SHORTLY after a Paris newspaper revealed in February that then-French Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy had received a 1 million franc ($188,000) interest-free loan from a friend to help him buy a Paris apartment, Mr. Beregovoy told a journalist, "The truth is that in France, people really don't like those who improve their social standing."
Three months later, France is plunged into deep introspection after Beregovoy took his own life on the banks of a peaceful canal in the provincial town where he had been the Socialist mayor for 10 years. Since the May Day tragedy, the French have wondered and speculated, and more than a few have accused.
It was the revelation of the loan that drove him to it, some insist, or it was the Socialists' pitiful defeat by the right in the March elections. It was virulent attacks from all sides on his management of the French economy for much of the last decade, say others, or it was the prospect of seeing his honor further tainted by continuing investigations of government scandal. Or - the favored thesis of the political elite - it was the merciless press.
No one will ever know just why Beregovoy chose to make Saturday's visit to that favorite spot in Nevers his last. But somehow those words he spoke in February, his conclusion that France is not kind to the self-made man, stand out. For the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, who started out a laborer on the railroad and rose, despite his lack of a formal education, to the office of finance minister and finally prime minister, those must have been terrible words to utter.
Perhaps he was thinking of how the same newspaper that broke the news of his million-franc loan - Le Canard Enchaine, a well-read Paris weekly with a solid investigative reputation - had at the same time revealed how Paris's patrician Mayor (and presidential hopeful) Jacques Chirac had spent 500,000 francs of uncertain origin on one recent vacation. But while Beregovoy's loan became a leitmotif of the March campaign, Mr. Chirac's vacation never drew any interest.
In eulogizing his longtime friend, President Francois Mitterrand recalled Beregovoy's working-class origin, cited foreign praise for his management of the economy, and then angrily charged that "all the explanations in the world cannot justify that a man's honor, and finally his life, were thrown to the dogs."
Much of the French press dismissed the president's words as degradingly partisan. But not only the right was harsh with this former laborer. His presence irritated much of the Socialist meritocracy with fine family backgrounds and diplomas from France's elite schools. Associates say he had trouble being accepted as a social and intellectual equal in Paris's inner circles of power.
When the loan became public, then-Defense Minister Pierre Joxe, a man of good birth, said no one could accuse the prime minister of being wealthy. It was enough to look at his Paris apartment - and his shoes and socks. The remark was given as a defense, but Beregovoy's socks became a joke for all of France.
Beregovoy's funeral in Nevers May 4 was an emotional occasion meant to bond a sad and doubtful France. But even there, the class divide that had marked him in life was on full view. A parade of the French elite marched into the cathedral, while the locals were cordoned off outside.
Inside, a small orchestra played one of Beregovoy's favorite songs, "Somewhere My Love," the very plebeian love theme from the movie version of "Doctor Zhivago." Outside, a solemn voice in the crowd said, "Paris is so far away, Paris is so cruel."
Perhaps even Beregovoy would have found a smile for the cartoon that appeared the next day in the Paris daily, Le Monde. A simple French woman, a few posies in hand, hesitates to approach a grave dominated by a glorious wreath with a banner marked, "The Paris elite." Looking into the distance, her husband says, "Go ahead, they've all left."