From Istres in the south of France, Bernard dreamed of being a Grand Prix driver at the age of 11 after watching Alain Prost rise through the ranks of French racing. Inspired by Prost, Bernard started karting in 1976 and in the seven years that followed won four French titles. He studied agriculture but only chose the course because it allowed him plenty of spare time to test karts. In 1983 he attended the Winfield Racing School at Paul Ricard and was one of the finalists in the Volant Elf competition in the autumn. He beat Jean Alesi and Bertrand Gachot to the prize and won a fully-sponsored drive in Formula Renault in 1984. He finished sixth in the series but won the following year, graduating to French Formula 3 in 1986 with the Winfield team. He finished fifth in the series and the following year began winning races, finishing runner-up to his old rival Alesi in the French title.