Death of a Collaborator | The Nation


Death of a Collaborator

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Early on the morning of June 8, a messenger arrived at an apartment in one of the poshest districts of Paris bearing documents to be signed by a former high-level government official and prominent banker. Once ushered in, the messenger pulled out a gun and shot the host four times at point-blank range. The old man who was killed was René Bousquet.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Fifty years ago Bousquet was head of the police at the height of the mass deportation of French Jews, so the initial guess was that the killing must have been the work of a descendant of one of his victims, unable to bear the idea that such a scoundrel should be living so comfortably, untormented by conscience. As it turned out, the "avenger" was a frustrated scrivener who craved celebrity rather than justice. The media gave him the limelight he was seeking, but in killing Bousquet he deprived France of a trial that would have thrown light on the complicity of high-level officials in Nazi crimes.

Bousquet was one of three elderly Frenchmen facing trial for crimes against humanity committed during the Nazi occupation in World War II. He was, however, the crucial one. Paul Touvier, for so long protected by the Catholic clergy, is a sort of junior Klaus Barbie, a bloody torturer who operated on a local scale in the Lyons area [see Singer, "Bad Memories," May 25, 1992]. Maurice Papon, who became an influential politician after the war, was also a local figure, whose atrocities were confined to Bordeaux. Bousquet was much more than a provincial, anti-Semitic thug. He was a brilliant member of the establishment, and as head of the French police in 1942-43 he was responsible for repression and deportations throughout France. His example shows how far raison d'état combined with ruthless ambition can lead. His case is worth examining because it tells us a great deal about the ambiguous relationship between postwar French politics and wartime collaboration.

Murderer in White Gloves

René Bousquet, born in 1909, seemed destined for a high post in government. He picked the prefectural service, which is most subservient to the powers that be. (The prefect is not so much the servant of the state as the instrument of the government in power, its direct representative in one of the ninety-five departments into which France is now divided.) The young civil servant garnered laurels and medals, showing personal courage in a rescue operation during a flood.

Bousquet cannot be described as the product of the French anti-Semitic right. He hails from the Toulouse region in southwestern France. During the interwar period Toulouse was dominated by the Radical Party, which, despite its name, was the mouthpiece of the moderate left. (It was said to be like a radish: red on the outside, white on the inside and always on the side the bread is buttered on.) With good connections in such quarters, Bousquet found that his rise was not interrupted when the Popular Front government of Léon Blum came to power in 1936--quite the contrary. But it did not slow down after Blum was thrown out of office, because Bousquet linked his fate with that of another prominent politician, Pierre Laval. Indeed, his climb continued as the Third Republic collapsed, and the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain was set up under German auspices. At the age of 31 Bousquet was the youngest prefect in France. Yet the real jump in his career came in April 1942, when Laval returned as prime minister in the Vichy government, which collaborated with Nazi Germany.

Laval brought Bousquet to Vichy as secretary general of the police with ministerial rank. The ambitious newcomer was determined to preserve as far as possible the sovereignty of the French police--or so he would say later in his own defense. To prevent the Germans from acting, he explained, one had to do the dirty jobs for them. One had to collaborate in the ruthless repression of the Resistance, which was inspired, as one of the joint agreements between the French and the Nazis put it, "by Jews, Bolsheviks and Anglo-Saxons." One had to provide French policemen to round up Jews in Paris and later to raid Jewish homes throughout so-called unoccupied France--rather than let the Germans do it. One had to prove one's zeal by adding small children to the lists. One had to supply thousands and thousands of Jews for the Nazi gas chambers. The distinguished young minister, a darling of the Vichy haut monde, was too elegant and too smart to stoop personally to torture like a vulgar Vichy militia thug. But he had more blood on his hands.

By the end of 1943, as a result of factional struggles within the Vichy government, Laval was pushed out and so was Bousquet. The latter was subsequently ordered into forced residence in Germany. Back in France after the war, Bousquet stayed in jail until 1947. He was tried two years later for collaboration, when passions were spent and society almost back to normal. With the influence of southwestern Radicals, the jury somehow failed to probe into his role in the deportation of the Jews, and he was sentenced to only five years of "national indignity." And even this was lifted almost at once because of "services rendered to the resistance movement." (It is striking how many pro-Nazis like Bousquet took the precaution of rendering such services.)

Even so, Bousquet could not resume his career in public administration. He could, however, build a new one in business. With the help of former associates, he went into merchant banking and rose to second in command of the important Bank of Indochina, later merged with the Bank of Suez. He was also on the board of umpteen companies, including a government-owned airline and the influential Toulouse daily, Dépêche du Midi. Having recovered his Legion of Honor (first awarded in 1930), he lived for the next thirty years as a prosperous and respectable pillar of French high society. It was only in the late 1970s that the past began to catch up with him again. A team of researchers, headed by lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, acting on behalf of children of the victims, produced incriminating documents from the German archives. Touvier, Papon and Bousquet's right-hand man in Paris, Jean Leguay, came under investigation, and since France had accepted the principle that there was no statute of limitations on "crimes against humanity," they all could be prosecuted. To understand why matters dragged on for so long, why none of them were ever tried (Leguay died), one must consider the French establishment's failure to settle accounts with its Vichy past.

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