Sunday, July 3, 2016

Michel Rocard, 1930-2016

Michel Rocard was one of the great "might have beens" of politics. To say this is to take nothing away from his accomplishments, which were real, but simply to underscore the fact that he never fulfilled his ambition to remake the French left from the top by assuming the presidency, of which he was deprived by his detested nemesis François Mitterrand. "Le mépris profond que je porte à son absence d'éthique est compatible avec l'admiration totale que j'ai pour sa puissance tactique", affirmait-il. This might be read as an apologia pro vita sua: "I failed tactically because I was too ethical to do what was needed." If so, it would be a tragic verdict on his chosen métier, for which he expressed his contempt in other long-remembered pronunciamentos: "Politics is disgusting because politicians make it so." For such candor he earned a reputation for blunt-spokenness and honesty comparable to that of another great political might-have-been, his mentor and exemplar Pierre Mendès-France.

Rocard, unlike many of his contemporaries, was never tempted by communism. He came to prominence in the gauchiste PSU, the splinter party that served as the vehicle for many intellectuals who had been party members or fellow travelers to find their way out of communism, largely because of their opposition to the Algerian war. But unlike most of them, he made politics his profession, and consequently his brilliant critical intellect was constantly ground down by the exigencies of political reality. He jumped from the far left to what some would call the right wing of the Socialist Party and others, more accurately, would call the modernizing wing: he stated flatly that nationalization could not be the chosen instrument of a future left politics, that the left would have to make its peace with the market, that social democracy was not compatible with uncontrolled borders.

Was he a French apostle of Tony Blair's "third way?" The ironies abound. Today it is fashionable to say that the third way was a monumental historical error. Many on the left have taken on board Margaret Thatcher's quip that Tony Blair was her greatest achievement, that he represented the defeat of the last vestiges of truly socialist thought, the final victory of "neoliberalism." They are too young to remember the revolutionary illusions that still dominated the PS when Rocard embraced his heresy. Yet in some ways Rocard, heterodox to the end, recognized the validity of the criticism. He was a Brexiter because he believed that the UK, even the Blairist UK, had always been an impediment to the steps needed to build a more social-democratic EU. On the other hand, still confounding the leftist opposition, he saw the El Khomri reform as "a step in the right direction."

Rocard was a brilliant social analyst whose political analysis never seemed quite equal to the complexity of the game he would have needed to play in order to win. Perhaps it was intellectual pride that led him to state what he took to be the truth of any matter even when he knew it would not further his political fortunes. His forthright contrarianism influenced an entire generation of young socialists, many of whom, including Hollande and Valls, are now in command. But even if they consider themselves "Rocardians," as Valls often proclaims, they give the impression of having transformed his contrarianism into a reflexive orthodoxy, the opposite of Rocard's corrosively critical approach to politics. It might be argued that they succeeded (if having achieved purposeless power counts as success) where he failed, but their task was far easier, abetted rather than thwarted by the cunning Mitterrand, whose tenacious antipathy to Rocard was one of the great tragedies of the French left. I was in France in 1988 when the brief hope of a Rocard presidency was blocked by the brilliant maneuvers of Le Florentin. I remember being in a car and hearing the news of Mitterrand's final victory on the radio. And then in a final twist of the knife, the victorious Mitterrand made Rocard his prime minister, but in the most humiliating way possible.

I met Rocard once, at a dinner at Harvard. It was at a time of renewed hope for him, in 1993, when he announced a planned "big bang" in the Socialist Party, which would have transformed it in his image and perhaps saved it from the ignominy of the last 20 years. He was still hopeful but seemed to me already a diminished figure, no longer at the top of his game. Perhaps he was just tired. But the memory of that evening has stayed with me. It brought home the difficulty of the political life, the need to be a consummate actor, always playing to one's audience, as well as a competent analyst, judge of talent, and manager of men and women.


Massilian said...

Thank you for this nice obituary. Rocard was part of my personnal "Lighthouses and Beacons" service. I had great respect for the man. For the past 40 years I kept checking for his opinion on most political matters. I didn't always agree but his contribution always mattered. With his death, one of, if not the last column of the socialist temple is gone, all we have now is a meaningless pile of rubble.

FrédéricLN said...

Thanks Art. Rocard was one of the few lights in politics in the mid-70's to early 90's.

A tactical nightmare at times — "big bang" was certainly not inspiring, and Mitterrand sunk him once again with instrumental Tapie and Lalumière at these 1994 EP elections.

But on the substance — even when he might be wrong, he was aiming to be true. So, if he learned his argument was wrong, he always stopped using it. What makes a huge difference to, say, MM. Mélenchon or Sarkozy.

"Honesty is such a lonely word / Everyone is so untrue / Honesty is hardly ever heard / And mostly what I need from you" :-) (that was the time of PS Congrès de Metz!)

Mitch Guthman said...

I have very little to add to what’s already been said. I became familiar with Rocard only a few years ago and disagreed with just about everything he said. It actually came as a shock to me to learn of his earlier thinking that was well within the tradition of a “socialism of the possible”. If he could have found a resting point somewhere on the center-left, Rocard really could have been the president that France has needed every since the end of the Second World War. But he kept drifting further towards neoliberalism and the Third Way, although even so he would have been better all round than Sarkozy or Hollande.

Rocard certainly wasn't my cup of tea. But I wouldn't say he had anything in common with Tony Blair, either personally or philosophically. I wouldn’t say that Rocard was really a hard-core adherent of the hard core third way and he wanted what was best for the people, unlike Margret Thatcher’s foul spawn. From the admittedly little I knew of the man, Rocard always struck me as a man of surprisingly deep integrity who unfortunately became over enamored was with the power of markets but who was struggling in good faith to find market-based policies that would be broadly acceptable.

By contrast, Tony Blair wasn’t wrestling with difficult issues to find the best path. The only path that Tony Blair cared about was the one that would lead him to wealth and power. Blair is a chancer, a jackal, a war criminal and a whore who lives only to sell himself to every blood soaked tyrant and oligarch with his price. Richard, to his great credit, was none of those things.

I feel that Rocard began brilliantly but strayed from the right path. But as I learned more about his journey, I always felt he was wrestling honestly (but mistakenly) with complex issues and not a smarmy bastard sucking up to Rupert Murdoch or lining his own pockets or tugging at his forelock to curry favor with the crowd that pleasures themselves every year at Davos. A good man with whom many on the left disagreed and about whom some even felt a sense of betrayal. But a good man nonetheless who always had France’s best interest at heart.

Art Goldhammer said...

Mitch, I suggest you read this: . It might give you some reason to moderate your views.

FrédéricLN said...

Two great columns in one about Michel Rocard, by Jean Quatremer, in French:

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