Updated November 16, 11.00am ET
Last month, Tony Musulin was a nobody, a single 39-year-old man who drove an armored bank security van in Lyon, France. Then on Nov. 5, when two co-workers briefly left him alone to run an errand, he allegedly vanished with more than $17.2 million in unmarked bills. It only took police a few days to recover most of the stolen loot nearly $14 million in a storage unit in Lyon, and then on Monday, Musulin turned himself in to authorities in Monaco (without the remaining $3.8 million). Many Frenchmen may have been a little disappointed by the news in his two weeks on the run, Musulin had become one of the country's most popular antiheroes.
Within hours of the heist's making the news, envious Frenchmen were Twittering about the feat and praising Musulin on blogs on the Internet. So far, more than a hundred Musulin Facebook fan groups have been created with names ranging from "Run Tony Musulin Run" to "Tony Musulin for President." The domain name tonymusulin.fr was also promptly bought by a Web designer, who is now peddling Musulin T-shirts featuring his mug shot under palm trees and alongside catchphrases like "I'm your girl, Tony" and bumper stickers reading "Tony Musulin: Without Hate or Violence."
"This heist, though illicit, made an impression on us because this was happening in real life, and we're only used to seeing this sort of sophisticated plot in movies," says Jérémie Le Roy-Férault, founder of the Tony Musulin site. "The context of the financial crisis has also fostered sympathy toward this type of enterprise."
This seems to be the essence of Musulin's support. Many people in France are still very angry about the economic crisis and hold a grudge against the banking system for being one of the causes of it. It's not surprising that a bank heist would have such broad appeal it's almost as if Musulin was a modern-day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich (the banks) to give back to the poor (himself). As Sonia Mohammedi, one of Musulin's Facebook fans, puts it (in a Facebook message, of course): "His story reminds us of the society we're living in: it's precarious even when you've got a job, getting up every morning to earn a salary that barely covers your needs ... This is an example that people are cracking." She says her group reached over 1,000 members in its first day.
But not everyone in France is sympathetic to the alleged thief, who police say planned the heist well in advance he had cleaned out his bank accounts and his apartment before disappearing. "This admiration [for Musulin] makes me ashamed of France," commentator Philippe Bilger wrote in Marianne magazine, describing it as a deep break in the country's collective morality. There are anti-Musulin Facebook groups, too, although they are not nearly as popular. The group "Tony Musulin Is Not Robin Hood," for instance, has only one member.
Some bloggers have wondered if it isn't simply in the French blood to root for an underdog taking on authority figures. Generations of French children have been enamored with traditional Guignol puppet shows, in which the protagonist, Guignol, fights with a rotten, bumbling policeman. The nation is also obsessed with the comic-book hero Asterix, a puny but cunning Gaul warrior who always gets the best of Julius Caesar's Roman armies despite being overmatched and outnumbered.
Even before the economic crisis, the French had made something of an antihero of Jérôme Kerviel, a young, rogue trader who lost $7.2 billion of the Société Générale bank's money in early 2008. He too had his moment in the Internet spotlight there are still about 200 Kerviel fan groups on Facebook and websites selling T-shirts with phrases like "I am Jerome's girlfriend." These may see a surge in popularity now that Kerviel's fraud trial is set to resume next year in Paris after he lost an appeal Tuesday.
If Musulin had managed to get to a sandy, palm-fringed beach, the initial admiration of his fellow Frenchmen may have soon turned to resentment. Now that he's in custody, however, it remains to be seen whether "Free Musulin" T-shirts will become the next fad online.