FROM BEING TO NOTHINGNESS

Coincidence? Impossible. When three radical French intellectuals all committed suicide in a single week this time last year, the Paris rumour mill was swift to link the deaths and to talk of terrorism, murder and manipulation. But were the three men victims of a conspiracy - or merely of a profound, pervasive despair at the emptiness and cynicism of Mitterrand's France?

THE HAMLET of Champot does not appear on many maps; the granite plateaux of the Auvergne, and, higher up still, the dense and impenetrable woods, make it a hostile place. Despite a meagre influx of disaffected hippies who fled Paris or Lyons in the early Seventies to scratch a living from the poor land, this lonely corner of France has been for years a byword for depopulation and rural wretchedness. Its emptiness and silence are a far cry from the clamour of Paris, where Guy Debord, theoretician of the Situationist International, inspiration behind such diverse specimens of art terrorism as punk rock and Damien Hirst, and author of The Society of the Spectacle, had spent most of his life in arguments and in bars. But it was where, racked by depression, he killed himself on 30 November 1994.

Debord was remembered by his Auvergnat neighbours - generally considered a clannish and surly race - as an especially austere figure, even by their tough standards. The last person to speak to Debord was a stonemason from nearby Bellevue-la-Montagne who had been called to his farmhouse to repair wind damage, and to build the walls even higher. He heard the facts of Debord's death with an indifferent shrug: "It wasn't normal the way he hid himself away," he said. And indeed Debord had spent nearly a decade in the farmhouse he shared with his companion Alice Becker-Ho, drinking, playing endless war games, and ruminating on the victory of the "spectacular society" he had predicted and hated. (One of his former disciples, for instance, become a senior executive in Silvio Berlusconi's media empire; he claimed that Debord had taught him all he knew).

It was several days before details of Debord's suicide reached Paris. When the news arrived, the French media - "the spectacle" against which Debord had waged such an implacable war - accorded him the status of one of the great thinkers of the age. Philippe Sollers, the most influential and noisy figure on the Parisian intellectual scene, appraised Debord's suicide as a "post-modern" gesture of defiance; drew a comparison with Antonin Artaud's description of Van Gogh as a "suicide of society"; and asked young people to make sure "they heard the sound of the gunshot which killed him and realised its revolutionary significance."

But Debord's death also stimulated the Parisian appetite for gossip and conspiracy. It was noted that no Parisian journalist had seen Debord's body; and in Bellevue-la-Montagne, villagers recalled that Monsieur Debord had been visited by police only days before his suicide, a visit made doubly sinister by one of Debord's final books, in which he asserted that the French secret services had been tracking him since the early Seventies. Adding grist to the rumour mill, two further suicides followed within the week: those of the writer Roger Stephane and the publisher Gerard Voitey, both intellectuals, both friends of Debord, and all three linked to unresolved mysteries from the Sixties and the Eighties. As the connections were made, the Parisian media world began to ask who had funded Debord, and why? What had prompted the outwardly cheerful Stephane to shoot himself? And who exactly was Voitey - a struggling publisher, or a sinister financier of revolutionary terror? Conspiracy theorists began to talk of terrorism, murder and manipulation; they, like the obituarists in Le Figaro and Liberation, recalled the unsolved murder, 10 years earlier, of Debord's publisher and patron, the mercurial and mysterious Gerard Lebovici. More restrained commentators pointed to Debord's alcoholism, Voitey's financial problems and the despair that overwhelmed Stephane, and blamed the spiritual and political malaise afflicting Mitterrand's France. On one thing they were agreed: there was a sickness afoot. But was it social, or criminal? In death, as in life, Debord and mystery walked hand in hand.

ON THE FACE of it, the refined, rarefied world of Roger Stephane had little in common with the paranoia that surrounded Debord and his inner circle. Although only 10 years older than Debord, Stephane belonged to the generation of Gide, Malraux and Cocteau and liked to present himself as an avuncular, fogeyish figure. He was held in high regard - he had won the prestigious Prix Saint-Beuve - but his novels, with their delicate, intimate portraits of mandarin society, had a small readership. He was best-known, and best-loved, for the television programmes he had made in the Sixties and for his gentle, probing interviews with leading politicians and writers. Once a passionate Marxist and distinguished resistant, he was patrician in manner, an aesthete who always wore a red spotted bow-tie, had written an elegaic book about TE Lawrence and was openly in love with the young men he collected around him. Yet just five days after Debord's suicide, Stephane, too, killed himself.

At first, no connection was made between the two deaths. But then, on 7 December 1994, came reports of the suicide of Gerard Voitey, the director of the publishing house, Editions Quai Voltaire. An amiable fan of the non-intello joys of rugby and Elvis Presley, Voitey published mainly travel books, and translations; more recently, however, his imprint had been responsible for three novels by his friend Roger Stephane. The first report of Voitey's death, in Le Figaro, said that he had died in hospital after smashing his car up. But within hours - and against his family's wishes - police revealed that Voitey had, in fact, shot himself with a .38 calibre pistol, just above his right ear.

