IN FEBRUARY 1993 President Francois Mitterrand issued a decree stating that 16 July would henceforward be a day of national commemoration. It was to recall that on 16 and 17 July 1942, the French police, acting under the orders of Rene Bousquet, brought together some 13,000 Jews including 4,000 children in a Paris velodrome. They were then sent to Germany and to their deaths: hardly any returned. In April 1993 Claude Chabrol's film, L'Oeil de Vichy (made with the assistance of the historian Jean-Pierre Azema) gave many examples of the anti-Semitic propaganda of Vichy in which Bousquet was heavily involved. In May, Jean Marboeuf's film Petain showed a Bousquet who was desperately anxious to please the Germans and to do everything, and more than everything, that they wanted. In the meantime a judicial dossier was being prepared on Bousquet. It was expected in a fortnight's time and would decide whether or not he was to be tried for crimes against humanity.
It could be that this combination of events made it impossible for Bousquet to go on living his tranquil life in his elegant sixth-floor flat at 34 avenue Raphael, walking his dog twice a day in the Bois de Boulogne, being driven by his chauffeur to visit many friends. It is astonishing to think that the man who was accused of the most terrible of crimes neither concealed his address nor his telephone number.
But everything about Bousquet is astonishing. In March 1930, at the age of 20, he became a national hero. He had just finished his legal studies and was working in the prefecture of Tarn-et-Garonne when severe floods struck the area. At great danger to himself, he rescued many people from drowning and was decorated by the President of the Republic in person. He was then taken up by the radical socialist clan of the Toulouse area who saw to it that his career in the administration was rapid. The Popular Front Minister of the Interior put him in charge of secret-service material. He subsequently became, after the armistice of 1940, the youngest prefect of France, in the department of the Marne.
He was efficient. He raised the money to pay the ransoms which the Germans demanded. He re-organised the production of champagne. He distinguished himself by remaining a radical socialist and a freemason although this was not popular in Petain's Vichy. He also arrested Communists and handed them over to the Germans, who shot them.
He was offered the post of Minister of Agriculture but refused it. However, when Pierre Laval returned to power in April 1942, he willingly accepted the post of secretary general in charge of the police. For some 20 months this young man was directing all the repressive machinery of the Vichy state and he won the admiration of all his German masters, including Heydrich and Himmler. When the Germans demanded the deportation of Jews they were surprised by his enthusiasm. He personally ordered that Jewish children should be arrested along with their mothers and he gave instructions to prefects that they should punish those officials who were being slack in rounding up the Jews. Catholic organisations which protested were threatened with financial punishments. His record stood for itself - more than 60,000 deportations between 1942 and 1943.
But Vichy politics were complicated. In December 1943 one of Bousquet's radical socialist patrons was assassinated by a group of French Fascists. He determined to bring them to justice, but this created a scandal. Although he was one of Laval's most trusted colleagues, Bousquet knew that he could not win against the Vichy ultras and the Germans. He resigned, but not before he had destroyed many of his papers and made a number of precautionary arrangements whereby he helped some individual Jews and members of the resistance to escape arrest.
After spending some time in prison Bousquet was tried in July 1949. Extraordinary though it might seem, his actions against the Jews were scarcely mentioned. For other offences of collaboration, described as 'regrettable', he was sentenced to five years of national degradation, but immediately reprieved because he had rendered certain services to the resistance.
From then onwards he pursued a successful career in banking and journalism and even stood for parliament, although unsuccessfully. His past only surfaced in 1978.
But justice was slow. In 1990 it was decided that he could not be tried. It was widely said that President Mitterrand and his ministerial colleagues believed that the best way of administering justice was to forget. Others claimed that Bousquet did not know what fate awaited deported Jews and that he thought it right that children should be with their mothers. It has also been claimed that he was simply devoted to being an efficient official and that he understood little beyond his dossiers and his office.
Had he come to trial he would have been the first Frenchman tried for crimes against humanity. It would have been the trial of the Vichy regime. Many believe that it was to prevent this that his trial was postponed for so long. And perhaps assassination was the best form of postponement.