PARIS -- One night in the fall of 1984, Andre Argente was hurtled from his sleep by wrenching chest pains. A heart attack. At 38, the Parisian florist had been in good health but wasn't sleeping well, under stress from a full-scale tax audit and a subsequent massive bill.

The next day his doctor ordered immediate surgery, a double bypass that was to give Argente new life. Instead it delivered his death sentence. For when surgeons transfused the heart patient with 32 units of blood, they also gave him the AIDS virus.

Now 46, Argente is in the early stages of the disease, and considers himself luckier than most who share his lot. "I found out three months after I was infected, because I had doctors who were aware of these things. I had very high fevers, I was very tired, I had hot flashes. They had the courage to do the test, and to tell me, which prevented me from infecting my wife."

This was not the case for most of the roughly 5,000 French patients who were transfused with the AIDS virus in the 1980s, nor for the 1,500 French hemophiliacs who injected themselves with it, even though officials knew the nation's blood supplies were contaminated and that purified products were available from abroad. As a French court has shown, officials of the National Blood Transfusion Center decided to continue to distribute contaminated products until all French stocks were depleted. About 300 hemophiliacs so far have died as a result.

Worse, if that is possible, most victims did not learn they were infected until years afterward. Or if they knew, they did not really know what it meant -- did not have "safe sex," did not get preventive, life-lengthening treatments, did not prepare themselves psychologically for their fate. Some still do not know; they don't want to know.

What has become nothing less than a national moral crisis over the gradual discovery of this mass infection is a daily trauma for those who feel betrayed both by the French medical system and by their political leaders. In a complex web of responsibility, each has blamed another. Those already convicted -- three public health officials -- say they serve as scapegoats for others. Their appeals trial opened in May and will continue through early June. The politicians -- the prime minister at the time and his social affairs and deputy health ministers -- say they relied on their medical experts for advice. Though unlikely, they may yet face a High Court for their role in the affair.

But few have listened to those who are dying because they trusted those who heal.

Edmond-Luc Henry is a handsome, articulate accountant. He has blue-green eyes, a typically French mustache and an incisive manner that cuts small talk to a minimum. Henry, 43, also has hemophilia, a genetic disease transmitted by the mother that strikes one in 10,000 infants, meaning his blood lacks what is commonly called Factor VIII, the crucial coagulant that stops a cut or contusion from becoming life-threatening. He limps badly from damage to his knees and their arteries as a child, a common problem for hemophiliacs of his age who did not have access until recently to plasma products containing Factor VIII.

Henry learned that he was HIV-positive in October 1985 -- the same month the French government finally, belatedly, ceased all use of contaminated blood products -- but it was not until he received a letter from the Health Ministry in late 1989 that he suspected his infection might be the result of something other than a tragic error.

The letter offered Henry 200,000 francs -- about $40,000 -- if he promised not to sue the government for any further damages. "I said to myself, 'If they are proposing this to me, something terrible must have really happened.' "

Up to then, Henry was certain that his infection was his singular bad luck. As he began to do research, he learned that there were hundreds of others just like him. Indeed, he learned that the Paris center where he received twice-weekly transfusions of Factor VIII continued to transfuse him with HIV-contaminated products well after his initial infection.

Then the truth began to come out in the press.

"I didn't want to believe what I was reading in the papers," said Henry. "But I realized there were certain undeniable facts.

"It is so difficult to doubt your doctor, especially for a hemophiliac. You develop almost a father-son relationship with the doctor. He is like your second family. From the time you are a child he brings you newer products all the time, improved ones. Especially for my generation, which spent a lot of time in hospitals -- to doubt him is a kind of psychological parricide."

The misinformation Henry received is nothing short of astounding. When first informed that he was HIV-positive, he was told by a doctor at the transfusion center that he should be relieved -- that he was now vaccinated against AIDS. Later a doctor there told him not to use the same toothbrush as his wife, so she would not be infected, never mentioning condoms. (Henry unilaterally took his own sexual precautions.)

