PARIS -- The French government appears eager to drop prosecution of Rene Bousquet, the French Vichy chief of police who ordered the deportation of Jewish children, on charges of crimes against humanity.
Recent reports that French President Francois Mitterrand had told associates he wanted to see the Bousquet case "buried" have aroused anger among survivors of the Holocaust, their families and human rights advocates. They are interpreting Mr. Mitterrand's alleged remarks as a signal that other French war criminals also will never be brought to trial.
Mr. Bousquet, 81, is charged with ordering the roundup of Jewish children from the unoccupied French zone in 1942. On his orders, thousands of Jewish children were transported to the concentration camp at Drancy, north of Paris, and from there to death at Auschwitz, according to the lawsuit. He is specifically accused of ordering the roundup of 194 Jewish children in a raid on Aug. 26, 1942.
Mr. Bousquet's order went beyond what the Nazi occupiers of France had demanded at the time. Although Berlin had been considering demanding that Jewish children from France be turned over to Nazi authorities with their parents, the Germans assumed that deporting the children would offend French sensibilities.
But Mr. Bousquet cabled Berlin requesting permission to hand the youngsters over, the suit says.
The Vichy government thought the French would balk at the sight of Jewish children being separated from their parents -- who were being deported at the time.
Mr. Mitterrand reportedly suggested that raising the Vichy past would threaten the "civil peace" in France. His remarks were echoed by Georges Kiejman, the newly appointed deputy justice minister, who is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors.
"The Jews want justice. We don't want passion. We don't want the death of Monsieur Bousquet," said Serge Klarsfeld, president of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Deportees.
"Monsieur Bousquet walks his dog, I walk my dog in the same neighborhood," Mr. Klarsfeld said. "If there were a threat to civil peace, he would have been run over a long time ago."
Mr. Klarsfeld, who brought the suit against Mr. Bousquet in the name of the association, called on Mr. Kiejman to resign his new post at the Justice Ministry last week so he would not be associated with the sudden effort to bury the Bousquet case.
Mr. Kiejman, undoubtedly piqued by Mr. Klarsfeld's remarks, refused to step down, though he did not deny the government's desire to drop the case.
Unlike the Klaus Barbie case, he explained, there was no consensus among government officials to prosecute Mr. Bousquet. And the instructional value of a trial for France's younger generation could be served through other means, Mr. Kiejman added.
Mr. Bousquet was convicted in 1949 for his role in running the Vichy police, but that conviction was overturned the next day for "acts accomplished in favor of the Resistance."
Now, Mr. Kiejman said, "the large majority of the government" believes that any new trial should be held by the same court. That would mean reactivating the "High Court of the Liberation," made up of 24 judges who were parliamentary deputies in 1939 -- a virtual impossibility.
The requirement, if upheld by the French courts, could mean that high-level Vichy officials such as Mr. Bousquet need no longer fear prosecution for their wartime complicity with the Nazis.
The charges fell on Mr. Bousquet after Jean Leguay, one of his deputies, died before trial. The charges had been pending against him 10 years before his death in 1989.
Mr. Bousquet's resume suggests he did not suffer professionally after the war.
He held a series of high-profile posts in French Indochina, including director of the Indo-Suez Bank. He resigned most of his posts in 1979, after Mr. Klarsfeld's charges against Mr. Leguay made Mr. Bousquet's own past public knowledge once again.
Mr. Bousquet's son and lawyer, Guy Bousquet, refused to discuss the charges with a reporter. But in a September interview with the French magazine L'Express, the younger Mr. Bousquet dismissed Mr. Klarsfeld's accusations.
"Today, we live in a society where anybody can file suit against anybody," he was reported to have said.
Now, signs that Mr. Bousquet may escape judgment have spawned allegations here that France is guilty of moral posturing in judging the German occupation at the trial of Klaus Barbie three years ago while it refuses to examine its own past today.
Suspicions have also arisen that France's other war criminals awaiting trial -- Paul Touvier, an assistant to Barbie, and Maurice Papon, Vichy police prefect of the Gironde region -- probably will escape judgment.