France seeks reasons for ex-PM's suicide: Beregovoy's death raises doubts on a French obsession, writes Julian Nundy in Paris

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SUICIDE of Pierre Beregovoy, France's former Socialist Prime Minister, prompted Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist who succeeded him five weeks ago, to delay his first economic measures yesterday.

Mr Balladur, who took office after the Gaullists and their centre-right allies trounced the Socialists in National Assembly elections on 28 March, said he was delaying publication of his recovery plan out of respect to Beregovoy, who shot himself on Saturday night. It was to have been presented to the cabinet on Wednesday.

The plan and the prospect of the certain accompanying criticism of Socialist rule may have contributed to the depression which pushed Beregovoy, 67, to kill himself, political associates said. Another factor was believed to be a media outcry about his taking an interest-free loan from a businessman later accused of insider trading.

'Pierre Beregovoy's death has stirred deep emotion in our country,' Mr Balladur said. 'I have decided to delay for several days the adoption and publication of the recovery programme.'

The news of the death of a man reputed for his calm, avuncular image plunged France into shock, with some politicians wondering out loud whether a current obsession with political corruption in the French judiciary had not gone too far. Beregovoy accepted a loan from Roger-Patrice Pelat in 1986 to buy a flat. Pelat, who died in 1989, was later accused of insider trading in shares in the US Triangle company just as France's Pechiney was taking over Triangle's US Can subsidiary.

There was nothing strictly illegal in accepting the loan, but its discovery by an examining magistrate caused a stir in the media. A member of Beregovoy's staff during his eight- year tenure as Finance Minister until April of last year has been charged in connection with the insider trading affair.

When he accepted the loan, Beregovoy was an opposition deputy during the right's 1986- 88 spell in government, but the disclosure of the association with Pelat, a war-time friend of President Francois Mitterrand, raised eyebrows. In addition, there was no official record of the loan ever being repaid. Beregovoy said he repaid half the loan, in antiques and works of art, on Pelat's death. The Pelat family corroborates this version. Until the matter came to light in January, Beregovoy had an impeccably honest image.

As expressions of shock and sympathy poured in from across the political spectrum, Jack Lang, the former Culture Minister, said he believed Beregovoy had taken his life because he had been 'denigrated' by the new government for his economic management. Responsible for the policy of the strong franc, Beregovoy was in fact one of the Socialist ministers least in the right's firing line. In addition, the Balladur government has been at pains not to attack its predecessors.

Michel Charasse, the former budget minister, blamed the death on the judiciary and the media. 'If I were a judge or a journalist, I would not sleep very well tonight,' he said.

When Beregovoy became prime minister 13 months ago, he knew that his time would be short and difficult and that it would end with March's general election. The left was at its lowest in public esteem and he had to take over from the highly unpopular Edith Cresson.

Beregovoy's suicide was the third by a senior French politician this century. The last was by Robert Boulin, the labour minister under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, in 1979. Boulin was found dead after he was implicated in a property scandal. His family have tried to prove that his death was not suicide. The other was Roger Salengro, interior minister in Leon Blum's Popular Front government in 1936. He killed himself after accusations that he had deserted from the army.

Beregovoy shot himself with his bodyguard's pistol at 6.20pm on Saturday by a canal near the town of Nevers, for which he was the National Assembly deputy and mayor.

After a normal 1 May holiday, at which he met trade union leaders and attended the start of a cycle race, he asked his chauffeur to drive him to the canal. In accordance with regulations, Sylvain Lespat, a police bodyguard, put his .357 magnum in the glove-box of the Renault 25 when he got in. Beregovoy apparently took it after he had asked his two escorts to leave him alone in the car for a few minutes.

Then Beregovoy asked them to drive away and let him walk unaccompanied. About 10 minutes later, after Mr Lespat realised that his gun was missing, they returned and found Beregovoy lying in the grass by the towpath. He died nearly four hours later on his way by helicopter to Paris where Mr Mitterrand and Mr Balladur were waiting at the Val de Grace military hospital.

Jean Glavany, the Socialist Party spokesman, said he had had several 'morose conversations' with Beregovoy over the past week. Beregovoy, a former member of the Resistance, started politics as a trade union militant, prompting speculation that his choice of 1 May to kill himself may have symbolic.

(Photograph omitted)

Obituary, Page 18

Comments