Villains make for good stories. French history, literature, and cinema are fascinating,
ergo there has to be a great cast of French villains, non?
Here are ten of them in all their villainous glory, but in no particular order. Keep in mind
that villainy is often in the eye of the beholder. If you liked your fries "à la liberté," then
that can amp up a villainous quotient. A French villain in the US is often a hero across
the pond. For a detailed look at what leads a great statesman to the hell of infamy, see my
biography "Éminence : Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France" (Walker & Company/Bloomsbury USA, 2011).
Before I begin, a word to les amis and the francophiles who like their history sanitized,
perhaps because they take too literally writer Ernest Renan's injunction that forgetting a
few pages of history is essential to national cohesion: get over it. Renan was wrong, and
that takes nothing away from France. Besides, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Villain for the Guillotine Paris refuses to name a place after such a central figure of the French Revolution: he only got the honor of a street in the suburb of Montreuil. No wonder: the legacy of Maximilien Robespierre is controversial. This politician, whom his contemporaries called "L'Incorruptible," first carried the dreams of the Revolution. The works of philosopher Rousseau were his breviary. But the road to hell can be paved with rationality and pure intentions, and largely thanks to his leadership in the infamous Committee of Public Safety, it all ended in a blood bath called "The Terror." "Uncertainty of punishment encourages all the guilty," he wrote. Robespierre's speeches, at once gorgeous, paranoid, and chilling, are excellent material for lessons into the psychological mechanisms that lead to dictatorship. He himself ended up under the blade of the Rasoir National, as the guillotine was called (the National Razor).
Axis of Weasel Villain A French court just cleared Dominique de Villepin's good name following a murky scandal of smear and corruption. That might not make a big difference for the hawks who squawked during the first G. W. Bush administration: Villepin was the face of international opposition to the war in Iraq, and, drats! never mind that the WMD's were never found. On Fox News, Brit Hume could barely conceal his contempt. How could you trust a perma-tanned Frenchman who writes poetry? Bush then landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, and with a strategically placed banner and a flattering flight suit, showed the world, and the French, that America was still packin'.
A Villain Easy to Empathize With Fans of the Pink Panther film series surely expected Dreyfus, the French Sureté bigwig turned raging megalomaniac madman, to grace this gallery. Facing his inept and catastrophe-prone subordinate Inspector Clouseau, Dreyfus loses it completely, sinking deeper into madness over the course of a few movies, all the while trying to kill his inspector nemesis. Consider Dreyfus's story to be nothing but a hyperbolic tale of ordinary work relations, where incompetence can be such a slow and relentless eroding force.
Hospitality Industry Villains (I) Ever spent a wretched night in a tiny overpriced Parisian hotel room, wondering if your bed was not salvaged from the debris of the Bastille? Then you must have wondered if the star villains of Victor Hugo's epic, Les Misérables, were not running your hotel. "Welcome M'sieur/Sit yourself down/And meet the best/Innkeeper in town," sings Thénardier in the music-hall adaptation affectionately known as "Les Miz." If indeed such modern day Thénardiers exist, console yourself: at least Cosette, the little girl that the Thénardiers exploit in the original story, now only works thirty-five hours a week.
Original Surrender Villain Ugh...do we need to go into details about this one? Let's just say that for a while he wanted to replace "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, with a special song titled "Maréchal nous voilà!" Maréchal, Here We Are!
Not a Villain with a Tortured Soul You can't fault this veteran of many French wars for not speaking his mind: in the August newspaper Le Monde, in a book, and in a CBS interview conducted by Mike Wallace, Paul Aussaresses revealed and defended the use of torture by his French forces during the War of Algeria. This torture took place during the infamous 1957 Battle of Algiers, the subject of an indispensable film by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966). After his declarations, French authorities promptly put Aussaresses and two of his book publishers under trial for advocating crimes of war. The three were fined, and Aussaresses lost his Légion d'Honneur. Eventually, a European high court overturned the sentences, based on the right of free speech. Another suit against Aussaresses, this one for crimes of war, was dismissed.
Villain with a French Name This James Bond villain appears in Casino Royale as an agent of the SMERSH. His name means "The Cypher." Granted, he is a man of obscure origins, and was successively interpreted on screen by an Englishman, Orson Welles, and a Dane, Mads Mikkelsen. But Ian Fleming's original novel says that Le Chiffre's accent betrays some roots in Marseille. So, in an age when marketing still happily lends any product a touch of French style by blessing it with an accent aigu--think TRESemmé--why wouldn't the French accept a man with a Gallic sounding name as one of their illustrious villains?
Éminentissime Villain One might think that Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketteers novel is responsible for making Richelieu, the minister who laid the foundations for France as we know it today, one of history's favorite villains. But memoirist Retz wrote that the real cardinal "struck down humans like lightning rather than governing them." Indeed, Richelieu's scheming ways, his network of spies, his political trials, and swift justice on the scaffold are disconcerting. Not helping was a temper alternating between bursts of excitement and bouts of depression. In Éminence, I look at what made Richelieu buckle under pressure, and what pressure did he have to endure: over the course of an epic life often spent on the battlefield, he had to equally contend with the antics of the French royal family. Just as lethal in this cast of out-of-control characters was Richelieu's own master, the enigmatic Louis XIII.
Villainess in a Hoop Skirt The star of Laclos's eighteenth-century masterpiece Les Liaisons dangereuses, the Marquise de Merteuil is the quintessential aristocrat of the nasty-chic variety. Vowing revenge against a former lover, to whom tender Cécile is promised, Merteuil asks the legendary Valmont to seduce Cécile and take her virginity before her marriage. Glenn Close immortalized the cunning and malicious marquise on the big screen, and never mind the younger generations, who foolishly think that the Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Philippe of Cruel Intentions have anything to do with Laclos's rakish aristocrats. There is a scene where Merteuil/Glenn Close explains how she trained herself in the art of concealing her emotions: by keeping up unfazed with a spirited dinner conversation while planting a fork in her hand under the table.
Hospitality Industry Villain (II) Just when Franco-US relations were enjoying some well-deserved quiet time--thanks to Sarko l'américain, perhaps?--here comes the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal and its accusatory chorus. The New York Post had a field day, but in France, the sight of the perp-walked and flash-riddled IMF director and leading présidentiable did much to revive the shocking image of an America run by puritans and cowboys upholders of the law. Let's hope that the uproar raised by his accuser's allegations will not encourage the French to think it's fair to define themselves as non-Américains. Still, it was hard not to giggle at the deluge of French schadenfreude that greeted the release of DSK.