A couple of weeks ago I found myself sat outside a bar in Marseille's Panier district, the old town, waiting for the daughter of the man who I'd been told was the city's "last Godfather". Before he died in his cell in Baumettes Prison in 1984, Gaëtan Zampa was so feared and respected in the south of France that even some of the police who pursued him were reluctant to actually catch him. "You don't like to put a lion in a cage," they'd say.
The subject of a new film (a pacy French-Belgian crime thriller called The Connection), Zampa was the heir of his family business, which was, yep, you guessed it, the French Connection. The name obviously referring to the notorious heroin smuggling operation, rather than the high street clothing company who inexplicably lifted their name from the smack trade then got big in the 90s by pretending to swear.
The French Connection began life in the 1930s, when the Corsican gangsters Paul Carbone and François Spirito were looking for a way to connect the opium fields of Turkey and Lebanon with the hungry veins of America's junkies. Marseille, a busy port, provided the perfect staging ground. They would ship in morphine base, hire French chemists to process it for a couple of weeks at temporary labs in the suburbs, and then smuggle it back onboard ships bound for America.
As World War II took hold in Europe, Italian fascists began to stamp out the trade. It soon recovered, and there are those – like Noam Chomsky – who believe the CIA was involved in supporting the Corsican mafia to restart their business in exchange for breaking up French strikes and helping Allied troops.
After the war, the Corsicans were joined by gangs from Armenia and Algeria, as well as Chinese-Vietnamese networks. They were all moving heroin and various other forms of contraband across the Atlantic to New York, Montreal, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. The Armenian gangs proved themselves particularly adept at negotiating with the major wholesalers of opium and morphine base who were located in Istanbul and Gaziantep.
As Dr Ryan Gingeras, author of Sultans of Smack: Heroin, Organized Crime and the Making of Modern Turkey, tells me over email: "To think of a French Connection as a singular network dating back to the 30s is somewhat misleading. The milieu was not a centralised group."
Still, business was booming for the various gangs. During the 50s, the largest gang was controlled by the Corsican Antoine Guerin, and combined the various groups were moving an average of 270kg of heroin each month to the United States. The Connection became famed for the purity of their product, thanks in part to the French chemist Joseph Cesari. Cesari was nicknamed "Mr 98 percent" for his almost-pure product, a remarkable feat when his competitors rarely exceeded 70 percent.
Trade increased so much during the 60s that by the end of the decade the French Connection was moving between 40 and 44 tonnes per year to the States, some 80 percent of America's total heroin consumption. If you were Lou Reed, waiting for the man in New York in 1967, then the dope he was about to sell you had almost certainly summered in the south of France.
The operation moved from outlaw infamy to unwanted Hollywood fame in 1971 with the release of the film The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Adapted from journalist Robin Moore's book, it tells a lightly fictionalised version of the painstaking surveillance operation carried out by two New York police officers in the lead up to the arrest of French television personality Jacques Angelvin, who had arrived in America with a 1960 Buick Invicta that had 112 pounds of heroin secreted inside it. The mastermind Jean Jehan, who had helped talk Angelvin into it, escaped unscathed – a fact that The French Connection director William Friedkin attributed to the French police's reluctance to arrest a man who had been a hero of the wartime resistance.
The increased notoriety of the French Connection brought with it new problems. In 1970, the French government introduced a new act of parliament which heavily cracked down on the trafficking of illegal drugs. Thierry Colombié, an expert on organised crime in France, tells me in an email: "The 1970 Act was a gun blow against heroin production in Marseille. The French state had been left with no choice: an American report had highlighted that there were 40 teams of traffickers operating, mainly from Marseille. Nixon put his fist down, and it was a warning that paid off."
In Marseille, a young magistrate named Pierre Michel was leading a reinvigorated attempt to stamp out the trade. Over a period of 14 months, starting in February 1972, six major labs were found and dismantled in the suburbs of Marseille. Jimenez'sThe Connection tells the story of Michel, played by The Artist's Jean Dujardin, locked in battle with Zampa, who was by this point controlling much of the heroin traffic out of the city.
When Pierre Michel was assassinated, on the 21st of October 1981, the police immediately assumed Zampa had been behind it. In fact, the murder had been carried out by a hitman named François Checchi, employed by a rival gang headed by François Girard and Homer Filippi. As Zampa's empire, already undermined by in-fighting, began to crumble, the former kingpin went on the run.
His daughter, Celine, was just a child when Michel died. When she arrives to meet me for a drink in the Panier district she's chic and charming. In the years since her father died she's turned down many offers from the French press to speak about him, but with the release of The Connection she's decided she wants to tell her side of the story. Her inside account shows Zampa in a different light – as a devoted family man, even while running one of the planet's biggest drug trafficking organisations.
She remembers exactly where she was when they heard about Michel's assassination. "Our family were all together," she says. "As soon as he found out he knew it was over, because he knew that the finger of blame would be pointed at him and that he would be found guilty. My father was the highest within the hierarchy, so it had a big ripple effect on everything else. It wasn't just the police who wanted to get my father. There were a lot of people with dirty hands."
Zampa spent almost three years on the run. Before he was caught, in October 1983, they arrested his wife Christiane, Celine's mother. There's a story the Marseille police still tell about how they built a special exercise yard for her with a roof, because they were so convinced that Zampa, in his omnipotence, would otherwise swoop down in a helicopter to rescue her.
Celine tells me about visiting both her parents in prison, and I ask whether she ever wished her father had made different choices in life. "No, I don't," she says. "That was the life he was born into. He was the best at what he did. He had to do it. He didn't want it for us, but that was his lot. He was a man with honour and good values within his profession. He couldn't have done anything differently."
Once, Celine and her brother watched The Godfather. They knew exactly what their father did, but they struggled to square the images of Brando and Pacino with the doting dad they knew. "I couldn't really see him in The Godfather," she says, "but if I think about it, there are similarities. The emotion, the sentiment: there was an undercurrent that I recognised. The sense of family, the sense of honour, the sense of values, the hierarchy: all that I recognise. There's a triangle of respect between the professional side, and the family side. The family side is just as important."
Celine believes her father was always something of a reluctant gangster. Even if the French Connection had not begun to crumble, she knows he would never have allowed his own children to follow in his footsteps. "It was out of the question," she says. "We always respected that. He instilled us with the great values and good morals that he hoped we would take to follow a different path. He knew he led a very dangerous life and he protected us from that. He was a business man, but at the same time he knew there was a life span involved in what he was doing. He wanted to equip his children to keep us away from that."
Despite his keenness to keep her out of the business, Celine actually laments the end of that era. She believes that in some ways Marseille misses the order that comes when crime is an organised, family-run business. "He was really well-liked and respected, and he brought something to the city," she says. "He brought a sense of order to the heart of the city. In fact, he brought a sense of rules and regulations which are missing now. At the end of the day, he was a man who reigned through respect. As long as you operated within that, you knew that you were looked after."
Finally, I ask her what she thinks of when she remembers her father, Gaëtan Zampa, the French Connection's last Godfather?
"L'Amore," she says.
'The Connection' is in UK cinemas on the 29th of May.
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