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Bousquet's killing removes best chance to try Vichy France

With the murder last week of Rene Bousquet disappeared the best remaining chance to put Vichy France on trial for its complicity in the World War II Holocaust that decimated Europe's Jews and many others.

Bousquet was no ordinary French Nazi fanatic and anti-Semite, nor even a right-wing extremist.

He was not a toady like Paul Touvier, who will still be tried for his personal participation in rounding up Jews in Lyon. Nor was he an important regional prefect in Bordeaux like Maurice Papon who may at last face trial as well.

Bousquet was part of the elite corps of high French officials who stayed on after the French defeat to serve in the government of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain in the belief that they were serving and preserving France.

In stepping on that slippery slope, Bousquet sent far more Jews to their death than any of the professional anti-Semites who fastened on to the Petain government in Vichy.

The trials of Touvier and Papon, if they at last take place, will retell a terrible story, but Bousquet's would at last have come close to putting the Petain government itself on trial and for some, much of France.

It would also have posed the question of how he could have gone on after the war to have another "brilliant career" as a banker and newspaper executive who for a time, it seems, had privileged relations with men like Francois Mitterrand, a member of the wartime French Resistance who is now president of France.

While known for years, the extent of the collaboration has been slow to sink into the public consciousness. Fifty years after the events, Touvier may be the first Frenchman to come to trial for crimes against humanity. But now there is even some question that he has again dropped out of sight as he did for decades with the help of Catholic clerics.

Briefly, Bousquet was the head of the French police in the wartime Vichy regime. Rather than see the Germans step in to round up Jews, he insisted that the French police themselves do it, the better to dissuade Germany from imposing direct rule on all France by showing that the Vichy government could carry out Nazi policies quickly and efficiently.

It was he who organized the roundup of 13,000 "foreign" Jews on July 16, 1942, for deportation to Germany. He then signed an order to deport some 2,000 Jewish children, some of them French, some too small to know their last names. In all, 60,000 Jews were deported under his authority.

In doing these things, he sometimes went beyond what even the Germans asked for.

In his 1949 trial for treason, the question of Jews seldom came up. Sentenced to five years, he was immediately pardoned for alleged services to the Resistance, and from there went on to a career in banking and business.

Only in 1978 did a former director of Jewish affairs in the police commissariat of the time spill the beans that it was Bousquet, not the Germans, who were responsible for the infamous 1942 roundup of Jews.

Only then did he resign from his prominent business positions. Yet he kept on living well in a fashionable section of Paris where 49-year-old Christian Didier, a frustrated author and mystic known for bizarre publicity stunts, shot him to death last Tuesday.

Only in 1989 did French justice reopen his case when Serge Klarsfeld, president of the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees, brought a complaint against Bousquet for crimes against humanity, and it was not until 1991 that he was charged. The case was being completed for trial next spring when Didier killed him.

What Bousquet always argued was that he did his best to protect those he could and that he ordered the roundup of foreign Jewish refugees in France in order to protect French Jews. Since French Jews received little if any protection, the claim can be contested.

But even they were silent for years. When I first came to France in the late 1940s, everyone seemed to have been a Resistance fighter. In fact, both Resistance fighters and enthusiastic collaborators were few. Most people got along by going along, leaving us to ponder what we would have done.

It may have been a 1971 film, Le Chagrin et la Pitie, that made the French generally begin to face up to the extent of Vichy's involvement in the deportation of Jews.

The trial of Bousquet would have been the occasion for all this and more to come out in court. But even his murder has recalled much. That it has taken so long is probably best explained by the fact that for many of the French elite of those years he was the symbol of their own self-deceptions and failures. In big and small ways they protected him.

The world around us is showing itself not much better than the one of 50 or 60 years ago. Man's inhumanity to man has not changed. People are still massacred not for their own acts but because of who they are.

If Bousquet's story has any value, it might be as a mirror in which we should take care not to see ourselves as him.