The “Michelin Men” encounters on Reunion Island

Michelin_LOGOAn earlier version of this article was originally published in Fate Magazine, and is reprinted here with their consent.

Satellite photo of Reunion Island. (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s look at an interesting sub-genre of alien occupant, the so-called “Michelin man,” after the logo of the large French tire company Michelin. It’s a cute little man made out of tires of different sizes, which also looks like a spacesuit. (This type of spacesuit was depicted in the late 50s in the hugely popular comic series Tintin, when the hero and his companions go to the Moon.) Yet despite these cultural considerations, the two Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE-III) with “Michelin men” were real enough, with both physical evidence and physiological effects, which make them Close Encounters of the Second Kind (CE-II) at the same time. Both cases were investigated and documented officially by the French Gendarmerie, a state police which operates throughout France and its overseas territories, and is charged by law to receive UFO reports from the public. They conduct all the interviews with witnesses and any necessary follow-up and then pass on the files to GEIPAN, the French space agency UFO bureau, for statistical analysis or further investigation. These cases, however, occurred before the establishment of GEIPAN (then known as GEPAN) in 1977.

The location of the two incidents was Réunion Island, a remote French outpost in the Indian Ocean. This volcanic island east of Madagascar in Africa is 969 square miles and has 827,000 inhabitants, according to 2009 figures. Annexed by France in the 17th century, it’s now an overseas department. The first case of farmer Luce Fontaine occurred in the morning of July 31, 1968, while the second incident involving 21-year driver Antoine Séverin took place on February 14, 1975. The remoteness of Réunion Island is an important factor in ruling out sociological contagion, particularly in a period long before the global culture of the internet and satellite cable. Séverin, for instance, had not even heard of Fontaine’s case, which was reported in the press at the time.

A view of the Plaine des Palmistes in Reunion Island. (image credit: Jo Kerozen)


Cover of the French 1976 edition of Jean-Claude Bourret’s The New UFO Challenge, where the Gendarmerie documents on the 1975 CE-II were published. (image credit: Editions France-Empire)

Although we don’t have the actual police dossier of the first CE-III, we do have a good summary of the case in the massive book by Michel Figuet and J.-L. Ruchon, OVNI: Le premier dossier complet des rencontres rapprochées en France (UFO: The first complete dossier of close encounters in France), published in 1979. We also have the Nov. 1968 article published in the French journal Lumières dans la Nuit (Night Lights, usually referenced as LDLN) translated in England’s Flying Saucer Review ; as well as the beautiful color reproduction of the aliens made long ago by the defunct French UFO group GEOS (see illustration).

At 9 a.m. on July 31, 1968, 22-year-old farmer Luce Fontaine was in a plain called La Plaine des Cafres, specifically at the 21 KM signpost, picking some grass for his rabbits. “I suddenly saw a sort of oval-shaped cabin in the clearing,” Fontaine explained later. “It was 25 meters from me [about 75 feet], and as though suspended at a height of four or five meters [12 to 15 feet] from the ground. The extremities of it were dark blue, the center part lighter, more transparent rather like the windscreen of a [Peugeot] 404. Above and below it had what looked like two glass feet of shining metal.”

The GEOS painting puts the Michelin man outside the saucer, probably to highlight its funny shape since it was part of a set of slides of different types of aliens. But in the real incident at Cafres no such thing occurred. Basically, Fontaine described two humanoids about 90 cm. tall (less than 3 feet) inside the transparent cabin, dressed in the so-called Michelin gear and wearing a shiny metallic helmet covering their face. One of them was standing facing his back to him, but the one on the left turned and faced him. Fontaine’s statement continued:

“Then both turned their backs to me, and there was a flash, as strong as the electric arc of a welding machine. Everything went white around me. A powerful heat was given off and then as it were a sort of blast of wind, and a few seconds later there was nothing there any more.” Fontaine rushed to the site but couldn’t find any noticeable landing traces. He first told his wife, a local teacher, and then reported the encounter to the Gendarmerie. The inquiry was conducted by Captain Maljean of St.-Pierre, and Captain Legros of the Civil Protection Service. Luce Fontaine’s reputation was excellent and so everyone, including the police, believed the story without any doubt. But there was more.

Original reconstruction of the 1968 CE-III done by the French periodical LDNL. (image credit: LDLN)
The GEOS painting showing the 1968 CE-III with “Michelin” aliens in the Plaine des Caffres, Reunion Island. (Image credit: GEOS)

Capt. Legros checked for radioactivity in the landing area ten days later, and found eight radioactive spots on grass and pebbles of up to sixty thousandths of a Roentgen. This count is rather low but it was surmised that it might have been far higher right after the incident, since the checks were done ten days later and there had been heavy rains on the days before. Radioactivity was also found on Fontaine’s clothes, precisely on the side which faced the UFO.

All this led in the following months to a series of bizarre rumors, according to which Fontaine had been flown in secrecy to the Curie Foundation in Paris and was being treated for radiation sickness. All these stories were false, as it often occurs in even good UFO cases. According to Figuet and Ruchon, Fontaine experienced abundant nosebleeds and had to recover at home on the immediate days after the incident, but shortly afterwards he recovered fully. Antoine Séverin, the witness of the second CE-III on Réunion Island wasn’t so lucky. His physiological effects were quite traumatic.


Some of the Gendarmerie UFO dossiers from Bourret’s book. (image credit: J.-C. Bourret)

We do have the complete police dossier on the second CE-III with “Michelin” men in Réunion Island. It runs into dozens of pages of interviews with the witness, his family, neighbors, the doctors who treated him, his boss, etc. The inquiry was conducted by Lt. Col. Lobet of the National Gendarmerie and published by the French journalist J. C. Bourret, together with many other official documents, in his 1976 book, Le nouveau défi des (The new challenge of UFOs). We also have an excellent summary of the whole case written by Capt. Guillaume Kervendal, the Gendarmerie’s top UFO expert, for the official military journal Armées d’aujourd’hui (Armies of Today) in September 1975, just a few months after the incident itself.

While little known, this case should be a classic of that very uncomfortable but at the same time convincing category of UFO incident: the physiological injury cases, which have been documented by John Schuessler, Bob Pratt and others. It also has some unusual aspects like a dream with a sound which preceded the encounter. Let’s quote from Capt. Kervendal’s summary:

“It all started with a dream during the night of February 11 to 12. But was it a dream? Antoine S., a young 21-year-old delivery chauffeur heard or believed to have heard a persistent ‘bip-bip,’ at times near, at times farther. That noise which broke his ears continued until the 14th, at 12 hours 5 [min.]. After buying some candy, he was walking home. Without a reason, he started running; he stopped, as if impeded by a supernatural force. His eardrums were really bothering him. He left the road and advanced into a corn field. He then felt a strange heat accompanied by a burning sensation. Paralyzed by this force that he couldn’t conquer, he saw an object with aluminum color, stabilized about 1.5 meters [4.5 feet] above the ground, emitting always the lacerating ‘bip-bip.’ A ladder with three steps appeared in the object at a 45 degree inclination. A small occupant with brilliant clothing emerged from the object. He had on his hand some sort of stick. A second character had a satchel plus a third one joined the first as they scraped the soil. They had antennas on both sides of the head. A fourth occupant stayed inside the contraption and it could be seen through the saucer’s translucent dome. The third man suddenly became aware of the presence of young Antoine. A powerful flash came from the object and projected the young man to the ground. He could nevertheless see the beings returning quickly to the craft. The ladder retracted and the UFO rose with a very strong whistling noise. How long did Antoine remain on the ground? He couldn’t say.”

Exact location of the field of the 1975 Séverin case from the Gendarmerie files. (image credit: J.-C. Bourret)

During the next few days, until Feb. 19th, the witness was in such a state of shock that he was both blinded and mute. He tried to explain what had happened to the gendarmes, gesturing wildly but unable to talk. Everyone in his family, neighbors and his employer vouched that he was a reliable and responsible individual. No solid landing traces or radioactivity were found on the site, but there was still one more troubling detail duly noted in the police reports and in Capt. Kervendal’s summary of the case:

“During the following days, he wanted to return to the site and take the gendarmes. But each time that he penetrated into the corn field, a strange force projected him into the ground and put him again unconscious. In the same manner that when he talked to the gendarmes on Feb. 19 [when he was able to talk again], he didn’t have any recollection of having been in a semi-coma for five days.”

Those are the basic facts of the second and troubling CE-III with “Michelin” men on Réunion Island. The police reports go naturally into much more detail, but at no point there is a suspicion of hoax or mental aberration from the part of the witness. Who were the beings that caused Antoine Séverin such disagreeable symptoms? Although the shape of the “Michelin” aliens may look funny or cute, their behavior and the effects they had on both Luce Fontaine and Antoine Séverin were anything but funny. Another question is why we don’t seem to have any more of this type of report nowadays.

I am afraid I don’t have a good response to any of these questions, but neither did the French Gendarmerie. As put by Capt. Kervendal in his article for the French army review, “the goal of our purpose is not to give here a response to the [UFO] problem. To our knowledge, nobody can, for now, pretend to know it.”

Illustration from a case in Jerez, Spain, where two “Michelin humanoids” were seen by a biker. (image credit: STENDEK)

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To find more about these cases on Reunion Island, you can check the excellent French website, which has plenty of material in English as well. The 1968 case of Luce Fontaine in the Plaine des Caffres can be found be found here. The 1975 physiological injury case of Antoine Séverin can be found here. This last report includes the translation of the actual Gendarmerie reports written by Lt. Col. Lobet.

If you want to get a feel of what Reunion Island looks like, we recommend you rent the 1969 film Mississippi Mermaid by François Truffaut (the famous French director who played the character of Lacombe in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind), in which a young and beautiful Catherine Deneuve plays a mail bride that arrives in Reunion Island to marry a tobacco farmer played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. It has nothing to do with UFOs but it’s a great movie filmed on location on this exotic island.

Movie poster of Mississippi Mermaid.
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