Michel Rocard

17 June 2023

Michel Rocard was the father of the so-called Second Left and erstwhile hope of French social democracy. His once-bright star has all but faded today. The journalist Jean-Michel Djian recently published an essay about him. Although it would be too much to call this slight, overwritten, and haphazardly organized volume a biography, it has the virtue of recalling the qualities that made Rocard the object of so many hopes. Inadvertently, perhaps, it is also a reminder of the many defects that thwarted his promise.

There is no doubt that Rocard was a very intelligent man, no doubt one of the most intelligent politicians of his era. “You always thought more quickly than the rest,” François Hollande said in honoring him with France’s highest decoration, but not without adding, with characteristic perversity, “at the risk of irritating them.” Hollande was of course the disciple of Rocard’s perpetual nemesis, François Mitterrand, the subtle “Florentin,” who raised his rival Rocard to the rank of prime minister the better to put an end to his presidential ambitions. And Rocard all too eagerly took the bait, because his genuine desire to serve his country merged too easily with his narcissistic conviction that no one else could serve it properly, reinforced by his naive belief that his intelligence would outmaneuver Mitterrand’s cunning. A fatal error.

The premature end of Rocard’s presidential ambitions did not spell an end to his ambitions more generally. He was not shy about offering his talents to all the men who were more successful than he at pursuing the ultimate political prize, whether of the right or left. He was not one to come seeking a job hat in hand, however. His presumptuousness–Djian calls it his franc parler–no doubt cost him more than one post that his gifts might have earned, as when he made it known to Hollande that he was available for the post of foreign minister and offered him advice on dealing with Iran and the debt: “Take your time [answering my questions],” he wrote. “Forget la politique politicienne. You sometimes talk too much.” It was a shrewd diagnosis of Hollande’s most debilitating political vice, but the closing sentence was hardly calculated to land a top cabinet post, no matter how good the advice offered.

“My friends and I were good managers but bad candidates,” he told Lionel Jospin. “In your [political] family, Mitterrand’s family, it was close to the opposite.” Also true, if not quite as apposite, since Jospin was hardly the model of a politician’s politician and more similar in temperament and talent to Rocard than either would want to admit.

Rocard’s intimate conviction that he was right about everything in the long run and wrong only about how to gain power was surely a comforting alibi, but in retrospect it can be seen to have been a wrong diagnosis. Rocard blamed his opponents in the Socialist Party for their “productivist” proclivities. There was more to the economy, he rightly felt, than statistics. It was the moral dimension that he felt the productivists overlooked. Yet in the end it was the moralizer Jacques Delors, to whom Rocard felt close, who set the tone for the Europeanization of the socialist project, which in the end made it difficult to distinguish between the socialist promotion of the “social market economy” (a concept borrowed from German ordoliberals) and the market economy tout court promoted by the neoliberals of the right. The resulting dilution of socialist identity contributed to the demise of the social-democratic project.

Djian makes a half-hearted bid to paint Rocard as a forerunner of the new greenwashed left because of his infatuation with the Austrian-born social critic Ivan Ilich. This is rather far-fetched. Rocard stood out not because he was an ecologist avant la lettre but because he was brave enough to tell the left that the dream of a rupture with capitalism was a dead end. The beast had to be tamed because it could not be killed. Before Jospin said it out loud, Rocard preached that the state could not do everything in this regard and encouraged the left to direct its efforts to the reform of civil society instead. He was a visionary whose alembicated prose style lent itself to easy parody and often left his listeners bewildered rather than aroused. He lacked the common touch even more than the current incumbent of the Elysée.

He was a heavy smoker who instigated France’s first anti-smoking law. He was the first to propose a basic minimum income, the RMI, forerunner of the RSA. He ended the Kanak uprising in New Caledonia, an issue that absorbed a great deal of his time as prime minister. These were achievements, to be sure, but hardly world-historical achievements commensurate with his ambitions. He attracted a group of talented disciples, who did little, however, to enhance his posthumous reputation. The most successful of them, Manuel Valls, probably tarnished that reputation by neglecting his master’s most important lessons.

I admired Rocard in his lifetime and hoped he would find a way to the presidency. He never did and made himself more than a little ridiculous by offering, in extremis, to substitute for the Mitterrand protégée Ségolène Royal when her presidential campaign floundered in 2007–as if he could have done any better. In retrospect I think I overestimated him. That said, he was, if not a giant, a man of stature far greater than that of any politician on the scene today. Djian’s book, while too hagiographic for my taste, is a useful reminder that they don’t make them like they used to.


1 Comment

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