Last rights for the last executioner
In an interview some will find shocking, France's last executioner, himself now condemned by cancer, tells Hugh Schofield about a life spent chopping the heads off others, when he occasionally resorted to using a butcher's knife.
"I was 16, and my father asked me if I wanted to watch. He made me stand to one side so I wasn't in the way. Then we heard the call to prayer from the mosque round the corner, and my father said it's time."
"The guy came out flanked by two guards. They pushed him onto the plank. I saw the head go between the two uprights, and then in a tenth of a second it was off. And at that moment I just let out a sound like this — aaah! It was strong stuff."
Now aged 72 and living in retirement in the romantic Provençal village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, Meyssonnier is speaking for the first time in public of the 21 years in which he served as the state's "avenging arm" in French Algeria.
His father Maurice Meyssonnier — a Communist bar-owner in Algiers — was chief executioner, and in 1947 he inducted his son as an apprentice. By 1958 Fernand had taken part in more than 200 executions. With the start of the war of independence, they were taking place at the rate of five or six a month.
Fernand's father would receive a call at the bar from the prosecutor, and they would set off in a van with the guillotine packed in boxes. At the prison they would erect the machine in the courtyard — public executions were banned in 1939 — and rest until dawn.
Because he was looking at the condemned man through the "demi-lunette," the first assistant was known in the trade as the "photographer."
"You must never give the guy the time to think," he says. "Because if you do he starts moving his head around and that's when you have the mess-ups. The blade comes through his jaw, and you have to use a butcher's knife to finish it off."
"So I'd say 'Go, father!, and — crack! — the head is in my hands, and I put it in the bucket."
"It is an exorbitant power — to kill one's fellow man. It all happens like a fast film. The first one comes up and then the second one, and in 20 seconds two people are dead. And I go out of the prison with the approval of all of French Algeria!" he says.
The museum did not prosper, and the artefacts — which also included mediaeval torture instruments, a preserved head and the note-books of Britain's last hangman Albert Pierrepoint — are now stored in boxes in his basement.
In the living-room upstairs — with a stunning view over the river made famous by the mediaeval love poet Petrarch — Fernand Meyssonnier keeps a miniature replica of a guillotine which he made as a present for his father at the age of 15. A pair of spectacles in the coffin-basket belonged to one of his victims.
The somewhat surreal air is only enhanced by a pair of grey parrots in a cage who he has trained to whistle the Marseillaise, and shout in French "Off with his head — Long Live Meyssonnier!"
"I am fond of a laugh," he says.
He is a burly man, with a grizzled white chest, and he has the classic mixture of machistic toughness, loud humour and an impenetrable accent common to many former Algerian colonials. He also has cancer of the liver, which may explain why he has decided now to talk about his life.
He has just published a book — Words of an Executioner — ghosted by anthropologist Michel Bessette. The aim, says Meyssonnier, "is to end this image of the bloody executioner of the Middle Ages. I was the arm of justice — that's it."
He has no sympathy for his victims, who he says were all guilty of hideous crimes, but he says the true Algerian nationalists were the ones who showed the most courage at the end. As for the guillotine, it was simply a highly efficient — and therefore merciful — form of killing.
Times have changed now. The death penalty was abolished in France in 1981, and Meyssonnier accepts this as logical. "We have all become much more sensitive now," he says.
"But remember — pity is such a recent thing!"
Paroles de bourreau
by Fernand Meyssonnier and Jean-Michel Bessette
Published by Editions IMAGO
Price: EUR 20
ISBN : 2-911416-71-6