Murder on the Métro
In the years leading up to the Second World War, France was riven by political division as extremes of left and right vied for power. Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle tell the tragic and mysterious story of Laetitia Toureaux, a young woman swept up in the violent passions of the time.
At around 6pm on a Sunday afternoon in May 1937 an attractive young woman with newly coiffed blond hair, wearing a finely tailored green suit, white hat and gloves, left a bal musette, or dancehall, in a working-class suburb of Paris near the Charente River and the Bois de Vincennes. She told a friend, Pierrette Marnef, that she was late for an appointment and headed off briskly towards a bus stop.
Approximately 24 minutes later she stepped off the bus and entered a métro station, the Porte de Charenton, where she boarded a first-class carriage bound for central Paris. Although the platform and the second-class carriages were full of holidaymakers, who had spent Pentecost Sunday at the Parc de Vincennes, Laetitia Nourrissat Toureaux sat alone; in Depression-era France few travellers could afford the cost of a first-class ticket. The train departed at 18:27 and about a minute later arrived at the Porte Dorée station where six passengers entered in two groups of three from doors at opposite ends of the first-class carriage. Inside they spied Toureaux sitting alone near a window. One of the passengers, a young French woman travelling with two English friends, approached Laetitia to ask whether she could open a window to let some air into the stuffy carriage. Rather than answering, Toureaux slumped forward and slid motionless to the floor, an eight-inch dagger in her neck.
A conductor immediately summoned the Paris police. The first officer on the scene yanked the knife out of Toureaux’s neck.As a result, she bled to death without uttering a word. The autopsy revealed that her assailant had struck her from behind. Given the force of the blow – the tip of the knife had penetrated her spine – and the expertise required to deliver it, the police concluded that the murderer was most likely a hired killer. There were no fingerprints and little other forensic evidence. The only other clue was the presence of the knife itself,which suggested that, like Toureaux herself, her attacker was an Italian; a knife in the neck was a ‘calling card’ of Italian professional assassins.
The French public was shocked to read about the crime in their newspapers the next day for this was the first murder ever committed on the Paris Métro. The judicial section of the police force known as the Sûreté Nationale launched a murder inquiry. Over the next 12 months they interviewed hundreds of people and followed up on scores of leads yet never found a single witness to the crime and eventually shelved the investigation. To this day, the murder of Laetitia Toureaux remains officially unsolved, a seemingly ‘perfect crime’.
Who was Laetitia Toureaux?
In the weeks that followed, the Parisian press sensationalised the murder and its investigation, uncovering little by little the details of Toureaux’s unconventional life and offering hypotheses regarding her untimely death. Initially, journalists and the public viewed her as a perfectly respectable, recently widowed Italian immigrant who had become the victim of a cruel assassin.
Five days after the murder, however, public opinion turned against Toureaux. Exposed as an ambitious social climber with a taste for money, men and adventure, her nearly six-year marriage to the late Jules Toureaux, the son of an industrialist, was revealed to have been a clandestine relationship of which her father did not approve. Jules’s bourgeois family had only learnt of the union when he was on his deathbed in 1935 and, as a consequence, severed all ties with his working-class wife. Faithful to her husband during their secret marriage and seemingly devoted to him, she took a series of lovers after his death and indulged in occasional trysts in hotel rooms and public parks. Like many Italians living in France, she frequented nightclubs, often located in sordid neighbourhoods of Paris, where pimps and prostitutes solicited customers and where she was known to acquaintances as ‘Yolande’.
Even more intriguing, Toureaux not only worked in a glue factory by day and a bal musette by night, but found employment with a private detective agency in central Paris called Agence Rouff, where she specialised in surveillance and message delivery. Through her employer, Georges Rouffignac, it appears that she began working unofficially for the city police as a mouche, a ‘fly’, or paid informer. In many of the nightspots she frequented she met men drawn to right-wing politics, several of whom shared the sympathy for fascism she espoused. At some point in 1936 she seems to have become the lover of Gabriel Jeantet. An intellectual with extreme right-wing views, Jeantet’s wealth and political ambitions were likely to have attracted Toureaux as much as his good looks. She may even have believed that ‘Gabès’, as Jeantet’s friends called him, was her ticket out of the factory work by which she supported herself.
