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.
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.