Tuesday 22 December 2009

Death on the Metro

I’ve not long finished a truly beguiling article in the January issue of History Today, written jointly by Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle. Headed Murder in the Métro, it concerns the mysterious fate of one Laetitia Toureaux, found dying in May 1937 in a first class carriage with a knife through her neck, in what shows every sign of being a professional assassination. The crime caused a sensation at the time because it was the first ever murder in the Métro and because the French press played the crime up in lurid detail thereafter. Although heavily investigated at the time no witness was ever found and no convincing suspect was ever produced. It is a crime that remains unsolved to this day.

The death of Laetitia could so easily have been forgotten like so many others, then and since, as history and events quickly pass over such small and personal tragedies. But it’s a crime that casts a little light into some of the darker corners of pre-war French political life, to a world of violent intrigue, terrorism and counter-revolution.

Laetitia herself, who was twenty-nine years old at the time of her death, was found to have some very shady political associations. Of working-class background and Italian origin, she worked in a glue factory during the day though she clearly ambitious to improve her condition. She was a social climber slightly on the model of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. She also liked to socialise in some of the nightclubs in the more sordid parts of Paris, in places where she was known as ‘Yolande’ by the pimps and prostitutes. It was also in these places that she met men who shared her right-wing politics, the fascism she professed. At some point in 1936 she became the lover of Gabriel Jeantet, a wealthy intellectual with political ambitions and extreme right-wing views. But Laetitia was a dangerous commodity; for she was also a paid police spy, a mouche, to use the contemporary jargon.

In the January after her murder, with the case not that much further forward, the police began to suspect that her death had political overtones, that it was a professional assassination linked with the murder in the same year of Dmitri Navachine, a Russian economist, and Carlo and Nello Rosselli, two Italian anti-fascist exiles. The murders of the Navachie and the Roselli were traced to the extreme-right Comité secret d'action révolutionnaire, better known as the ‘Cagoule’ , the ‘hooded ones’, an orgnaisation violently opposed to the Third Republic and the then Popular Front government of Leon Blum. One of their aims was to overthrow the government by violent terrorist action. Jeantet, Laetitia’s boyfriend, was in charge of arms-smuggling operations.

In 1936 and 1937 the Cagoule was responsible for a series of crimes, including bombings in Paris and at least seven murders. On more than one occasion they attempted to assassinate Blum himself. Throughout France Cagoule militias stockpiled arms with the help and support of Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy. Jeantet met Mussolini in person on a number of occasions and may have brought Laetitia with him on at least one of these occasions.

After an abortive attempt to start an anti-government rising in November 1937, a number of Cagoulards were arrested. Under interrogation two of them, Rene Locuty and Frenand Jakubiez, swore that the organisation was also responsible for the murder of Laetitia. According to their testimony she was killed by Jean Filliol, the Cagoule’s principal hit-man, because it had been discovered that she was a police spy. Even with such a solid lead the case was still closed, an action which the authors put down to the complex politics of France before, during and after the Second World War. The Cagoule leaders were simply too well connected to pursue for the murder of an Italian immigrant with, as the authors put it, a shady love life and a penchant for espionage.

So, on the face of it looks as if Laetitia was no more than the victim of her circumstances. Doubts remain, though, over the exact circumstances leading to her death. There is reason to suppose, as Finley-Croswhite and Brunelle suggest, that it was not the Cagoule but the Italian Secret Service that was responsible for her death. The Cagoule, as a terrorist organisation, had little in the way of subtlety; its crimes, including its murders were open and excessive. Its victims were stabbed, bludgeoned or blown up.

Laetitia, in contrast, was killed in a highly professional manner by a silent and anonymous assassin, who left barely a trace of blood before the police pulled the knife from the dying woman’s neck. At the time the police investigation discovered that she had fallen foul not just of the Cagoule but of the Italians. She was known to have inside knowledge of the plan to assassinate the Roselli. It was also known not long after that she was a police informer. The suggestion is that rather than trust the Cagoulards with her disposal-there had already been two abortive attacks on her-the Italians brought in their own operative. Again, though this was a reasonable conclusion, it was not pursued because of the sensitive diplomatic implications. Laetitia was a little person caught in big events, of no importance to anyone.

So, this poor women’s personal tragedy was caught up in the history and politics of France and Italy. After the war her story was forgotten at a time when France was going through a collective ‘memory loss’ over so many aspects of its recent past. After all, even people as highly placed and respected as Francois Mitterrand had close ties with many members of the Cagoule in his youth. The story of Laetitia, as the authors conclude, forms part of France’s refusal to come to terms with the interwar era when so many French people sympathised with extreme right wing politics, fascism and anti-Semitism. With the passing of this generation a new willingness has arisen to look afresh at the past.

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