The socialist PM who wrote the obituary of the French left

Politicians of all hues used Michel Rocard’s death to justify their positions

Michel Rocard: French president François  Hollande called him “a great figure of the republic and the left”. Photograph: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Michel Rocard: French president François Hollande called him “a great figure of the republic and the left”. Photograph: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

 

Former prime minister Michel Rocard will be remembered as he wished, with a national ceremony at Les Invalides, presided over by President François Hollande tomorrow, a Protestant service at a Paris church, and a homage at socialist party headquarters, led by prime minister Manuel Valls.

Rocard’s friend Jacques Julliard, a historian, said the leader of “the second left” would have found the outpouring of praise after his death on July 2nd at the age of 85 “fundamentally hypocritical”.

Hollande called Rocard “a great figure of the republic and the left” and said he represented “a socialism that reconciled that part of utopianism without which there is no hope, and that part of modernity without which there is no success”.

Politicians from across the spectrum found something in Rocard’s life to justify their own position. Former conservative prime minister and presidential candidate François Fillon said “unfortunately [Rocard] was not a prophet in his party, and clashed with those who rejected social democracy. France is still paying for it today.”

Marine Le Pen, leader of the hard-right Front National, called Rocard “a man of conviction”. Her father Jean- Marie struck the only discordant note, criticising Rocard’s commitment to Algerian independence in the 1950s: “Michel Rocard bragged about having carried suitcases full of money that helped the FLN buy weapons to kill French people.”

On the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon called Rocard a “guide” whose “life is a lesson”. Mélenchon could not resist a swipe at Valls’s government. “In those days, all socialists were on the left.”

The schism between social democrats and the far left has never been deeper. Valls yesterday announced he was invoking article 49.3 of the constitution for the third time, to pass the final version of the labour law by decree. 

Reluctant majority

Socialist party leader Jean- Christophe Cambadélis has cancelled the party’s annual summer school because he feared violence by far-left opponents of the labour law.

But if Rocard was aghast at the state of the socialist party, he was cheered by the June 23rd Brexit vote. “If the British left the EU, I would say ‘hooray’,” he said in 2015, accusing the UK of having “blocked any deepening of integration”.

Rivalry between the late president François Mitterrand and Rocard foreshadowed the split on the French left. Mitterrand resembled his friend Charlie Haughey, in his love of luxury and Machiavellian quest for power. Rocard was earnest, hard-working and good, like Garret FitzGerald. 

Though Rocard long remained one of France’s most popular politicians, Mitterrand permanently sidelined him by the mid-1990s, after which Rocard served 15 years as a member of the European Parliament.

Mitterrand forged an alliance between socialists and communists and advocated “a rupture with capitalism”. Rocard wanted nothing to do with Marxism. 

Had Mitterrand not united the left, he would doubtless never have become president. Like most socialist leaders, he was from the grande bourgeoisie. The fundamental hypocrisy of the fliratation with communism saddled the French left with inoperable economic policies that it is struggling to shake off today.

Archaic socialist party

In his last interview, with Le Point magazine two weeks before he died, Rocard criticised the political class in general, saying “They no longer invent anything”, and leading socialists in particular. Hollande’s problem, he said, “is being a child of media . . . This excess dependence of politicians on media is typical of Mitterrandian practice, of which François Hollande is one of the best students.”

Valls and economy minister Emmanuel Macron claim to be Rocard’s political heirs. Valls, who joined Rocard’s team at the age of 20, said he felt “orphaned” by Rocard’s death. Macron said Rocard was a “model” for him.

Rocard said Valls and Macron “were brought up in an amputated party” that had lost “the consciousness of carrying a collective history, which was our cement . . . They are far from history.”

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