Americans Melvin and Jean McNair, former members of the black rights radical group the Black Panthers, started their life in France with a jail sentence for hijacking. Forty years on, they live as model citizens in a quartier of Caen in Normandy and praise the French for their warmth and community spirit. Their story was brought to light by a documentary, Melvin et Jean, la révolte et l’exil, by Maia Weschler
ANGER over poor treatment of blacks in 1960s America led the McNairs - by way of a series of extraordinary events - to a new life in France, a country they found to be refreshingly free from racial prejudice.
The incident which changed their lives took place in 1972 – when they, their two children and four other black Americans, hijacked a plane from Detroit to Miami with a view to getting to Africa to join a Black Panthers base.
They demanded a million dollar ransom and dropped off the passengers in Miami before ordering the pilot to fly them to Algeria.
Nothing in the couple’s background suggested they would become involved in crime.
They had met at university and Mr McNair had become a soldier in the American army.
However things escalated after he left because he disapproved of the Vietnam war.
Growing up in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s fuelled their views on black rights, said Mrs McNair.
“There was a sign outside the military base that said ‘welcome to the land of the Ku Klux Klan’; they were proud of it! We were the last generation who lived the ‘separate-but-equal’ policy. The whites lived in one area, we lived in another with a railroad in-between. The black schools were 17 years behind the white ones.
“Our generation and the one before us protested – our father took us to civil rights meetings and let us decide how we wanted to deal with it.”
Still in their late teens, they went to Detroit planning to work with the Panthers, who she said had begun with legal activities supporting the black community (“breakfast programmes, things like that”).
However she said the police did not like the fact the group encouraged black people to arm themselves - “blacks were under attack”, she said. There were incidents of gun violence but “in self-defence”.
“They didn’t start out to be violent,” she said.
There was a police raid of the Panthers’ headquarters the day they arrived in Detroit, which derailed their plans.
Then a friend who had travelled with them, who was unarmed and waiting for a bus, was shot and wounded by plain clothes police involved in a “safe streets” programme, she said. “We understood then we had to leave.”
Having found out the Panthers were seeking recruits at a base in Algeria, where they were “well respected”, this sounded “an ideal opportunity”.
Hijacking the plane was the – rather unconventional – way they chose to get there, said Mrs McNair. “We wanted to make a statement – a protest against racism and against the war.” The ransom was “to give to the Panthers, to help the work”, she said.
How did they know the plane had enough fuel? “We didn’t. We later discovered it was the first transatlantic trip the airline had ever made.”
When they arrived however they discovered that the Black Panthers were starting to leave Algeria. “The Algerians had their own problems and were becoming less receptive,” she said. “Then we brought the limelight onto them and they had to slow down their plans.”
They had made French contacts from a group called Solidarity who helped them to work and study politics in Paris. They picked up the language as they went along.
“When we arrived we just knew how to say ‘bonjour’, but eventually everything fell into place,” said Mrs McNair.
However they were then arrested by the French authorities for the hijacking, under international treaty rules.
It was decided they would not be extradited to the USA – where they faced at least 20 years’ prison, or even death. “They recognised it was political and said ‘no’, but were obliged to try us,” said Mrs McNair. She did two-and-a-half years in prison and her husband did four.
She said the jury asked that the women be given shorter sentences so as to look after their children. The McNairs’ were sent to family in America before joining their mother when she came out.
“Eventually we came to Normandy,” she said. “Melvin worked as head of the international youth hostel and I created an association to help children with their studies – extra tuition and activities that help them have skills for the future. We do artistic activities and IT and science projects.
“Melvin ended up as a mediator for youth and the community and coaching a baseball team. It competes nationally and at one time they even worked with the Olympic committee, but then baseball was dropped as an Olympic sport.
“He helps potential delinquents – encourages them to build their lives and the fact he’s already gone through it means he does it well.
“He and I also help put in place projects to help the community amuse itself and get involved. We encourage contact between the generations because older folks were not at peace with the younger ones.”
Mrs McNair added: “We live in a ghetto – a housing estate of HLMs - which has become a very pretty place thanks to the efforts of those of us who feel concerned.
“We all came together among groups in the quartier to help to build the place and get funding from the town and state for renovations and programmes for the community and schools.”
The McNairs now have eight grandchildren and a great grandchild, in France and the USA and feel “happy” about what they have achieved.
“People in France have always been very receptive to us – including where the film was concerned. We were very discreet about our lives before, but people have been very understanding.” The couple met filmmaker Maia Weschler while working with a campaign group on American politics. She asked them to go public about their experiences.
Mrs McNair said from the start they were impressed by the lack of racial tension in France. “The surprise was that the people who helped us were white. Now we don’t think in terms of race any more; we just work.”
French celebrities supported them at their trial – actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret and writer Jean Genet. “They supported the cause of black America and at one point the judge had to remind them there was a trial for hijacking. We were supported by the left, right and centre, religious folks, everyone.”
They feel better about the USA since Obama was elected – and re-elected - as president and were able to vote for him.
They would still like to go back – but only to visit their family, she said.
However if they did they still risk arrest. A lawyer is looking into avenues to challenge that. “The US never recognised our trial – they said the French were too nice to us.”