NEWS ANALYSIS : French Press Role Debated After Suicide : Media: Former prime minister’s death sparks controversy. Journalistic practice of protecting individuals’ privacy is questioned.


The French have launched an unprecedented debate about the role and responsibility of the press, prompted by the recent suicide of former Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy.

Beregovoy, friends say, was deeply wounded by newspaper stories questioning his integrity and overwhelmed with a feeling of personal responsibility for the devastating defeat of the Socialist Party in parliamentary elections last March.

The debate is mainly between the political class, which feels itself hounded by increasingly aggressive French media, and the French press in general, which longs for the more independent, adversarial role enjoyed by the press in the United States and Britain.

“For the first time,” said Denis Lacorne, a scholar with the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales here, “the French political system has been forced to examine issues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in a context similar to the First Amendment debates that have been going on for 200 years in the United States.”

After Beregovoy fatally shot himself May 1 with a revolver belonging to his bodyguard, several leading politicians immediately blamed the press, which had spent weeks reporting on an interest-free $190,000 loan that Beregovoy received in 1986 from a political crony, the late Roger-Patrice Pelat. Only recently was the loan linked, circumstantially, to a $10-million insider trading stock scandal in 1988 that also involved Pelat, a close friend of French President Francois Mitterrand’s.


The bitterest denunciation of the press came not from a member of Beregovoy’s own political party but from Francois Leotard, a leader in the moderate right-wing alliance that defeated the Socialists in the March elections.

Leotard, who serves as defense minister in the new government, accused the weekly, satirical, muckraking newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, which was the first to break the no-interest loan story, of practicing a form of “elegant fascism” that resulted in the “murder” of Beregovoy.

Leotard was himself the subject of Canard Enchaine articles about alleged kickbacks he received from a developer in Frejus, a Provence town where Leotard also serves as mayor. As a result, his statements attacking the Beregovoy coverage were widely ridiculed as self-serving, motivated by revenge.

But a few days later, at Beregovoy’s funeral service in Nevers on May 5, Mitterrand joined in the anti-press chorus. Nothing, he said in an oration that was his first public statement since the election of the new rightist government, “could justify throwing a man’s honor, and ultimately his life, to the dogs.”

Mitterrand later explained that the “dogs” did not include the entire French press corps.

The press reaction has been equally swift and self-righteous. In a front-page editorial titled “Who’s Lynching Whom?” Canard Enchaine Editor Claude Angeli defended his paper’s Beregovoy stories as having been written with “prudence, moderation and restraint.”

Nearly all other mainstream French media joined with Angeli to defend the Beregovoy coverage. The resulting debate has developed into a more generalized examination of the press role that directly challenges the traditional French journalistic practice of placing individuals’ privacy, even that of highest public officials, above the “public right to know” principle embraced by the American and British press.

“We admit limits to freedom of speech that do not exist in the United States,” said Lacorne, a specialist in comparative political systems. “Neo-Nazis could not hold demonstrations in France, nor could an overtly racist organization like the KKK hold demonstrations here. Defamation laws are also much different in France, where the truth is not a defense if it involves the invasion of privacy.”

As an example of the greater French restraint on privacy questions, Lacorne pointed to a May 1 article in the London Sunday Times by Paris-based correspondent Tony Allen-Mills. The British home editions of the newspaper published the name of a woman said to be a lover of Mitterrand with whom he allegedly had an illegitimate child.

But in the continental edition, which has a substantial Sunday circulation in France, the woman’s name was deleted and replaced with the following paragraph written by an editor based in London: “For those in the know in Paris--a group that will not include local readers of the Sunday Times, who must be denied by France’s punitive privacy laws the paragraphs that follow. . . .”

Critics of the performance of the French press in the Beregovoy case attempted to compare it to the celebrated 1936 suicide of Roger Salengro, minister of interior in the government of Prime Minister Leon Blum. Salengro was accused by right-wing elements in Parliament and the press of desertion and collaboration during World War I. The charges later were proven false, but not until after Salengro had killed himself.

Mitterrand’s funeral oration, in fact, was modeled on Blum’s famed defense of Salengro: “Think of the man, because there is a man in this affair, a man with a human heart.”

But beyond the fact that both men were senior politicians and both committed suicide, there was little other similarity. In Salengro’s case, the charges were patently false (he was later shown to have been a war hero who risked his life to save a compatriot) and were presented by a biased, politically partisan press.

Beregovoy, on the other hand, admitted all the major elements contained in the stories. He was a longtime press favorite, admired for his honesty and modesty. Until recently, he had seldom received negative publicity.

In 1988, for example, Beregovoy, as finance minister, approved a $1.3-billion stock purchase of the American packaging giant Triangle Industries by the French state-owned metals firm, Pechiney. An investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that at least 220,000 shares of stock in Triangle, then the parent of American National Can Co., were traded in “a suspicious manner” only days before the Pechiney stock purchase plan was officially announced.

To the SEC, it was a clear case of insider trading that yielded overnight profits of more than $10 million to those who participated in a massive stock purchase on the eve of the purchase offer, which caused Triangle stock to soar from $10 to $56.

Among those involved in the insider trading was Pelat, a longtime Socialist Party fund-raiser and Mitterrand intimate. Pelat, 70 at the time, served as a prisoner of war with Mitterrand during World War II in Germany.

Until his indictment for insider trading in February, 1989, Pelat was a regular after-dinner walking partner of Mitterrand’s. Subsequently shunned by Mitterrand, he died of a heart attack several months later.

French investigators traced the source of the inside information about the Pechiney deal to Alain Boublil, an aide to Beregovoy in the finance ministry. They also discovered the date and place that the inside information was passed to Pelat and other investors--a Nov. 13, 1988, wedding anniversary party for Beregovoy and his wife, paid for by Pelat.

Boublil and Pelat were both indicted and charged with insider trading. Boublil is scheduled to go on trial this week. But in the early stages of the investigation, Beregovoy himself escaped unscathed.

Only in February, when Le Canard Enchaine published its first story about the 1986 loan by Pelat to Beregovoy, did the possibility emerge of Beregovoy’s having been the leak in the scandal.