By January 1938 police and journalists had strong suspicions about the identity of her killer, although they were still unsure of the motive behind the crime. Police informants connected her murder to three other assassinations that took place in France in 1937: of the Russian economist Dimitri Navachine, stabbed to death in the Bois-de-Boulogne on January 26th; and of the Italian anti-fascist exiles Carlo and Nello Rosselli, gunned down on a road in Normandy on June 9th. Police eventually traced all three murders to an extreme right-wing organisation called the Comité secret d’action révolutionnaire (CSAR), known popularly as the ‘Cagoule’, or ‘hooded ones’, because of its activists’ supposed penchant for donning hoods to protect their identities. Gabriel Jeantet was in charge of its arms-smuggling operations.
Although the Cagoule had no unified ideology, its members shared a fierce commitment to French nationalism, anti-Communism and anti-semitism. Admirers of the Italian Fascist movement, the Cagoule solicited and received funds and logistical support from Mussolini in return for performing services for the Italian secret service, the Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell’Antifascismo. Leaders of the Cagoule met in Italy with representatives of Mussolini, and possibly with Il Duce himself, on a number of occasions in 1936 and 1937. Jeantet may have brought Toureaux along with him on one of these trips.
Former army and naval officers, engineers, doctors, journalists and industrialists from the upper strata of French society created the organisation, ostensibly to ward off the threat of a Bolshevik uprising. The Cagoule’s leaders and backers in Paris comprised a number of prominent Frenchmen, such as the distinguished naval engineer Eugène Deloncle, Eugène Schuller, the founder of the cosmetics company L’Oréal, and the industrialist Pierre Pucheu. Most of them hailed from the wealthy 16th arrondissement. The Cagoule also had branches in major French cities, most notably Nice, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and Pau.
The real goal of the Cagoule was to break the power of the French trades unions and to overthrow the newly-elected Popular Front government of socialist leader Léon Blum and install in its place an authoritarian regime allied with Mussolini. The organisation received funding from Schuller, as well as the tyre manufacturer Michelin, the aperitif maker Byrrh and the oil company Lesieur.
During 1936 and 1937 the Cagoule committed a series of crimes that included two bombings in Paris, at least seven murders and the destruction at Toussusle-Noble near Paris of several aeroplanes bound for anti-Franco forces in Spain. They incited public riots and on more than one occasion attempted to assassinate Blum. The Cagoule also formed militias throughout France, amassed huge stockpiles of weapons purchased through arms dealers in Belgium, Switzerland and Italy, trained terrorists and built underground prisons. They sought to make their crimes as high-profile, gruesome and thus as frightening as possible in order to destabilise the government by showing it incapable of maintaining security.
The French police had been tracking the operations of the Cagoule throughout 1937. The previous year they had succeeded in infiltrating the organisation and were aware of the Cagoule’s activities. The interior minister Marx Dormoy also knew that the Cagoule had gained the support of some of the most powerful men in France, including Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun and former war minister who, through intermediaries, had been in contact with leaders of the Cagoule, and from industrialists such as Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, head of Lesieur; Pierre Taittinger,who owned the Champagne house of that name and was to run the Paris municipal council during the German occupation; Jean Coutrot, founder of the sinister secret business lobby X-Crise; and Schuller’s protégé and future son-in-law André Bettencourt. They knew also that the Cagoule had infiltrated the ranks of the police and garnered some support in the armed forces.
On the night of November 15th, 1937 the Cagoule overreached itself in a disastrous effort to provoke a Communist uprising on the streets of Paris that, the Cagoule leaders hoped,would force military intervention and the downfall of Blum’s government. If all went well, it might even lead to a military coup that would end the Third Republic. But the plan went awry as the Cagoule troops spent a night roaming the Parisian streets searching for the non-existent uprising while the Communists prudently stayed at home. The fiasco, however, finally gave Dormoy and the police the opportunity to make a plausible case that the Cagoule was a real danger to French security.Over the following weeks the French police swooped on the Cagoule and arrested those among its leaders who did not flee to their safe houses in San Remo, Italy, and San Sebastian, Spain. They also uncovered and destroyed many, although by no means all, of the weapons stockpiles the Cagoule had amassed throughout France.
