Michel Rocard: The man who never became President

Michel Rocard: the Man who never became President

Few and far between are the politicians whose passing away (2nd  July 2016) have evoked such unanimity. Politicians from premier Valls to former President Sarkozy are falling over themselves to praise the wisdom, foresight and modernity of the former Socialist premier.  A national day of remembrance, held on 7th July, is a rare honour usually reserved for former Presidents. Michel Rocard can boast a powerful legacy, indeed,  in terms of providing an intellectual underpinning and political standard for French-style social liberalism, boasting a solid reformist record as premier (1988-1991) and leaving an enduring political legacy. Rocard also did much to contribute towards cultivating an economic culture within the left. As former premier Lionel Jospin observed in his tribute: François Mitterrand might have dominated Michel Rocard in political terms, but in view of the policies implemented under Socialist governments since 1982, Rocard won the economic battle’. [1].  

History may or may not retain the failure of his overarching ambition to be elected President.  He was, indeed, a presidential candidate, polling 3.61% as the PSU’s representative in the 1969 presidential election (narrowly short of the 5.1% for the SFIO’s Gaston Defferre). Ultimately, however, Rocard might be remembered as the man who never became President.  Rocard’s contest with Mitterrand for ascendancy within the Socialist Party was a defining moment of modern French politics- and he lost.  Control of the PS presidential candidacy in 1981 was one of the key prizes at stake in the bitter struggle between Mitterrand and Rocard for control of the Socialist party between 1978 and 1981.  The latter’s experience in 1978-1980 suggested the limits of external popularity as a lever to break the hold of the existing organisation on the party apparatus[2]. The strategy adopted in 1978-1980 (in short one of using external popularity to influence the choice of the party’s presidential candidate) failed then, but acted as a precursor to the primary movement which swept French political parties after 2006.

Michel Rocard was as an important personality in the history of the French left. He came to prominence as General Secretary of the small yet highly influential party, the Unified Socialist Party (Parti socialiste unifié – PSU), a party he led from 1967-1974. Though he eventually joined the PS in 1974, and led an influential group of supporters, he remained a marginal force within the Socialist Party, arguably even during his short period as First Secretary (1993-95). But the numerical inferiority of Rocard’s supporters within the PS must not disguise the influence of the movement. Rocard was the symbol for many of a specific tendency within the French left – the deuxième gauche  – which came to signify an alternative narrative of the French left to that focussed on capturing the commanding heights of the state and the economy.  The movement was strongly influenced by the legacy of Pierre Mendès France, the radical premier of the fourth Republic (1954-55) who set in motion France’s decolonisation (Morocco, Tunisia) and who first insisted on the need for economic rigorous economic management as a necessary condition for social progress.  As a student at Sciences Po, the young Rocard was active in the UNEF student union, and evenly briefly joined the SFIO, the Socialist Party he soon quit (in 1958) over the stance adopted to the Algerian war. Unlike many intellectuals, he never became a member of the PCF. Anti-colonialism was the cornerstone to this alternative left emerging to contest the SFIO. The Autonomous Socialist Party (PSA) was created in 1958 as a breakaway group from the SFIO; joined by various minor political clubs, it became the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) in 1960. After rising to national-level prominence after the Rencontres de Grenoble (1966), Rocard became General Secretary of the PSU in 1967, and led the movement through the tumultuous events and aftermath of May ’68. With the aim of renovating the left from outside of the main existing party, the SFIO, Rocard’s PSU was directly in competition with Francois Mitterrand’s Federation of the Democratic and Socialist left (FGDS (1965-68) and later with the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste – PS, captured in 1971 by Mitterrand). Mitterrand won that initial battle and many subsequent ones.

The fact remains that Rocard was not a player at the 1971 PS Epinay congress that redefined the landscape of the French left. He was never at ease with the central strategy of Union of the Left (the alliance between Socialists and Communists), but a version of this strategy was successful.  Rocard lost politically in the first instance, his route barred by a determined François Mitterrand, tactically Rocard’s superior. Much has been written about the relationship between Francois Mitterrand and Michel Rocard. Was this mainly a question of personal rivalries and style? In part undoubtedly. But it also concerned core issues of strategy (the Union of the Left and the necessity or not of allying with the PCF); of political and economic culture (the respective role of the State and the Market), of macroeconomic choices (for example the wisdom of using nationalisation as an industrial tool) and of the role of the party.   In many of these areas of controversy the Rocardian approach was evidence-based, evaluative and experimental.  In a prophetical landmark speech to the PS congress in Nantes (1977) Rocard warned the left not to deny the existence of economic constraints that would necessarily influence future government choices: “If the left is unprepared for power, if it refuses to recognise the importance of powerful constraints, if it refuses to admit the technical nature of many policy problems, then it will face failure” [3]

