The private lives of French politicians are deemed to be sacrosanct. Public interest stops at the bedroom door and no-one in France ever argues that a leader’s political judgment is called into question by the breaking of his marriage vows. Having mistresses seems to be expected in the French political classes. President François Mitterrand, President between 1981 and 1995, was very active in this respect, indeed there are some who believe that it was the President’s complicated love life which resulted in the French Grand Prix moving to Magny-Cours in 1991. It was a scandal at the time, because the race was established at Paul Ricard and moving it to a circuit in the middle of nowhere, with no autoroute access, no infrastructure to support a race and insufficient hotels and restaurants.
Why this happened is a story which goes back to 1946 when the 30-year-old Mitterrand, from a village near Cognac, in the west of France, was soundly beaten in an election in the suburbs of Paris. He was desperate to become a deputé (similar to an Member of Parliament). Mitterrand asked Henri Queuille, the leader of the Radical party, what he could do. He was told to go to Nevers, in the Nièvre department, 150 miles south of Paris on the River Loire, on the basis that there would be no real opposition. Mitterrand arrived two weeks before the election and toured the region building support. At the time local alliances decided many elections and Mitterrand quickly convinced the right wing voters and the clergy to support him.
His big breakthrough came when he landed the support of the local farming community. It was enough to get him elected and into the government of Paul Ramadier as Minister for War Veterans. Jean Bernigaud, a 26-year-old cattle farmer, played a key role in getting the local farmers so support Mitterrand and the two men would remain friends thereafter. In the late 1950s, Mitterrand became the godfather of Bernigaud’s sixth child. His political power in the region grew after he became the mayor of Chateau-Chinon in 1959 and President du Conseil Général of the Nièvre in 1964. Bernigaud, for his part, became the mayor of Magny-Cours in 1957 and 10 years later joined the Conseil Général. Later, when he had become President of France, Mitterrand encouraged Pierre Beregovoy to become the mayor of Nevers in 1983, and deputé for the department in 1986.
Bernigaud was a man who was keen to promote the region. As early as 1954, he went to Reims and saw the French Grand Prix and noted that this was held on public roads. He went home with the idea of having a racing circuit on the roads around his village. He was working on the idea when in 1955 the Le Mans disaster occurred and as a result safety rules were changed and a road circuit became impossible. Bernigaud decided to use a piece of his own land, known as the Domaine de Bardonnay, which was located close to the Route Nationale 7, next to the hamlet of Les Gaillères. The first circuit was for karts only and was 510 metres in length. It opened in May 1961 and was christened the Circuit Jean Behra, after the French racing star who had been killed at Avus in 1959. The circuit was extended in 1969 and then again in 1971, at which point it reached 2.4 miles in the length. Sadly, Bernigaud died that year, at the age of only 50, leaving his 48-year-old widow Jacqueline to run the farm. The management of the circuit was handed over to the ASA Nivernais.
Jacqueline was, so they say, very close to Mitterrand in this era and when he became President of France in 1981 he organized for her to became a consultant to the national oil company Elf, with a generous monthly fee. The problem was that the circuit was a huge drain on resources, but was very difficult to sell because of its remote location. It was the home of the celebrated École Winfield racing school and it hosted national events and an annual European Formula 3 event, but it was also getting older and requiring new investment. In 1986 Mitterrand provided a solution to the problem. He convinced the Conseil Général, under Noël Berrier, who had been his vice-president on the Conseil since 1973, to buy the track for £1.5 million and then used public money to transform it into an international-level facility, capable of hosting F1 races. The project was supported by Mitterrand’s finance minister, none other than Beregovoy. The goal, in theory, was to create a motorsport industry cluster which would generate revenue for the region. Guy Ligier, another of Mitterrand’s buddies, moved his racing team from Vichy to the new circuit in 1989. The Fédération Française du Sport Automobile, under President Jean Marie Balestre, did not put up a fight and so F1 arrived at the track in the summer of 1991.