The doctors did not tell him about heated blood products, which are purified of the virus. And they did not insist that France import them.

"I never thought for a moment that what they continued to give me was still infecting me. I didn't know to ask for heated products -- I didn't know they existed," Henry said. "That there might be a deliberate act to use up contaminated stocks, I have never heard of such a thing in an industrialized country."

The Chilling Decision

How France, a country known for the high quality of its government-paid medical care -- indeed, the country that co-discovered the AIDS virus with the United States -- came to such a state is inexplicable indeed.

The former director of the National Blood Transfusion Center (CNTS), Michel Garretta, and his assistant, Jean-Pierre Allain, were convicted in October for knowingly distributing the tainted products. Garretta is serving a four-year jail sentence, and Allain, who was sentenced to two years, has been living in England. The other official, Jacques Roux, an assistant health minister, received a four-year suspended sentence. A fourth senior official charged, Robert Netter, was acquitted.

But clearly others were at least accomplices: directors at transfusion centers, doctors across the country who prescribed the contaminated products, and to some extent even the hemophiliac groups, which did not examine the facts closely enough. Guilty too, in some measure, are the politicians who were responsible for France's blood distribution policy.

None spoke out then; none admits guilt today.

By 1982 French medical researchers could positively identify the AIDS virus, and by 1983 knew that it was very probably transmitted through the bloodstream.

By the middle of 1983 France had already taken some steps to screen blood donors, but the CNTS, which controls blood imports, did not respond to the offer of one American company, Travenol, to sell heated products as a precaution for hemophiliacs, who were at higher risk because Factor VIII is distilled from the blood of thousands of donors. There was no response to a similar offer by an Austrian firm, Immuno, in October.

As months went by without a decision, evidence grew stronger and eventually irrefutable that all of France's blood products were contaminated with the AIDS virus. In October 1984 the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported that heat treatment was effective in killing the AIDS virus, and the National Hemophilia Foundation immediately advised the use of heated products for hemophiliacs. Still, France did nothing.

In January 1985, a test of Parisian blood donors showed that five of every 1,000 were HIV-positive. Alarmed, the CNTS finally took urgent measures to produce heated products.

Nonetheless, at a fateful meeting in June, CNTS directors decided to continue to distribute unheated products, a conclusion clearly and chillingly stated in the official account. For those already HIV-positive, it read, unheated products "must be used until the stocks are depleted."

Meanwhile, the French blood donor system continued to function as before. Though the volunteer-only, unpaid system was considered as risk-free as possible (more so, for example, than in the United States, where paid donations encourage cash-desperate drug addicts), France continued to allow blood donations in its prisons, a fatal error first revealed in the French press and confirmed in November 1992 in a special government report. The report showed that while only 0.37 percent of the nation's blood donations came from prisons, this blood was responsible for 25 percent of HIV infections by transfusion.

The Secret Victims

While Andre Argente speaks openly of his illness, most of those infected during surgical transfusions are far more hidden in the French population than the hemophiliacs. By and large transfusion victims cannot sue, because the responsibility for their infection is too diffuse. Those who can, generally sue for having infected their spouses because they were not informed.

Fear of social alienation has sent most of these victims into hiding, seeking solace in the anonymity of the National Transfusion Association, a self-help group started by Argente and Aline Boyer, a lawyer.

Through the group, both have met people too cautious to talk to journalists, such as a wealthy 35-year-old woman who lives in Paris's chic 16th Arrondissement, infected during delivery of her third child on April 1, 1985. After a minor hemorrhage, doctors transfused two units of blood. They later wrote in a letter to her that the transfusion "could have easily been avoided."

There is also a 28-year-old woman with AIDS who received blood after a severe car accident in the mid-'80s. Likewise several young men, now HIV-positive, who in their teens were somewhat reckless drivers.

"To know that you were treated for something life-threatening and got AIDS as a result is one thing," said Boyer, whose work leaves her in a state of perpetual anger and cynicism. "But to know that you must give your life because you went into the hospital to bring life forth -- that is too much to take."

