to several neo-fascist groups. The old itch for excitement had never gone away. Spaggiari even claimed to have joined left-wingers in the May 1968 Paris riots, just to have a crack at De Gaulle’s police force. There were rumours he had been seen in Prague (on a false passport) during anti-Soviet protests. Not to mention the frequent trips to Munich, then a hotbed of neo-Nazi activity.
In Nice even a man with Spaggiari’s political leanings could be considered respectable. Until the Société Générale robbery he had never been suspected of anything criminal, despite a few unsubstantiated rumours floating around.
Inspector Tholance had a tough guy on his hands. Conventional approaches, even violence, would not work. Something more subtle was required. Cherchez la femme. Tholance threatened to involve Spaggiari’s wife. Won’t talk eh? What about Madame Spaggairi then? Shall I bring her in? Perhaps we could find something to charge her with. Do you think your wife will like prison?
It turned out the Indochina veteran, two-times prisoner and would-be assassin of President De Gaulle had a weak spot after all. After four days of silence he cracked.
France’s Most Wanted
Or at least Albert Spaggairi seemed to crack. Commissaire Tholance soon discovered his gang ringleader was a master at spilling the beans without actually saying anything. He was happy to boast and take credit for the robbery but hard evidence, especially anything that would enable Tholance to track down the rest of the gang, was thin on the ground.
A few scraps of evidence added to what the police already knew. After Spaggiari had come up with the plan he approached criminals from Marseille, Pellegrin and Bornat amongst others, to help put it into action. He also brought in friends, probably ex-OAS contacts, to fill out the team. Finding truth amongst Spaggiari’s comments on the robbery is as hard as finding a four leaf clover in a meadow but it seems likely, as he later claimed, that he brought in his own men because he did not trust the Marseilles gang.
The only other useful information Tholance got was that the thieves had not carried all their equipment through the sewers. The heaviest items had been lowered through a manhole in the street right outside the bank. That was all Spaggiari had to say. A media circus began as he was transported to and from the prison to the judge investigating the case. For the next five and a half months his face was splashed all over the newspapers and all over the world.
On 10 March 1977 there seemed to be a breakthrough. Spaggiari requested to see the judge and said he was ready to name names. Policemen escorted him through a wall of flash bulbs and reporters to the court building. In the chambers Spaggairi produced a piece of paper covered in symbols and scrawls which baffled the judge. The robbery mastermind leant across the judge’s desk to explain … then abruptly ran to a window, flung it open, and jumped out.
He landed a few feet down on a ledge then jumped again onto the roof of a parked car, a jump of three storeys (he had been a parachutist). From there Spaggiari was on the road then the back of a waiting motorcycle before the police could draw their guns.
‘Au revoir,’ he called as the bike roared off. And that was the last French justice saw of Albert Spaggiari.
He apparently hid in Paris for a while after his escape but by 1977 was in Argentina, a popular haunt for OAS veterans, where he wrote a book on the robbery (Les égouts du paradis) and another about his early life (Faut pas rire avec les barbares) which are self-aggrandising, coarse and thrilling. The book on the robbery reached a wide readership, even being translated into English as The Sewers of Gold, but the general consensus was that Spaggiari was trying to confuse matters as much as possible. With the police on his tail and only three people ever jailed in connection with the robbery (Pellegrin and Bournat, and Gérard Rang, the motorcycle rider for Spaggiari’s escape) the ringleader was unlikely to start naming names. The only real insight was that it took the gang two months to complete the tunnel from the sewer. And even that may have been a lie.
But there are rumours that Spaggiari was cheated out of his share of the robbery proceeds by the Marseilles faction of his gang. If true there could have been sweet revenge in dropping hints, in a best selling book no less, about who was really responsible. Some have claimed there are enough clues in the book to identify Gaëtan Zampa as leader of the Marseilles gangsters. Others have suggested Spaggiari’s urge to tell all went beyond those who had betrayed him and that OAS veterans like Gaby Anglade (who also appeared in the book Objectif De Gaulle) and writer/mercenary Jean Kay can be identified.
Or can they? Kay seems to have been otherwise occupied. In July 1976 he had his hands full blackmailing the financial director of airplane manufacturer Dassault-Breguet over a compromising dossier. The money went to the Lebanese Christians, whose milita Kay had trained in the late ’60s. Simultaneously robbing a bank may have been too ambitious. But in the milieu of gangsters, soldiers of fortune, and conmen anything is possible.
Spaggiari remained in the French consciousness for years after the robbery, sending letters to newspapers and appearing in filmed interviews disguised with beard and hat. He was photographed with Ronnie Biggs, the famous British criminal living in self-imposed Brazilian exile after 1963’s Great Train Robbery.
The Frenchman may have found employment in the right-wing milieu. Recently declassified American documents indicate he was involved with Operation Condor, a joint extra-judicial effort by right-wing South American governments to eliminate their opponents. Condor climaxed with the assassination of Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier in Washington. The outrage generated by the murder shut Condor down for good. Exactly what Spaggiari did or how deep his involvement went is unknown. A terse note in State Department files states only that ‘Daniel’, a contact for American born assassin and Condor activist Michael Townley, had been identified as Albert Spaggiari.