The deuxième gauche was classically formulated in Rocard’s speech to the same Socialist Party Congress of Nantes (1977). In this speech Rocard contrasted the two cultures that structure the French left, a statist, centralising culture and a more decentralising experimental one. The second left was initially associated with a Christian left (Left Catholics, but also protestants such as Rocard himself), as well as being a provincial left favourable to decentralisation and distrustful of a republican narrative of uniformity.  The second left was also a movement influenced by the ideas of May ’68, favourable to workplace democracy, social experimentation, the right to difference, local economic development and autogestion. [4] Above all, the second left demonstrated a certain suspicion towards the State and advocated a more systematic role for civil society and local authorities in policy-making.  Certain of the demands of this second left were clearly influenced by the spirit of the times (for example, ‘autogestion’, or workers’ self-management, a theme directly inspired by May ’68). But the basic message (a combination of rigorous economic management, social justice and a demand for transparency and honesty [‘parler vrai’] ) have withstood the passage of time and are more pertinent today than ever.  The heart of the Rocardian method lay in the duty to identify the challenges ahead, to explain and confront reality and to introduce a stronger economic culture within the French left. Hence, the caution he expressed over certain aspects of the 1981-83 reform programme (especially the Mauroy government’s nationalisations of 100% of leading industrial groups, the banking and insurance sectors, rather than taking a 51% controlling stake as argued by Rocard).  Other dimensions of the Mauroy government – decentralisation, workplace democracy –could claim a stronger filiation with the ideas of the second left.

Rocard will also be remembered as a consequential reformer, especially as a reformist Prime Minister from 1988-1991. In 1988. Mitterrand nominated Rocard as the man of the situation, when the PS failed to obtain an overall parliamentary majority in the ensuing parliamentary election.  Rocard was the first premier practising l’ouverture, a mainly unsuccessful attempt to broaden the bases of parliamentary support to incorporate elements of the centre and centre-right. Lacking a clear majority, premier Rocard was forced to rely on the most restrictive clauses of the 1958 constitution, notably article 49/3, which allowed the minority Socialist to survive for a full five year term. [5] All in all, Rocard was a reformist prime minister, with a robust policy record: the introduction of  a minimal income (revenu minimum insertion –RMI), a universal benefit extended for the first time to young people of 18-25; an ambitious programme of reform of the State (the programme of the modernisation of the civil service owes its origins to Rocard, as does the changed statute of the Post Office); and an  important fiscal reform (the creation of the general social contribution [contribution sociale générale –  CSG] to finance  new universal welfare benefits). Such policy activism aggravated an already conflictual relationship between Prime Minister and President (a staple of the fifth Republic) and a stoked a bitter personal animosity between the two men. In 1991, Mitterrand dispensed with the services of Rocard, though the prime minister remained popular.

Rocard’s career continued for two more decades after his resignation from Matignon. He was First Secretary of the Socialist Party, 1993-94; a Socialist MEP from 1994-2009, and served in various Commissions under President Sarkozy. But he never did succeed in imposing his presidential candidacy on the PS (the standard bearers being Jospin in 1995 and 2002; Royal in 2007 and Hollande in 2012).  By this most basic benchmark, he failed. But the legacy is a much more powerful one, in the form of a diffuse network of political and economic personalities, think tanks, ideas,  experts and putative inheritors (including premier Valls and  Industry minister Macron), who are jostling to be recognised as legitimate heir and inheritor. Michel Rocard was an important and influential advocate in the ongoing process of reconciling the left to the economy. He ought to be missed.

[1] Cited in Le Monde, 4th July 2016.

[2] Alistair  Cole (1989)  ‘Factionalism, the French socialist party and the fifth Republic: An explanation of intra‐party divisions’  European Journal of Political Research Volume 17, No. 1, p. 77-94

[3] Rocard’s speech is reprinted in La Nouvelle Revue Socialiste, 27, (1977), pp.69-76; p.70.

[4] Pierre Rosanvallon, L’age de l’autogestion,  Paris : Seuil, 1976 ; Pierre Rosanvallon and Patrick Viveret Pour une nouvelle culture politique  Paris : Seuil, 1977.

[5] Article 49/3 allows a government to stake its confidence on the passage of a parliamentary bill, effectively forcing deputies either to overturn the government, or accept the bill.

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