Argente has made peace with his fate, though even he has never formally told his two daughters that he has AIDS. His anger is mostly reserved for the medical system that, in his view, has spent most of its time avoiding responsibility rather than trying to make amends.

"For ... years we have been trying to get public health officials to assemble a list of people who received transfusions in the 1980s, so those people will go and get themselves tested," he said. "They have been completely impervious to requests for information. To them it seems too monstrous to tell tens of thousands of people who were operated on that they were at risk."

The result is that there is no way of knowing exactly how many people have been infected by blood transfusion.

Isabel de Mareuil, a Health Ministry spokeswoman, said she believed the government had asked all those at risk to be tested, but that the ministry could not obligate those who were reluctant.

"You can't force people to get tested if they don't want to," she said. "There is a responsibility, there is a certain amount of individual will involved in this. Things have been explained clearly, but now it's up to the people who were transfused to get tested." The current right-wing government was not in power during most of the scandal.

The Rebel Response

A conference on blood safety procedures in March 1992 was stopped cold by what many considered a radical act. Ludovic Bouchet, 16, flanked by members of the gay activist group ACT-UP, approached the mediator of the conference, Bahman Habibi, and flung a bucket of red paint in his face. Another protester handcuffed the mortified doctor to a radiator.

Bouchet, now 17, is a hemophiliac who was infected by the AIDS virus in October 1985. Habibi was one of the top officials whose names adorned the directives ordering the continued distribution of contaminated blood products. He has escaped prosecution, so Bouchet and his mother, Joelle, are exacting their own justice.

"This is my rebellion," says Joelle Bouchet, whose reasonable tone is belied by her move to shock tactics. "I've always been someone who's lowered her head and said, 'Yes, doctor, no, doctor.' I was always self-effacing.

"You see, as the mother of a hemophiliac you are always humble, because you already feel so guilty {since the disease is transmitted by the mother}. Why did I change? It was the sense of 'Don't touch my son.' I only have one son, and when I learned that I was the one who was infecting him every week -- because I gave him the transfusions -- this was too much to take. It's me who infected him. I transfused him. And I could have caught the virus too. It's too horrible -- all of it.

"The hospital would write to me to ask me for blood every few months. They always knew how to ask when they needed. How come no one had the time to write and tell me that my son was infected?"

Like Edmond-Luc Henry, Bouchet was alerted by a 1989 Health Ministry letter offering her damages, which she refused. While she had known that Ludovic was HIV-positive for four years, she said she did not know what that meant, and did not realize until doing her own research that her son had a fatal disease. No one at the transfusion center told her.

Bouchet has since written a book called "J'accuse: Medecins et Politiques" ("I Accuse: Doctors and Politicians").

Ludovic is not typical of hemophiliacs, whose condition fosters prudence. When he had an argument in school, he would just wait until getting a transfusion before going to pick a fight with the insulting party. Now he has stopped going to school. "What for?" he said. "Hemophiliac kids who continue to study are either stupid or ignorant."

Ludovic has Genesis's latest hit playing on his stereo, a fish tank and a TV in his room, whose door reads (of course) "Do Not Disturb." He is tall, with an adolescent gawkiness and an adult's acerbic wit.

"I'm not interested in kidding myself," he said. "Look -- if they find a cure I'll go back to my studies later. If they don't, what's the difference?" His mother shrugs; she's long given up arguing with him.

Ludovic, who just got back tests showing a dramatically low T-cell count, has found support and some comfort from other young men in ACT-UP. His mother, who raised him alone, has found a cause but no comfort at all.

"They're all guilty. They all knew," she said, waving a sheaf of documents she has collected, some of which were used in the court case against Michel Garretta. She, Henry and other hemophiliacs have refused to accept that verdict, and are trying to sue Garretta and the two other convicted health officials for the felony crime of poisoning.

"Garretta got four years," she said. "What would you give for the life of your son?"