With Spaggiari moving in those kind of circles it is unsurprising he became enmeshed in a web of conspiracy theories about the far-right. One version, detailed in 1980’s The Great Heroin Coup, alleges the real planner of the Société Générale job was not Spaggiari but the Paladin Group, a Madrid-based mercenary training outfit run by former Nazi commando Otto Skorzenzy.
There is not much evidence to support the Palladin theory (although gold bars apparently linked to the robbery turned up in a Madrid safety deposit box rented by a French fascist activist) but conspiracy theorists can always point to the fact that a mere four weeks after the Nice bank job a similar robbery occurred in Paris. Over the weekend of the 14 August 1976 a gang broke into the Ile Saint-Louis Société Générale vault through the sewers. If they were copycats they were extremely quick off the mark – a job that big takes a long time to organise. The police did a better job of rounding up the culprits than they did in Nice and a collection of Paris gangsters went to jail. Among them, although no-one made the connection at the time, was Joseph Rizza, a notorious former OAS gunman. Rizza never admitted any contact with Spaggiari.
And what about the eventual confirmation that the CIA story which had floated about in the early days of the investigation was true? A man identifying himself as Albert Spaggiari had contacted the CIA while in America after the robbery and offered to work for them. As confirmation of his bona fides he claimed to have been the brains behind the Nice bank job. But no-one had believed him. It was rumoured Spaggiari had occasional CIA contacts back in the late 1960s (the Americans had unlikely allies in the war on Communism) but if it really was him was he simply trying to cover his back after the robbery? Or was there another reason?
Other conspiracies have been local. There is the fact that Spaggiari made no attempt to flee when Pellegrin and Bournat were arrested. Was he playing it cool or did he have reason to believe powerful friends, perhaps even the mayor, would protect him? In 1990 Jacques Médecin fled to Uruguay after accusations of corruption from British writer Graham Greene, who lived in Nice. Médecin was finally extradited in 1994.
Or had Spaggiari simply got the idea for the robbery from English author Robert Pollock’s 1973 international best seller Loophole? Pollock certainly believed he had. In turn the author got his idea about a British gang robbing a bank through the sewers from a London criminal and split the proceeds of the book with him to make up for the loss of earnings if the plan had been carried out for real.
Spaggiari spent the 1980s drifting between South America and Europe. Despite a life sentence imposed in absentia after his escape he occasionally returned to France to see his wife.
When he died in 1989 of lung cancer Spaggiari had been living in Italy under a fake identity for a number of years. The only other three people charged in direct connection with the robbery had been freed years earlier. Little of the money was ever recovered. For his part Spaggiari claimed he donated part of his share to French neo-Fascist groups.
In 2010 the story got more complicated when Jacques Cassandri, a well-known figure in the Marseilles underworld who had done time for a variety of offences including membership of the French Connection heroin ring, published a book claiming he was the real mastermind behind the Société Générale robbery. La Vérité sur la Casse de Nice (The Truth About the Nice Case) claimed Spaggiari played only a minor role and had exaggerated his importance after being caught. Cassandri used a pseudonym but police quickly tracked him down. The statute of limitations meant he could not charged over anything to do with Société Générale, although the authorities tried to make some more recent money laundering charges stick.
The French public preferred to believe Spaggiari’s version. In 2008 a French biopic of Spaggiari, Sans arme, ni haine, ni violence, hit the cinemas. It portrayed him as a comic fantasist marooned by a hotel pool in Argentina unable to accept that the biggest robbery in French history had actually ruined his life.
This is how the French public still see Spaggiari: part comedian, part daring thief. In truth he was a political extremist at war with modern society and prepared to fund that war through crime. Cognitive dissonance on the part of a public which secretly wishes it could rob a bank and escape to South America ensures Spaggiari’s less palatable aspects fade into the background, leaving just that wolfish smile, like a feral Cheshire Cat, hanging in the air.
This piece was originally written for my brightreview.co.uk webpage. If you want to investigate the Société Générale robbery then the best starting point is 1977’s The Heist Of The Century. Originally written by French journalists René-Louis Maurice and Jean-Claude Simoën as ‘Cinq Milliards au bout de l’égout’ the English translation had a polish and partial re-write from thriller author Ken Follett. It has been available under a number of different titles, including ‘Gentleman of 16 July’ and ‘Under the Streets of Nice’. Follett was never happy with the book or the way it was handled – his official website gives his take on it.
For English language background on the OAS, the best is 1989’s Challenging De Gaulle by Alexander Harrison but 1970’s Wolves in the City by Paul Henissart has its good points. General history on the Algerian conflict can be found in Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (1977). Objectif De Gaulle by Christian Plume and Pierre Demaret, the history of OAS assassination attempts on President De Gaulle, is available as the entertaining English language Target: De Gaulle (1976), complete with rip-off ‘Day of the Jackal’ cover.
For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my books in paperback or ebook: