Even in a country with as rich a record of courtroom drama as France, the trial that opened in Paris yesterday has few rivals. The charge is premeditated murder; the defendant has admitted, even boasted, of the killing, but the plea is "not guilty" and there is at least half a chance that it could be accepted, because of the motive.
For, while the accused, a slight, grey-haired man of 51, by the name of Christian Didier, might seem ordinary, his victim was not. Rene Bousquet, who was 84 when he was shot dead in his flat three years ago, was the Vichy regime's chief of police from April 1942 to December 1943 and personally ordered the notorious round-up of more than 12,000 Jews at the Vel-d'Hiv stadium in Paris .
Mr Didier's case is that his killing was morally justified, and he has has two of the most accomplished lawyers in France on his side: Thierry Levy, a brilliant orator and legal scholar who has specialised in "difficult" cases, acting for the anarchist group Action Directe and the former Marseille football boss, Bernard Tapie; and Arnaud Montebourg, a young anti-establishment lawyer who last month came within a hair's breadth of forcing the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, out of office over the legality of his flat.
The facts of the Bousquet murder are hardly in dispute. On 8 June 1993 Mr Didier set off by train to Paris from his home in the Vosges village of Saint-Die, took the Metro to the elegant 16th arondissement of Paris and talked his way into Bousquet's sixth-floor flat by claiming to be an interior ministry official with some papers to be signed. Bousquet, contrary to usual practice, answered the door himself. As he bent to look at the (false) papers, Mr Didier shot him at point blank range five times.
Afterwards, Mr Didier took the Metro to a hotel in the Lilas district on the eastern fringe of Paris, and invited a selection of media organisations to a "press conference" about the not-yet-reported murder of Bousquet. The police arrived to arrest him as he was explaining that Bousquet was a "monster" who deserved to die.
Mr Didier, who was brought up a Catholic but professes admiration for Jews, has a history of pursuing senior Vichy officials. In 1987, posing as a doctor, he got into the Lyons prison where Klaus Barbie, head of the Gestapo in France, was being held. In 1991 he tried to force his way into the Elysee Palace to complain about former Vichy officials not being brought to trial. He also admits to having tried to kill Paul Touvier, the Vichy intelligence chief in Lyons.
His trial has attracted huge attention in France, reviving once again the unresolved question of the Vichy regime and how to deal with it. Only four senior Vichy officials have ever been indicted in France on war crimes charges, and only Touvier has stood trial.
Bousquet himself was sentenced to a five-year prison term in 1949, but was released in recognition of "services to the Resistance". He was indicted for war crimes in 1991 at the instigation of the anti-Nazi campaigner Serge Klarsfeld, and was awaiting trial at the time of his death. His long-standing friendship with then President, Francois Mitterrand, is cited as a possible reason why the investigation took so long.
Mr Didier enjoys strong public support. His defence lawyers are bringing a dozen or more specialist witnesses - professors of moral philosophy, historians and lawyers, specialising in the Holocaust and in the war crimes of the Vichy regime, and individuals who had been called to testify against Bousquet when it was expected that he, not Mr Didier, would be in the dock.
Didier's home town is also standing by him. The Saint-Die council last week passed a motion asking the Paris court to show clemency. The town, close to the German border, was almost destroyed during the Occupation, and Mr Didier claims that his childhood was scarred by the constant stories of round-ups and killings that were told around him.
Despite his already mythical moral stature, Mr Didier cut a sad and confused figure yesterday. Standing alone in front of the microphone, dwarfed by the red-robed dignitaries, he went from stumbling replies to garrulousness. Admitting to unhappy relations with his father, international wandering, failure as an author and a history of mental illness, Didier darted capriciously among the judge's questions, sprinkling answers with references to his "traumatisation" as a child.
If the defence lawyers and a section of the public wished the Didier trial to become the trial of Vichy, or at least of Bousquet, they may be disappointed. The judge warned the jury at the outset: "Remember, you are not trying Rene Bousquet for what he may have done, but Christian Didier for responsibility for this killing."Reuse content