Shades of red

On 1 May 1993, Pierre Bérégovoy, a few weeks after resigning as prime minister of France, took his bodygaurd’s revolver and shot himself twice in the head (the second shot was attributed to a nervous reflex). He died later that night in hospital in Paris. Bérégovoy left no suicide note, but he was known to be deeply depressed about the Socialist party’s drubbing in the March 1993 elections and, as a lifelong anti-corruption campaigner, troubled by allegations about his past financial dealings. His suicide has become one of the iconic tragedies of the French left.

Nineteen years later, while Nicholas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen were holding mass rallies in Paris yesterday, the Socialist challenger François Hollande chose to spend May Day paying homage at Bérégovoy’s tomb in Nevers, deep in central France. He made a speech to a small crowd from the steps of the ducal palace, the same spot from where François Mitterrand delivered one of the most moving speeches of his career, a few days after Bérégovoy’s death.

Pierre Bérégovoy: the tragic prime minister is now praised for his management of the French economy in the 80s and early 90s.

Hollande’s solemn and low-key May Day wasn’t a Tony Blair-style ruse to distance himself from the unions, marching in their hundreds of thousands in May Day parades all over France. It was an event dripping in symbolism for the French left. Bérégovoy was mayor and MP for Nevers, and Mitterrand himself served as a local MP from 1946 to 1981. It was the latest in a series of pilgrimages by Hollande to the tombs of French socialist heroes, including a poignant visit to Mitterrand’s tomb in Jarnac on the anniversary of the former president’s death on 8 January.

It was all very redolent of Mitterrand, a master of the emotional and symbolic political gesture, whose reputation has undergone a considerable rehabilitation in France in recent years. As Hollande laid a spray of flowers on Bérégovoy’s tomb (pictured above), he evoked memories of Mitterrand’s inauguration in May 1981, when the new president carried two roses into the Panthéon and laid them on the tombs of the great resistance hero Jean Moulin and the founder of the French Socialist party, Jean Jaurès.

 This was, after all, ‘workers day’, and Bérégovoy was a former sheet metal worker, resistance fighter and noteable trade union leader. That ticks plenty of boxes. But Hollande’s hommage to this tragic figure had another symbolic purpose. The former prime minister is a key reference point for Hollande’s own bid to persaude French voters that a Socialist government can tackle the country’s economic crisis.

Although his term as PM in 1992-3 ended in disaster (the PS was reduced to 53 seats) Bérégovoy is more widely celebrated for his two stints as finance minister in the 80s and early 90s, when he is widely credited with turning around France’s economic performance under Mitterrand, after a disastrous start and, crucially, with bringing under control (if never quite eliminating) the country’s budget deficit. For this, you can see him as a sort of French Denis Healey, the Labour chancellor who battled courageously against the serial financial crises of the 1970s.

In his speech Hollande paid tribute to Bérégovoy as ‘the man who re-established the public finances, who knew how to manage and who knew the value of money’, a man who had led the ‘recovery of a France ravaged by deficits and inflation’.

In a passage mocking Sarkozy’s self-styled ‘real festival of work’ in Paris, Hollande said Pierre Bérégovoy was ‘a trade unionist, worker, statesman, a great servant of the Republic, who fought all his life for social improvement. This man, he could speak about work.’

He didn’t actually say, ‘all the things the Sarkozy isn’t’, but he didn’t really need to.

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