"I can hear the chorus of Jew-lovers: 'Darquier de Pellepoix you will hang.' I think that I am more likely to die with a bullet in the head, but what does that matter." Thus spoke Lous Darquier de Pellepoix, head of the Vichy government's Commissariat for Jewish Questions, in November 1943. Many who had supported Vichy or collaborated with the Germans did die violent deaths. Some, such as Robert Brasillach, turned themselves in and faced the firing squad; some, such as Christian de la Mazière, headed east with the retreating Germans. Darquier did neither. As the Americans approached, he crept out of Paris and headed to the Spanish frontier, travelling under one of his numerous false names (even the aristocratic de Pellepoix bit of his real name was fake).
In Spain he survived for 35 years. He was amused by the rumour that a man who looked like him had been lynched by an angry mob in France. He himself came back to attention with an interview that he gave to a French magazine in 1978, in which he insisted that "only lice had been gassed at Auschwitz".
Darquier was a fraudster, scrounger and wife-beater. Had he lived in quieter times, he would probably have left no trace except in angry letters from his creditors. As it was, he became an accomplice to the greatest crime committed in 20th-century France: the deportation of more than 70,000 Jews, almost all of whom were murdered. Carmen Callill describes Darquier's career in an excellent book based on much original research as well as an impressive command of the vast secondary literature on Vichy France.
Callil, the founder of Virago press, must be one of the most admired women in Britain - even anti-feminists are grateful that the novels of Molly Keane and Elizabeth Taylor were put back in print. What drew her to one of the most despised figures in French history? Here lies the most fascinating part of the book. During the 1960s, Callil was treated, and perhaps saved from suicide, by Dr Anne Darquier, a London psychoanalyst. Only after Anne died during a bout of depression in 1970 did Callil realise that her saviour was the daughter of a man who had so conspicuously failed to save anyone except himself.
Darquier, the son of a doctor from Cahors, married Myrtle, an Australian actress and alcoholic whose capacity for deceiving herself matched her husband's capacity for deceiving other people. The couple lived in England for a while and it was here, in 1930, that Myrtle gave birth to Anne. Within months, her parents had almost abandoned the girl, leaving her behind in England to be raised by a nanny, Elsie Lightfoot.
Elsie is the real hero of this book. Warm-hearted, resourceful and loyal, she raised Anne almost single-handedly, endured the stigma of having people assume that Anne was her illegitimate daughter, and found money when the parents did not bother to send any. Most amazingly, Elsie concealed Anne's lack of official status from the wartime authorities, at the very moment when Anne's father was hunting down "aliens" in France.
Though she left school at 14, Anne talked her way into Oxford (she inherited her parents' skill at bluffing) and built a successful career. She had depressing encounters with her French family after the war. When Anne died, the substantial fortune that she had amassed went to her father. Elsie could not even persuade the authorities to let her keep a memento of the little girl that she had raised.
Callil finishes by suggesting that Darquier was the "dark essence" of the Vichy regime. I was not entirely persuaded by this. By her own account, Darquier was unpopular even among the French extreme right. Callil sometimes understates the degree of division between factions at Vichy. She hints that Darquier was close to Maxime Weygand, the royalist general influential in the early stages of Vichy, and even raises the astonishing possibility that Weygand might have acted as godfather to Darquier's second daughter, born after the war. But Weygand had been sacked by the time that Darquier was appointed, and was arrested by the Germans not long after.
The Vichy regime made much of family values, and it is interesting that some of the most revealing books about the period have been written by people - such as Marie Chaix, Pascal Jardin and Dominique Jamet - whose fathers were Pétainists or collaborators. If Anne had survived a few more years, she would have lived to see the period discussed in a spate of books and films. Perhaps then she would have written her story. As it is, Callil tells us everything that we are ever likely to know about this extraordinary family. Somehow, hers humanity brings out the reptilian coldness of Louis Darquier's heart.
Richard Vinen's 'The Unfree French' is published this month by Allen LaneReuse content