Under interrogation, two of the arrested Cagoulards, René Locuty and Fernand Jakubiez, swore that the Cagoule was also responsible for Toureaux’s murder. Moreover, they named names, including the organisation’s chief assassin, Jean Filliol. According to their testimony, Filliol killed Toureaux because she had infiltrated the Cagoule as an undercover agent for the French police; when the Cagoulard leadership discovered the betrayal, they ordered her execution. Locuty’s and Jakubiez’s testimony was only hearsay, as they claimed that other more prominent members had volunteered this information to them. But even though it was insufficient for a court conviction, it gave the police a solid lead to follow in their search for Toureaux’s killer. Why, then, did the police essentially close the books on the murder, leaving the crime unsolved?
The answer lies in the complex and tumultuous history of France immediately before and after the Second World War. The police arrested 71 members of the Cagoule in 1937-38, but many of its leaders escaped into exile abroad, including Jean Filliol. Those imprisoned were eventually released in 1939 when France mobilised for war. Moreover, most members of the Cagoule played a central role in the drama of the Occupation, a few as collaborators with the Germans from the outset, but most in the Vichy regime,where they obtained prominent positions. Many of those who chose to side with Vichy eventually joined the French Resistance after the Germans assumed direct control of all of France in November 1942. This was the trajectory that Gabriel Jeantet followed. After the war, the case against the Cagoule leadership was reopened, but did not come to trial until 1948. By then, many of those charged with prewar crimes were distinguished war veterans. Not surprisingly, few were convicted and those that were received relatively light sentences given the gravity of their crimes. Jean Filliol, meanwhile, was living safe from extradition in Franco’s Spain. The Cagoule leaders who remained in France were politically too well-connected to punish for the murder of an Italian immigrant woman with a shady love life and a penchant for espionage. In the rush for postwar reconciliation in France, the murder of Laetitia Toureaux was largely forgotten.
But there was another obstacle to the prosecution of Jean Filliol. The testimony of Locuty and Jakubiez turned out to be very shaky. Locuty retracted his story in January 1938, claiming that he had lied at the behest of the police who had offered him in return a light sentence and quick release, a promise that the police subsequently broke. Jakubiez had been beaten while in prison (he appeared in court in bandages and a hospital gown), making his testimony suspect as well.None of the Cagoule leaders ever admitted to involvement in Toureaux’s murder, even though they freely owned up to other crimes, including bombings and murders, which they insisted were justified by their ardent desire to ‘save France’ from Communism.
After more than a decade investigating Toureaux’s case and examining all the files available on her murder, we have come to share the doubts of the French police that a Cagoule assassin killed her. The most important reason for our doubt concerns the manner in which the crime was committed. The Cagoule was a terrorist organisation and all of its crimes employed great violence, usually designed to elicit maximum press coverage. Its assassinations were meant to send a message both to potential traitors within the organisation and to the public. The Cagoule communicated through terror and left a bloody trail in its wake. Its victims, such as Navachine and the Rosselli brothers,were stabbed, bludgeoned, shot, or blown up like Marx Dormoy in 1941 in a hotel in Montélimar where he was confined, supposedly under police protection with a personal guarantee of his safety from Pétain.
Toureaux, by contrast, was killed with a single expertly timed and executed stroke. The assassin did his job silently and anonymously,with barely a trace of blood visible before the knife was pulled from the neck. The method suggested that the crime was the work of a professional, probably an Italian; and the police had good reason to believe that Toureaux had fallen foul of the Italians as well as the Cagoule. This was certainly the theory that the Cagoulards, including Gabriel Jeantet, espoused privately and in their public testimonies after the war.
As an Italian immigrant with dual citizenship and a father still living in Italy, Toureaux was perfectly placed to act as a courier for the Cagoule carrying messages to and from Italy. And, as we have seen, during the second half of 1936 and the beginning of 1937, Cagoule leaders actively courted Mussolini’s financial support. The price the Italians exacted was the assassination of the troublesome Carlo Rosselli, carried out in June of 1937. At the end of the summer of 1936, Toureaux boasted to her friend Yvonne Cavret that she was going to attend a soiree in Italy where she expected to be introduced to Count Ciano,Mussolini’s son-in-law.Her escort was likely to be a high-level member of the Cagoule, probably Jeantet.We believe that at some time between June and December of 1936, Toureaux became privy to the Cagoule’s plans to execute Rosselli.
