Real-Life “Jackal” Revealed “Killing De Gaulle Was Only the First Step”

The assassin who inspired the famous novel and movie hid an intense coldness.

January 18, 2019 5:00 am
The British actor Edward Fox, left, as the titular character, checks the precision rifle made by the Irish actor Cyril Cusack in the film The Day of the Jackal. Genova, 1973 ( Getty Images)
The British actor Edward Fox, left, as the titular character, checks the precision rifle made by the Irish actor Cyril Cusack in the film The Day of the Jackal. Genova, 1973 ( Getty Images)

“I have no compunctions about eliminating a particularly dangerous man,” the short, unremarkable Frenchman said flatly. “Killing… one of your American presidents would serve no purpose; they would simply be replaced by someone else. But de Gaulle embodied a policy; he was irreplaceable…”

Though they’re are on the printed page, there’s almost a visible wistfulness in Alain de Bougrenet de la Tocnaye’s words. If only — if only his plot to murder then-French President Charles de Gaulle in 1962 had succeeded, things would’ve gotten better.

“We had reached a point where the guns were going off by themselves,” he told The New York Times a decade after the plot. “Killing de Gaulle was only the first step; we would have proceeded with a coup d’etat.”

Instead, de la Tocnaye’s bumbling band of assassins managed only to wound de Gaulle’s car in a poorly executed drive-by attack. Still, the attempt would make de la Tocnaye famous around the world, if not for his real-life action than for the infamous espionage villain he helped inspire — the assassin known as “The Jackal.”

Far from the “tall, blond Englishman with opaque gray eyes – a killer at the top of his profession,” as The Jackal is described by novelist Frederick Forsyth, de la Tocnaye was a “short, bespectacled, baldish Frenchman with clear blue eyes and the candid, pink-cheeked face of an aging choir boy,” according to a New York Times reporter who tracked down the real-life would-be assassin in 1972, a year after Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” was published.

De la Tocnaye said he would speak to the Times reporter to “set the record straight” about who he was and what led him to try and kill France’s leader.

The man’s beef with de Gaulle stretched back years, to de la Tocnaye’s childhood, but came into focus around de Gaulle’s policy towards Algeria.

A war for independence from France had raged in the north African colony since 1954, and by 1962 de la Tocnaye and others were livid that de Gaulle may agree to grant Algeria its freedom.

“I knew it was a trap,” said de la Tocnaye, who served with the French military in Algeria. “De Gaulle wanted to liquidate the French empire. He was sawing off the branch we were sitting on.”

Finally, he decided that killing de Gaulle was the only way to stop him. “What is such a government but revolution that has succeeded by illegal means?” he said.

So de la Tocnaye joined up with an underground group of extremists in Algeria, and then he promptly sent de Gaulle a letter saying that he was going to kill him.

“I like to announce my colors,” de la Tocnaye explained to the Times reporter.

Before he could act, however, de la Tocnaye was arrested in Algeria and sent back to prison in France.

Not to be so easily dissuaded, his group managed to smuggle in a disguise and a fake visitor’s pass that allowed him to walk out past the guards.

“A few days later, the prison director received a letter post-marked London that said: ‘I regret that I could not salute you before leaving, but since my doctor recommended a change of air, I took the first opportunity that came along,’” the Times reported.

The suggestion he was in London was a misdirect – de la Tocnaye was still in France where he was already plotting de Gaulle’s murder with another rebellious French military officer.

After disregarding a bombing or a suicidal single-man attack, the two decided on killing de Gaulle in an ambush on his regular commute from his home to the French government – though the exact route changed randomly.

The two managed to enlist several recruits – including one man who was known to have been something of a violent vigilante in Algeria and who kept the ears of his victims in a glass jar.

The first attempts at trapping de Gaulle did not go well for various reasons of timing and the potential for killing bystanders. As the Times reported, there were more than a dozen abortive attempts in May and June of 1962.

“Each time, the members of the commando group had to be rounded up, more cars had to be stolen, the weapons had to be packed, and they had to wait during interminable hours for the telephone call that was their cue,” the Times said.

By late August, there had been 17 “dress rehearsals” and a “feeling that it would never work had begun to undermine the group.”

Then, on Aug. 22, 1962, the plotters finally got their chance. One of de la Tocnaye’s men got word from their spotter about the route de Gaulle was taking, what car he was in and where he was sitting.

The man signaled the first wave of attackers with a newspaper, and they got into position, awaiting his second signal.

When de Gaulle passed, however, it was rainy and foggy enough that the attackers didn’t see the man frantically waving his newspaper again until the motorcade was even with them.

“The men fired their light machine guns as de Gaulle’s car passed in front of them, and continued firing after it as it sped away,” the Times reported. “Up the road, Max [de la Tocnaye’s code name], hearing the first burst, was certain he had enough time to maneuver his car into position across the Avenue de la Liberation and block the general’s vehicle. But because of the delay resulting from the failure to see the signal, Max pulled out from the cross street only to see de Gaulle’s care race by, followed by the escort vehicle.

“Deciding to give chase, Max slipped between the escort vehicle and the motorcycle cops,” the Times recounted. “The gunman beside him fired a burst as the car swung into line. The rear window of de Gaulle’s car shattered, and the long, familiar silhouette dropped out of sight. ‘You got him,’ Max cried.”

But they didn’t get him. In the end de Gaulle was uninjured, and only his car had taken damage.

“This time, gentlemen, it was tangential,” de Gaulle is reported to have said.

After the attempt the attackers were supposed to disburse and make their way to Spain, but de la Tocnaye and some others stayed in Paris for days before they were eventually caught.

De la Tocnaye was sentenced to life in prison, but in a twist of fate only served five years before de Gaulle released him along with other “political” prisoners as the result of another near uprising.

Upon his release from prison de la Tocnaye wrote a book, “How I Did Not Kill de Gaulle,” and became something of a local celebrity.

He told the Times his first job after prison was training salespeople at a department store.

“They expected a dangerous gorilla, but they saw I was urbane, and soon they were asking me to autograph my book,” he said.

The real-life failed attempt is included in the novel “The Day of the Jackal,” but only as the inciting incident that pushes the anti-Gaullists to hire The Jackal in the first place to finish the job.

De la Tocnaye died in 2009 at 82 years old. His only regret, he told the Times in 1972, was “not to have killed de Gaulle.”

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