The former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius and two of his ministers appear before a special court in Paris, charged with manslaughter. They are accused of bowing to commercial pressure to permit HIV-infected blood to remain in use in the French health service for five months after the danger to patients was established in 1985.
The trial is being watched closely by Jean-Pierre Allain, who is professor of transfusion medicine at Cambridge and a former honorary director of the local blood transfusion service. He has been called as a witness due to his role - and earlier conviction - for supplying HIV-contaminated blood products to French haemophiliacs.
Professor Allain, former head of research for the French blood transfusion service, may exercise his right not to appear at the trial on grounds he faces the possibility of a further case to answer the more serious allegations of poisoning patients.
Professor Allain, 56, served a two-year sentence for the lesser charge of "fraudulent description of goods", a legal nicety used to describe how he knowingly supplied untreated blood products to haemophiliacs.
The latest trial involves two ex-ministers, both retired from politics, accused of allowing the transfusion service to use old stock for haemophiliacs, even though it was known they could be contaminated with HIV. As a direct result, it is alleged, seven people were infected unnecessarily with the Aids virus. Five have died. These are sample charges. It is estimated 350 people in France were unnecessarily infected with HIV after the first clear warnings.
The trial will be the first for half a century in which former ministers are brought to book for political decisions in office. It will be the first to be heard by the new Cour de Justice de la Republique, in which erring ministers are tried by judges and fellow politicians.
If convicted, the ex-ministers face up to five years' jail. Critics say the trial is another example of how far the country has lurched from a climate of immunity for politicians to a potentially equally undemocratic era of "government by judges". The blood saga, which caused profound revulsion against the political establishment, is one reason for the change.
The controversy has already produced two criminal trials of officials and doctors, four of whom were sentenced to jail for providing contaminated goods, including Professor Allain.
In another development, an investigating magistrate is expected this week to recommend that a charge of "poisoning" should be brought against Professor Allain and 16 other officials and doctors.
He has been supported by senior colleagues, including Robin Carrell, who, as head of Cambridge's haematology department, was responsible for recommending his appointment. Professor Allain received his full professorial salary of pounds 37,000 while in jail, which was initially paid out of NHS funds via the now-defunct East Anglian Regional Blood Transfusion Service, and then by ex gratia university payments.
The transfusion service, aware of the potential embarrassment of employing a senior scientist who was a convicted criminal, set up in 1985 an "independent" inquiry, led by Baroness Warnock, into Professor Allain's actions.
The inquiry, which met three times and interviewed one witness other than Professor Allain, concluded there was no reason to believe he was unfit to hold office "and that the public may be assured of his commitment to good practice".
Since his release from prison, the transfusion service has refused to allow Professor Allain direct access to patients. "He is now employed by the university. He no longer is honorary director of the transfusion service," a spokeswoman said yesterday.
It appears one of his next appointments could be as a witness in the trial of Mr Fabius and the others.
Mr Fabius was the youngest prime minister in French history when appointed by the late President Francois Mitterrand in 1984 at the age of 38. It is alleged that he agreed or failed to prevent a deliberate delay in the systematic HIV testing of blood owned by the French health system from March to August 1985.
Professor Allain said he informed his superiors of the risk from contaminated blood products in January 1985 but that his warnings were ignored. France had yet to introduce heat-treated blood products, which could eliminate the risk of HIV infection, and an Aids blood test to check donors.
An American company, Abbott, was already marketing an HIV test but the French government came under intense lobbying pressure to refuse the American product and allow time for a French company, Diagnostics Pasteur, to develop a rival test.
The commercial implications, for sales of the test not just in France but throughout the world, are said to have been enormous.
In a statement to the National Assembly on 19 June 1985, Mr Fabius announced that all blood samples would be screened immediately.
It is alleged that the dangers were known from March and that the tests were not actually applied until August. It is alleged that Mr Fabius either condoned this delay or that he was negligent in failing to prevent it. The former prime minister, now president (speaker) of the National Assembly, says it was impossible for him to keep abreast of this level of administrative detail.
The two former ministers, Georgina Dufoix, who was social affairs minister at the time, and Edmond Herve, junior health minister, are also accused of conniving at, or failing in their duty to prevent, this delay. They are also accused of having ultimate responsibility for the decisions of the blood transfusion service - the Centre National de Transfusion Sanguine (CNTS) - to use up expensive but HIV-contaminated stocks of blood products for haemophiliacs.
It was this policy for which Professor Allain, then deputy head of the CNTS, was convicted and jailed.
Today's trial will take place, controversially, not in a court room nor even in parliament but in a conference room just off the Etoile normally used for large diplomatic gatherings. The three accused will be judged by 12 MPs - seven from the centre-right and five from the left - and three judges. Families of the victims will give evidence but they are, otherwise, not allowed to take part in the proceedings or to appoint lawyers to defend their interests in court.
For all these reasons the victims' families have dismissed the proceedings in advance as a whitewash. The three defendants, supported by senior politicians and commentators on both sides of the political divide, have criticised the trial as a dangerous invasion of politics by the judiciary. Any political failings, they say, should be judged by the electorate, not a part-political, part-judicial court. Ms Dufoix has admitted political negligence but, in a celebrated phrase, says she regards herself as "responsible but not guilty".Reuse content