As soon as this became public knowledge, the deaths of Voitey, Debord and Stephane were linked - Figaro first made the connection in its 8 December issue. Fuel was added to the fire by the author Denis Tillinac, who had dined with Voitey on the night of the publisher's death. The pair met in La Mediterranee, a lively and suitably middlebrow establishment on Place de L'Odeon. Voitey, said Tillinac, was agitated and nervous: "He was disturbed by the suicide of his friend. He said 'I just can't see Guy with a bullet in his head. I just can't see it.' " With Voitey, as with Debord, there was a Lebovici connection; it was soon revealed that, shortly after Lebovici's murder, Voitey had temporarily taken over Lebovici's Champ Libre publishing house. He was encouraged to buy the business by Debord and Lebovi-ci's widow, but turned down the opportunity; nevertheless, he had continued to invest in Champ Libre, using it to prop up other businesses he was involved in - which were otherwise kept going by an uneasy mixture of hubris and fraud.

Much the same might have been said of Guy Debord, who had always combined revolutionary zeal with a taste for high life and financial intrigue. Although he revelled in Parisian bas quartiers, preferring a windowless dive on the rue Julienne to the clean, new Paris of La Defense and le fast-food, Debord was fascinated by maverick businessmen like Voitey or Lebovici. They, in turn, as unrepentant soixante-huitards, were dazzled by Debord's uncompromising rhetoric. Debord lived life with a certain grandeur; although, as he often proudly observed, he had never done a day's work in his life, Auvergnat villagers told journalists of Rolls- Royces parked outside Debord's house and of lavish weekend drinking parties with Parisian guests; it was reported, too, that Debord spent months at a time in an exquisite manor house in Normandy where he entertained in lordly style; and Voitey and Stephane, both admirers of the classical precision of Debord's writing, would often dine with him and drink his grands crus at a plush residence in the rue du Bac - a residence owned by Debord's brother-in-law, an antique dealer, and the place where the revolutionary zealot was happy to lodge when in Paris. It was a style appreciated by Gerard Lebovici.

UNTIL he was murdered in the early spring of 1984, Gerard Lebovici was one of the most flamboyant figures on the Parisian media scene. Lebovici - or le roi Lebo, as he liked to be known - was an energetic and charismatic man, who, as producer and impresario, styled himself the "godfather" of French cinema. He was: he dined and drank with Catherine Deneuve and Jean- Paul Belmondo, made deals with moguls, and haunted film sets.

He was also, in the best Parisian tradition, a political radical with a rakish and bohemian edge. As a soixante-huitard himself, Lebovici founded and directed Champ Libre, which published, among other things, Guy Debord's Contre le cinema. Lebovici was also on friendly or even intimate terms with many of the wilder elements on the French left. More specifically, he had a taste for intrigue. He liked to imply that he knew dangerous people: he boasted that his wife, Floriana, had once worked for Giangiacomo Feltrenelli, the Italian playboy, publisher and terrorist who had blown himself up with one of his own bombs in 1972; his most successful publication in 1984 was the memoirs of the notorious underworld figure, Jacques Mesrine, appositely entitled L'instinct de mort. None the less, it was, for le tout Paris, a horrific shock when Lebovici's body was found riddled with bullets, in an underground car park near the Champs Elysees.

No matter that Lebovici was doing lucrative, and dangerous, business with the underworld; no matter that there were other suspects, like those associates of Jacques Mesrine who felt they had been hard done by in the book Lebovici had published; the French press preferred to lay suspicions at a less likely door: that of Guy Debord.

The newspapers bristled with theories. The tabloid end of the market - VSD and Paris-Match - all but accused Debord of murder, describing him as a vengeful and murderous leftist guru who, once crossed by his disciples, had no hesitation in summoning up the dark forces of far left terrorism to exterminate them. Publications ranging from the more mainstream Journal du Dimanche to the communist-run L'Humanite added their tuppenceworth: that there was no recently published photo of Debord meant that he was trying to avoid the public gaze; that he had never had a job in his life meant that he was an agent financed by Moscow gold; that he was married to the Eurasian Alice Becker-Ho (in fact the daughter of a Chinese restaurateur in Paris) confirmed his participation in a plot involving the People's Republic of China and shady Hong Kong antiques dealers; that he maintained an active interest in Italian politics proved that he was connected to the Red Brigades. Spy, crook and terrorist, Debord was a "gimcrack Mephisto" who had drawn Lebovici into his murky and deadly world.