Soon after, the Cagoule discovered, possibly from their supporters within the French police, that Toureaux was a police informer. They and their Italian contacts decided she had to die. Friends later testified that in the weeks before her death Toureaux complained of two assaults on her person that we surmise were Cagoule perpetrated. The Italians, alarmed that the Rosselli murder would not go off as planned, decided it was time to bring in a professional. By the middle of 1938, the French police almost certainly knew what had happened. But given the sensitive nature of France’s diplomatic relations with Italy both before and after the war, they were not inclined to follow up the case if it meant indicting an Italian assassin in the pay of Mussolini, even assuming they could have discovered his identity.
Why tell Laetitia Toureaux’s story now?
The story of Laetitia Toureaux is both timely and compelling. A 500-page summary of the investigation compiled by the police a few months after her death paints a picture of one woman’s struggle to achieve bourgeois respectability in a world that denied upward mobility to people of her sex, class and ethnicity. Her murder is also intertwined with the history of French fascism. The Cagoule leaders were not street thugs but highly educated extreme nationalists who used terrorism as a means of sending a message to the French public. Historians, however, seldom give more than summary attention to the Cagoule’s prewar aims and neither acknowledge nor seem to understand how successfully the group intimidated the French public. A reassessment of the Cagoule will enhance our understanding of France’s fall in 1940.
That reassessment has been slow in coming, however, due to the important roles that many members of the Cagoule and their supporters played in French society and politics before, during and after the Second World War. A case in point involves the late French President François Mitterrand,who never belonged to the Cagoule but developed close ties in his youth to many in its ranks.His sister had a prewar love affair with one of the most notorious of the Cagoulards, Jean-Marie Bouvyer,who participated in the murder of the Rosselli brothers,worked for the Vichy commission that deported some 300,000 French Jews to Auschwitz and lived comfortably after the war in Paraguay. Bouvyer’s mother, a collaborator during the Occupation, was the godmother to Mitterrand’s son, and Mitterrand’s brother married a niece of Eugène Deloncle, the Cagoule’s mastermind, its spider in the middle of the web.Mitterrand was also tied to Toureaux’s lover, Gabriel Jeantet. The two were friends during Vichy and Mitterrand continued to socialise with Jeantet after the postwar trials of the Cagoulards ruined Jeantet’s political ambitions. Even into the 1970s, the pair enjoyed dinners together at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris.Mitterrand steadfastly refused to discuss his Cagoulard ties until the very end of his life, but he clearly knew of their prewar crimes and chose to ignore them during his long presidency.
Today Laetitia ‘Yolande’ Toureaux’s body lies in an immigrant cemetery on the outskirts of Paris. Her story forms part of France’s refusal to come to terms with the interwar era when many French people sympathised with extreme right-wing politics, fascism and anti-semitism. With the death of Mitterrand and his generation there has been a change in attitudes toward the 1930s and 1940s, marked by a greater willingness to reassess the deep divisions between the right and the left at that time and the effect of those divisions on both the fall of France and the subsequent Occupation. It is time, therefore, to relate Toureaux’s story and through it to re-examine the deep political and social fissures that led France to the brink of a civil war and gave rise to violent militias such as the Cagoule.
- Joel Blatt, 'The Cagoul Plot, 1936-37', in Kenneth Moure and Martin S. Alexander (eds), Crisis and Renewal in France 1918-1963 (Berghahn Books, 2002)
- Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle, ‘Murder in the Metro: Masking and Unmasking Laetitia Toureaux in 1930s France’ in French Cultural Studies Vol. 14, No. 1 (April 2003)
- Bertram Gordon, ‘The Condottieri of the Collaboration: Mouvement Social Revolutionnaire’ in the Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 10, No. 2 (April 1975)
- D.L.L. Parry, ‘Articulating the Third Republic by Conspiracy Theory’ inEuropean History Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 22 (1998)