PARIS -- Margaret Mitchell's heirs believe Lea Delmas impersonated Scarlett O'Hara and are saying through their lawyers: "Frankly, my dear, we give a damn."
Lea is the heroine of "The Blue Bicycle" by Regine Deforges, one of France's biggest best sellers in recent years.
It is an epic tale of the beautiful, spirited daughter of a southern vintner whose carefree adolescence is cut short by war. Gone are the days of tight-fitting party dresses, straw hats and suitors. Fear and deprivation, hunger and death take their place.
To Mitchell's heirs, that sounded a lot like her heroine Scarlett in "Gone With the Wind," and they took the matter to court.
Trust Company Bank of Atlanta is suing Deforges and the Ramsay publishing company for plagiarism and is asking 5 million francs (about $890,000) in damages and interest. A lawyer has called it "one of the most interesting court cases to come up since World War II."
The French author says her novel is a parody of "Gone With the Wind" but not plagiarism. Hearings are to begin in January, with a decision not expected for months.
It promises to be a complicated case. There are few precedents, and "Gone With the Wind" is still under copyright.
In "The Blue Bicycle," published in 1983, World War II and the German occupation of France have pitted brother against brother. Followers of Marshal Pe'tain's collaborationist Vichy government condemn Charles de Gaulle's freedom fighters. Collaborators hunt down Jews and members of the Resistance.
Lea pines for the one man she cannot have -- Laurent d'Argilat, who has married the gentle Camille. Out of spite, she becomes engaged to Camille's brother, a soldier who is killed early in the war.
She meets her French Rhett Butler -- Francois Tavernier, a swarthy, cigar-smoking rogue with a golden heart.
Inflamed by Lea's temper and sensuous beauty, Francois vows she will one day be his.
"I know what plagiarism is," Deforges said in an interview, "and it is a very bad thing. It's borrowing something, hiding it and trying to make it your own.
"From the beginning 'The Blue Bicycle' was intended to be a takeoff. I never said it was supposed to be anything else."
Publisher Jean-Pierre Ramsay was planning to do a series of "modern rewrites of the great classics," she said, and approached her. "Ramsay said he thought I would be perfect for 'Gone With the Wind.' "
Ramsay, who has sold the publishing house and now heads a film production company, would not comment on the case. "I have nothing to say because I have nothing to do with the company I founded and have since sold," he said.
Daniel Soulez-Lariviere, the publishing house's lawyer, called the case "one of the most interesting" since the war, but said further comment would be inappropriate at this stage.
Olivier Carmet, who represents the Mitchell heirs, said he could not discuss details before the case is heard.
For readers familiar with both novels, the similarities are striking.
Scarlett and Lea are spoiled coquettes used to getting what they want. Their mothers die during the war -- one from illness, the other during the bombing of Bordeaux -- and their fathers sink slowly into madness with broken hearts.
Food is scarce and delicate hands once sheathed in kid gloves work the earth. Their homes, Tara and Montillac, are burned by enemy soldiers.
Both strong-willed heroines, driven by their love of the land, vow to rebuild.
The parallels go only so far, however.
"The Blue Bicycle," first of three volumes spanning 1939-1945, is much more than the love story of Lea and Francois. It is the story of World War II, heroism and betrayal, deception and death.
Lea becomes involved in the underground, risking her life roving the vine-covered hills around Bordeaux on her bicycle to deliver messages.
An aunt is burned alive by vindictive militiamen. Camille is gunned down by German SS soldiers, and the family's faithful aging servant is tortured and killed.
Deforges said she got bored after making the first 100 pages sound like "Gone With the Wind."
"The research I did on World War II was so fascinating and gripping that after a certain point I just had to tell my own story," she said.
"In the end, Margaret Mitchell's characters bore no resemblance to mine. Scarlett and Lea are really very different. Lea is much more generous. She wasn't mean at all, and she wasn't a selfish opportunist like Scarlett."