“It’s like this,” he says, pulling harder.
He’s showing me how he used to hold a prisoner’s head at the guillotine. He’s doing a good job of it and I fumble some words, hoping he’ll call off the demonstration.
For fourteen years, Meyssonnier operated a guillotine in Algeria while the country was a French colony. Working alongside his father, he executed two hundred people, all but two of them Algerian. Few people better personify” —or are more proud of—the civilizing mission undertaken by France around the world than Meyssonnier.
“When France was in Algeria, there was justice,” he says, sitting back in his chair. ” More or less. But now that France is no longer there, the Arabs, they’re worse than the French. It was “the suitcase or the coffin.’ The French packed their suitcases and left and now the Arabs are killing each other.”
Some people would characterize Meyssonnier as a right-wing Frenchman concerned about foreigners and immigration, issues that have recently dominated the news. But he also looks like any other seventy-four-year-old you might see sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons. He is broad chested, with a large head that age has given the appearance of softly shaped marzipan. His hands are bulky and the gold chain beneath his buttoned-down shirt dangles above his grey chest hairs.
Meyssonnier has been living with his Tahitian common-law wife, Simone, in southern France since the early 1990s. They live in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, a small town near Avignon that is famous for its resurgent springs and the towering brick archways of the nineteenth-century Aqueduc de Galas.
Meyssonnier says everyone in town knows his past as an executioner, and that any poor relations are due more to jealousy over his successful real estate investments. But there is a third possibility: ” I’m pure French, but born in Algeria,” he says. “There you go.”
Were it only that simple. France claims it does not recognize hyphenated identities, the two-for-one-special some Canadians rely on to describe themselves. Nevertheless, it’s a phantasm that permeates France, one that is used to discriminate against those who are not white or not born here.
In fact, even Meyssonnier, who is a French citizen, is known to many here as a pied-noir (black foot)—a European colonial immigrant in North Africa. Most pieds-noirs were French and left Algeria in the 1960s. For the most part, they have been assimilated into French society and no longer experience the discrimination suffered by the country’s African immigrants. Nevertheless, in some ways, they remain apart from their French brethren as symbols of the dirty era of colonialism.