Obituary: Pierre Beregovoy
Monday 03 May 1993
AFTER the Presidential election of 10 May 1981, it was Pierre Beregovoy who made the arrangements for Francois Mitterrand to enter the Elysee Palace. On 29 March 1993 it was Beregovoy who marked the end of an era when he presented the resignation of his government to President Mitterrand. His suicide on 1 May symbolises the current disarray of the French Socialists and tragically underlines the bitterness of their electoral defeat.
For many Beregovoy represented what was finest in socialism. That someone who came from a family with Ukrainian origins, who had left school at the age of 16 and who had worked in a textile factory and as a railwayman should have become the dominant figure in the administration of France's finances and, from 2 April 1992, the Prime Minister was proof of a society that was open to talent. That he should, when Minister for Social Affairs (1982-84), and when Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs (1984-86, 1988-92), have showed a rigorous attitude to spending and to inflation, was an example to the dogmatic and the sentimental.
It is often said that Beregovoy was self-educated, which is not strictly true. One of his earliest schools was that organised for railwaymen by the Communist Party in the suburbs of Rouen, where his tutor in Marxism and politics was Roland Leroy, the present editor of L'Humanite. But he did learn largely by experience. The resistance movement, trade unions, the post-war Socialist Party, his rapid rise to a managerial position in Gaz de France, his opposition to the war in Algeria and to General de Gaulle, were the key points in his early career.
His first political mentor was Pierre Mendes-France, with whom he frequently discussed economic matters. In 1966 he was prominent in a meeting, often called the Colloque de Grenoble, which sought to modernise the Socialist Party, bringing together a number of left-wing groups and clubs. But, although Francois Mitterrand had not been invited to the Grenoble meeting, Beregovoy turned increasingly to him for leadership and during the 1970s he fulfilled a number of important functions, notably in establishing the so-called 'common programme' between Socialists and Communists. He became the Secretary General at the Elysee, was elected Deputy for the Nievre department, and in 1983 became Mayor of Nevers.
His appointment as Prime Minister was not uncontroversial. The Socialist Party had won only 20.4 per cent of the votes cast in the regional elections of March 1992. Many demanded the immediate resignation of Edith Cresson who had been Prime Minister for less than a year and it was known that the Secretary General of the party had for a long time been demanding her replacement by Beregovoy, thereby creating 'a pyschological and ideological shock' which would revive Socialist fortunes. But not everyone agreed. A number of ministers believed that if pressure were brought to bear on Jacques Delors he would accept office in Paris and there were deputies who believed that it was the rigorous financial policy that Beregovoy had followed which was responsible for their misfortunes. His insistence on a strong franc within the European Monetary System had, it was claimed, tied the hands of those who were more preoccupied with social affairs and social justice.
But he had been given an impossible task. He had less than 12 months in which to save a desperate situation. In his declaration of 8 April 1992 he outlined four priorities for his government: unemployment, security for ordinary French people, attacks on corruption and the creation of European unity. These were the areas in which he sought to be effective.
It must be said that he was only successful in one of these specific questions, that of Europe. The referendum on Maastricht was a victory, albeit a narrow one, but elsewhere it was claimed that his government was ineffective. His riposte, repeated many times during the election campaign, was that no one could say that France was being badly governed and that the country's finances, like its balance of trade, were sound. But such arguments could not convince in the light of the devastating defeat that his party suffered. It was easy to claim that it was he who was responsible for the result. Possibly such judgements (and it is said that a number of his colleagues in the National Assembly had recently refused to shake hands with him) contributed to the depression that must have caused his suicide.
But he was undoubtedly deeply wounded by the accusations of corruption that broke out shortly before the first ballot of the March elections. It was discovered that in 1986, when he was in opposition, he had accepted a loan of a million francs from a business friend, Roger-Patrice Pelat, in order to buy a flat in Paris. This loan was interest-free. Subsequently the same Pelat was charged with insider dealing in a scandal and the suggestion was made that Beregovoy had provided Pelat with secret information, at some time, an insinuation that was rendered more plausible because one of the officials at the Ministry of Finance who worked closely with him when he was Minister was obliged to resign over this affair. Beregovoy denied that there had been any corruption. He pointed out that the loan had been openly arranged through a solicitor and had been repaid (although, curiously enough, in rare books and antiques). No evidence of corruption has been produced. In his own successful electoral campaign at Nevers many rallied to him between the two ballots because his opponent had been particularly violent in his personal attacks. But his depression remained.
In some respects Beregovoy's career contained many disappointments. He had expected to made a minister in 1981. In 1984 the promotion of the young Laurent Fabius to be Prime Minister was a surprise. In 1988 Beregovoy was in charge of Mitterrand's election campaign and he believed that he might be made Prime Minister. But it was Michel Rocard. Only when the Socialists were in full decline was he called.
And even for the campaign of March 1993 he was not able to organ- ise things as he wished. He had the idea of putting forward those ministers who were young and popular, particularly three handsome and intelligent women. But the heavy apparatus of the party would not allow this.
His political ideas were simple. There was, he said, a conservative camp and there were those who believed in progress. He associated himself with the latter. Was it to prove this that he committed suicide on 1 May, Labour Day, having given the traditional gift of lilies of the valley to his wife, Gilberte, and having received the representatives of the trade unions at his town hall?
He was the first man to be made Secretary General at the Elysee who was not a civil servant. He was the most elderly of the Prime Ministers of the Fifth Republic, being appointed at the age of 66. He also holds another, sadder record. Roger Salengro was Minister of the Interior when he committed suicide in 1936. Robert Boulin was Minister for Labour when he killed himself in 1979. But Pierre Beregovoy is the only former Prime Minister to have shot himself.
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