"Never," complained Debord, "have so many false witnesses surrounded a man so obscure." This was to protest too much; Debord had purposely cultivated an image as a hard-headed, ruthless revolutionary - his models were Machiavelli and Saint Just. Indeed, at the height of Debord's influence over the Situationist International, a friend had said of him: "If Guy had had guns then, he would have used them, and first of all on those who were once his friends."

Debord's ability both to appal and to fascinate were the distinguishing features of his career. Born in Paris in 1931, he came to prominence in the Fifties, amid the turbulence of the Parisian avant-garde scene. His first association was with the Lettristes, a floating group of "delinquent intellectuals" led by the megalomaniac Romanian poet Isidore Isou; he - and they - set their faces against the mood of a Paris in which Sartre, Camus and their hangers-on postured endlessly in debate. Debord attacked the shibboleths of work, art and leisure with an iconoclastic fury. His ideas were worked out at cafe tables across Paris, in a blur of alcohol, tobacco and a furious desire to create moments of poetic intensity, or "situations", which stood in direct opposition to the mediocre comforts of the new consumerism. Inspired by De Quincey's intoxicated peregrinations around London, he and such like minds as his then girlfriend Michele Bernstein and Asger Jorn practised the "derive", a poetic game in the course of which they drifted drunkenly around Paris inventing their own city. At length, in 1957, at a bar in the Italian village of Cosio d'Arroscia, the Situationist International was founded in a week of sprawling drunkenness and free love.

Petulance and jealousy were to be the dominant forces in shaping the Situationist International, which, for all its congresses and declarations, never numbered more than 30 members at any one time. The mood of the organisation was far from brotherly; excommunications occurred with vicious frequency.

Along with his friend and collaborator, Raoul Vaneigem, Debord was intransigent in his insistence on total cultural revolution. But if Vaneigem was the Romantic who taught his Lycee class while wearing a tutu, and was finally sacked for offering practical courses in sexuality to his students, Debord was a hardnosed strategist whose theories looked beyond the promises of liberation inherent in such slogans as "Abolish Work" and "Power to the Imagination". Indeed, the Situationist International anticipated and animated les evenements of May 1968. But once the barricades had been cleared from the streets, and de Gaulle's party had been voted back into power, les evenements began to appear to be just another failed insurrection. Debord decided that the SI belonged to an historical moment that had passed; in 1972, he and his remaining comrades dissolved the SI.

He had already quit Paris. It was no longer the city he had loved, the city in which he had practised the "derive"; after May 1968, it had come under assault from the developers. The splendid chaos of Les Halles was ripped out of the heart of Paris, leaving a gaping hole that would eventually be filled by a shopping mall. Property prices shot up, pushing the once revolutionary working class out towards the suburbs. Debord wrote: "I think this city was ravaged slightly before all the others because its never-ending attempts at revolution had always worried and shocked the world too much." From 1970, Guy Debord took his leave of Paris. Apart from writing an anonymous, though influential, pamphlet on the state of Italian capitalism in the mid-Seventies, he also withdrew from the world of publication.

It was in this period, though, that Guy Debord became closely associated with Lebovici - indeed, the few films he had made were shown more or less continually at the Studio Cujas, a tiny Left Bank cinema owned by Lebovici. After Lebovici's assassination, Debord returned to the written word to refute the lies put about by journalists. If they found him "enigmatic", he wrote, it was simply because he refused to join the media circus which lined the pockets of mediocre intellectuals. He was, he said, a man with no regrets, a man who had never sought "success". He proclaimed his love of food, drink, women and lucid thought; he reiterated his dislike for work, the media, parliamentary democracy, conformity of any kind. Petulantly, he insisted that none of his films should ever be shown again. More pertinently, he fought libel actions against Journal du Dimanche and Paris-Match and won substantial damages; other papers apologised and withdrew their allegations. He produced a pamphlet, Considerations sur I'assassinat de Lebovici, and republished it in 1993, together with Cette Mauvaise Reputation. In both, he implied that Lebovici had been killed as part of a conspiracy, possibly involving the Mafia and state forces of reaction; he too, he was at pains to point out, was the target of an international conspiracy involving Rupert Murdoch, the CIA, the London Times, the Village Voice and other deadly agents of the spectacle.

Neither of these elliptical and occasionally threatening tracts did much to dispel the atmosphere of danger that surrounded Debord. In the wake of his suicide, of course, they positively flew out of the shops, fuelling further rumours of secret dealings and of political scores being settled. Coupled with the deaths of Voitey and Stephane, the affair took on a life of its own. For Parisian radical circles, it summoned up a nostalgie de '68 - as well as darker memories of clandestine operations in the Seventies, when soured revolution turned to terror.

