Monsieur Henri and his pals

16th arrondissement - 93, rue Saint Lauriston

"The rue Lauriston gang". These few words would have been enough to strike fear into the hearts of any Parisian during the war years. Even more sinister than the few dozen Gestapo and SS officers posted at any one time in the French capital was the group of crooks and murderers led by Henri Lafont / Chamberlain / Normand (or simply "Monsieur Henri") that served the Reich right from the start of the Occupation.

Monsieur Henri moved into the requisitioned building at rue Lauriston in May 1941, taking a liking to the garden out back and the vast cellars down below, where enemies could be tortured at will without being heard by the neighbours. Also known as the "French Gestapo", Lafont's gang stole, tortured and murdered its way through the four-year Occupation without ever been hassled by the authorities. For in between bouts of gang warfare and the occasional bank robbery, Monsieur Henri's men undertook expeditions against the Resistance and shared some of their booty with the Germans. Louis Malle's 1974 film, Lacombe Lucien is a convincing portrayal of the mindset of gangsters of this sort during the war years.

The rue Lauriston gang did not collaborate with the Nazis for ideological reasons, but simply saw the breakdown in normal civil society as a chance to get rich quick. But for Monsieur Henri and his main side-kick, the ex-police inspector Pierre Bonny, collaboration with the occupant also afforded a degree of revenge against the French establishment. For Henri Lafont had been abandoned as a child and had spent much of his life in prison. He was a social misfit. As for Bonny, he was well known throughout France for his controversial investigations into several scandals during the inter-war years. One involved Guillaume Seznec, who was condemned for the murder of his business partner in 1924, while another case - concerning the high-flying swindler Alexander Stavisky - almost brought down the government in 1934 and led to street riots. In 1935, Bonny was sacked and received a suspended three-year sentence for misuse of his position and embezzlement.

In July 1944, when the game was up, Lafont and Bonny hid up in a farm south of Paris, hoping eventually to make it to Spain. But they were betrayed by Joseph Joinovici who, despite his origins, (like Stavisky, he was a Ukrainian Jew) made a fortune out of selling scrap iron to the Germans and supplying goods to the black market in cooperation with the rue Lauriston gang. Unfortunately for Monsieur Henri and Bonny, come the Liberation, Joinovici was more intent on saving his own skin (which he managed to do) than on remaining loyal to his pals. Lafont, Bonny and a number of other ring leaders were quickly arrested at their country hideout and executed at the fort of Montrouge in December1944.

Not far from rue Lauriston is 21 rue Lesueur, the residence Docteur Marcel Petiot, another hyper-active individual during the war years. During the Occupation, Petiot robbed and poisoned at least 27 individuals, having promised he would get them out of France. Afer having poisoned his victims, he hacked and burned their bodies in an underground furnace. Alas, his house has been knocked down in the past 30 years. An attempt to exorcise demons?


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