After Beregovoy, the clamour for silence

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The Independent Online
THE DISCRETION that marked the conservatives' takeover from the Socialists five weeks ago did much to rehabilitate France's politicians, seen in the public mind as corrupt and self-seeking. Now, though, the country is gripped by a bitter polemic between politicians and the media, which, in its excesses, has all but effaced the dignity of that transfer.

Expressions such as 'elegant Fascism' or 'words that kill' have peppered the commentary pages of the French press over the signatures of the country's most senior politicians. The principal accused, the satirical Le Canard Enchane, has fought back: 'Politicians in black: So they can be whitewashed better?' read its front-page headline yesterday.

This quarrel might have seemed almost ridiculous had it not been prompted by such a desperate and unexpected act as the suicide of the former Socialist prime minister, Pierre Beregovoy. While ordinary French men and women mourned a politician who had genuine popular appeal, the politicians looked for someone to blame - with more than half an eye to their own fortunes.

Whatever else may be said about the time since Francois Mitterrand became president 12 years ago this month, it has been a period in which the judiciary, formerly seen as a lackey of the state, has changed. It has become feisty and started going after wrongdoing, even - sometimes especially - in high places. During these years, too, a once-passive press has become eager to take on the powerful.

Beregovoy's decision to slip his bodyguard's pistol into his pocket and end it all at 6.20pm on 1 May has given the politicians an opportunity to accuse both these essentials of democratic freedom of going too far. Beregovoy, their argument runs, was hounded by the press after an examining magistrate uncovered an interest- free loan he obtained in 1986 to buy a Paris flat.

Nothing was found wrong with the loan, which was legally registered, but questions arose surrounding the businessman who made it: Roger-Patrice Pelat, who was accused after his death in 1989 of insider trading. None of this would have stuck to Beregovoy had not Pelat, who was a prisoner of war in Germany with Mr Mitterrand, allegedly used information obtained from a member of Beregovoy's office when Beregovoy was finance minister.

In his funeral oration on Tuesday, Mr Mitterrand, his voice thick with grief, said the honour of his ally of 20 years had been 'thrown to the dogs'. Such words are likely to stick.

Mr Mitterrand's speech, though, was the high point in a debate that is rocking France. It was begun on Saturday night, even as Pierre Beregovoy was in his death throes, by Michel Charasse, who said: 'If I were a judge or a journalist, I would not sleep very well tonight.'

Mr Charasse, the cigar-smoking former Socialist budget minister, is in no position to give lessons on such matters. When in power, he publicly threatened to investigate the tax affairs of people who displeased him. At least once, the threat was carried out. None the less, the theme of judicial and media culpability has been picked up across the political spectrum.

Laurent Fabius, another former Socialist prime minister, and Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister in the conservative government that came to power five weeks ago, have used the columns of Le Monde to attack the media. Without Beregovoy's death, their complaints would have rung a little hollow. Both have reason to be angry with their own treatment in the press.

Mr Fabius has spent a difficult year: haemophiliacs who contracted the Aids virus from contaminated blood products distributed when he was prime minister have tried to pin political responsibility on him and two of his ministers. Even though the legal consensus is that there is no case against Mr Fabius, he is haughty in manner and generally unpopular, so he became an easy target.

Mr Leotard, who is considered a likely future presidential candidate, has also had a tough time. Last year he was charged as a result of a private prosecution alleging that he had bought a house in the southern town of Frejus, where he is mayor, at far below the market price. The vendor was said to have obtained a tender for the development of a marina in the town.

While Mr Leotard was cleared of most of the charges, a magistrate's report said this was because the time that had elapsed allowed him to benefit from the three-year statute of limitations which applies to such offences. One element of the case is still outstanding and could return to haunt him.

Mr Leotard, a charismatic and charming man, earned high praise even from Socialists in the parliamentary defence commission for his grasp of complicated briefs just a few weeks after taking office. But he is never out of the headlines of Le Canard, which mocks him for his youthful experience as a novice monk.

It was Mr Leotard who coined the phrase 'elegant Fascism', saying that Beregovoy was 'the first victim of a new culture'. Mr Fabius opted for 'words that kill', attacking those who wrote tributes to Beregovoy as the same ones who had 'dragged him through the mud'.

The Socialists' attacks on the judiciary have homed in on Thierry Jean-Pierre, an examining magistrate who initiated investigations into dubious Socialist Party funding. A number of high-ranking party officials were questioned and charged as a result, but the magistrate was given a disciplinary warning for speaking at a conservative rally during the election campaign, so - it was said - showing political bias.

While the press may only have been doing its duty in originally exposing the Beregovoy loan at the beginning of this year, the behaviour of the judiciary is more questionable. Le Canard obtained a report by an examining magistrate, which should have remained confidential, noting that Beregovoy had taken the loan.

Once it was reported, Beregovoy was 'not taken seriously', according to Jean d'Ormesson, a member of the Academie Francaise and columnist for Le Figaro. The coverage of the affair was not exaggerated, but there is a feeling that the press has been more eager to jump on the problems of the left than on those of the right. Revelations in Le Canard that Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist leader and the most likely next president, had taken a free and luxurious Christmas holiday in Oman gained little exposure in the main dailies. It certainly did not become an issue.

Perhaps one of the most distressing comments appeared in the conservative Le Figaro. Beregovoy's friends 'only know mourning for lost power, for power for power's sake, without opponents to oppose, without judges to investigate, without journalists to reveal', it said.

Yesterday, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, the paper's editor, set out to redress the balance. Beregovoy's action 'forces respect', he wrote. 'It commands restraint.' For the moment, this seems a vain hope.