THE TRUTH is less mysterious, though no less compelling. In the first place, there is no reason to believe that Debord's grief and fury at Lebovici's death were anything other than real, and every reason to be sure that Debord neither had, nor could have had, any influence on Lebovici's murder. There is a simple reason for this: by the early Eighties, Debord was a chronic drunk, as he himself wrote in one his last books: "Of the small number of things which I have liked and done well, drinking is by far the thing I have done best. Although I have read a lot, I have drunk more. I have written much less than most people who write; but I have drunk more than the majority of the people who drink." Drunkenness offered Debord relief from the nightmare of the spectacle: "a magnificent and terrible peace, the real taste of the passage of time." Debord was a drinker for as long as he was a rebel: "It is a fact that I was continually drunk for periods of several months on end; and, in between, I drank a lot." As a result, he had dissipated any of the intellectual sway he might once have held over radical groups - militants, most notably Action Directe, then the most fearsome terrorist group in France, considered him a failure. Carlo Freccero, the top executive for Berlusconi, says that neither the academic world nor the world of radical terror would take Debord seriously. "Perhaps," Freccero speculated, "only death could free Debord from the invisible cage he was in, and that the spectacle has built around us."

Debord was effectively a slow suicide. Although he at first flaunted his condition as an obstinate rejection of the bourgeois world, and then as a mark of martyrdom, alcoholic depression blurred his icy wit and blunted the precision of his writing from the early Eighties on. By the end, he was crippled and in pain from peripheral neuritis - a terminal condition, induced by alcoholism, that burns away the nerve ends, leaving no sensation in the hands, feet or face. The condition was first diagnosed in 1990; by November 1994, it was intolerable. In a final letter, he wrote to a collaborator, Brigitte Cornand: "With all incurable disease, there is nothing to be learnt from acceptance or resignation."

It is, too, unlikely that Stephane's death was precipitated by grief for Debord, whose appetite for self-destruction had long ceased to appal his friends. The loss of a friend would certainly have depressed Stephane, but he always acted with a studied seriousness: there is no reason to disbelieve his assertion that he was killing himself because France was sick, because the Mitterrand generation had won, and because French political and intellectual life was in its death throes. Stephane left an elegant and precise suicide note in which he apologised to his friends for his brutal departure, and quoted Gide's dying words, "C'est difficile de s'en aller"; Jean d'Ormesson, the most mandarin of contemporary French writers, described his friend as being possessed of a "lucid serenity". It was a cutting irony that it had been Stephane, on television in 1964, who had first asked Mitterrand about his Vichy years. Lebovici had crossed his, and Voitey's paths: nothing more. As for Voitey, he was terrified of imminent bankruptcy. (The best explanation for the Lebovici affair is not the one offered by the police or the press, but by those who knew the extent of Lebovici's dealings with the underworld. At the time of his death, Lebovici was involved in a face-off with a Parisian cartel which specialised in porn videos. Two days before his death, 15 members of the cartel were arrested; Lebovici, who was setting up his own video operation with money derived from the sex-shop trade, was suspected of tipping off the police. His reward: six bullets in the back of the neck.)

The suicides of Roger Stephane, Guy Debord and Gerard Voitey may have had nothing to do with political revenge or vendetta; they are, none the less, connected, in the larger sense of weariness and grief. These emotions were rooted not just in personal loss, but also, as Stephane indicated in his suicide note, in a feeling that French public and political life is rotting away from the inside. Guy Debord's final testament bears the same message: the film Guy Debord - son art et son temps presents an apocalyptic vision of France and takes as its central metaphor the notion of a cancer drifting down the rue de Buci, creeping across the Pont Neuf, and eating away the heart of Paris.

As the rumours about Debord, Stephane and Voitey have circulated around Paris, the past year has also seen the suicides of two distinguished philosophers: Sarah Kofman and Gilles Deleuze. Kofman killed herself in a fit of depression over wartime memories, while Deleuze, tormented by illness, flung himself from the window of his Paris flat. It is curious that neither of these deaths was noted with either surprise or shock, only mild regret; suicide is now an accepted way out, part of the cultural climate in France.

But one story has prompted shock. It has been reported that, in a final act of vainglory, Francois Mitterrand intends to be buried on the ancient battleground where Vercingetorix made his final stand against the Romans. This has provoked disgust in those who see the Mitterrand years as the cause (and effect) of the fatigue which has effectively paralysed French political life. Prime Minister Juppe may currently be in trouble, but the centre-right holds the imagination of the French middle classes, and looks likely to do so for a long time; the French socialist party, it seems, has itself committed suicide. In the 12 months since Stephane, Debord and Voitey put an end to themselves, even sober commentators - men who eschew conspiracy theories - have come to see the suicides as emblematic of a generation which not only lost its nerve on the brink of revolution, but, in a wider and more despairing sense than the Sex Pistols could ever have imagined, could quite literally see no future.

! Additional reporting by Gavin Bowd.

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