[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]
His death has been a leading story in the news here the past two days, which is to be expected, as he was one of the major personalities in French political life of the past five decades. As my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer has written a fine remembrance of him, I will refer the reader to his in lieu of offering my own, except to say that Michel Rocard was the French politician for whom I had the most admiration in the course of my adult life: from the mid 1970s—when I started to follow French politics—to the ’00s, when he retired from the electoral arena (though continued to write and intervene in the public square to the end). I entirely identified with Rocard politically and ideologically: in my college days, with his PSU legacy—the concept of autogestion being in vogue in my gauchiste circles of the time—and later on, in the ’80s and ’90s, with the deuxième gauche inside the PS that he incarnated, i.e. of a moderate left social democratic sensibility that recognized the permanence of the market economy and certain constraints imposed by globalization, and of the necessity of compromises between labor and capital (though capital nowadays doesn’t want to compromise over anything). In the PS of the Mitterrand era, this was, ideologically speaking, not the majority position.
I saw Rocard in person once, in November 1980, at a three-day conference in Washington (at the Capital Hilton) on Euro-socialism, hosted by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (the future DSA)—the American affiliate of the Socialist International and that functioned as a caucus within the Democratic Party—and with numerous stars from Europe present, e.g. Willy Brandt, Olaf Palme, Tony Benn, Mário Soares, Felipe González, and, from France, François Mitterrand (six months before he was elected president), Rocard, Jacques Attali, and others. A group of friends and I drove down from New York, where I was living at the time, to attend it. It was quite an event: all these European socialist luminaries meeting two blocks from the White House less than two weeks after Reagan’s victory, entirely unknown and unnoticed in the Washington political world. Rocard spoke at a session (not plenary) with the then mayor of Minneapolis, Donald Fraser. I have no recollection of what was said but remember being highly impressed with both, and particularly Rocard (and whose English was impeccable; Mitterrand, who addressed the plenary session, spoke in French).
In the 1980s I had visions of Rocard succeeding Mitterrand as president of the republic after the latter’s first septennat, though that was clearly not in the cards. I did view Mitterrand favorably into the early ’90s, though altered that once I settled here, started to follow French politics daily, and became more aware of the political differences between the two men, their mutual detestation, and Mitterrand’s darker side. When it came to political and personal integrity, Mitterrand was not on the same level with Rocard, loin s’en faut (for my overall assessment of Mitterrand, go here). Mitterrand’s 1991 sacking of Rocard as prime minister and for no good reason—he was one of the best PMs of the Fifth Republic, not to mention the most popular with public opinion—seemed incomprehensible. And his successful maneuver to scuttle Rocard’s presidential ambitions for 1995—in launching the Bernard Tapie “missile” in the 1994 European elections—was one of Mitterrand’s more loathsome acts—and he had several—in the twilight years of his presidency.
France Inter’s Thomas Legrand had an excellent editorial this morning on Rocard, Mitterrand, and what differentiated their political world-views and, more fundamentally, their whole approach to politics (listen to and/or read it here). Legrand says that Rocardism (as an “ism”) was fundamentally about ideas, not a strategy of acquiring power. In addition to being a politician, Rocard was an intellectual, and a brilliant one. See, e.g., the discussion between Rocard and Paul Ricœur, “Justice et marché,” published in January 1991 in Esprit (h/t Marc-Olivier Padis). There are not too many politicians in France nowadays—don’t even talk about the US—who could carry on an exchange at that level. I certainly couldn’t.
UPDATE: Frédéric Martel—writer, intellectual, and youthful rocardien—has an excellent essay in Slate.fr, “Quand Rocard couvait la deuxième génération de la seconde gauche.”
2nd UPDATE: Here’s Le Monde’s obituary, by Jean-Louis Andreani and Raphaëlle Bacqué: “Michel Rocard, l’homme de la ‘deuxième gauche’.”
Also in Le Monde is an op-ed by economist Daniel Cohen and Gilles Finchelstein of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, “Michel Rocard, un esprit réaliste, voulant réconcilier la gauche et l’économie.”
3rd UPDATE: Libération’s Jean Quatremer has a remembrance, which is well worth reading, of “Michel Rocard, l’homme que les socialistes ont humilié.”
5th UPDATE: In June 2014 Michel Rocard published a tribune in Le Monde expressing his exasperation with British obstructionism in the EU. It was translated by The Guardian under the title “A French message to Britain: get out of Europe before you wreck it.” The lede: “The European Union is on its knees but you, the British, want to block even small steps to democratic legitimacy.”
6th UPDATE: Political journalist Geoffroy Clavel writes, in Le HuffPost, that “Avant sa mort, Michel Rocard a légué au PS un ultime avertissement.”
7th UPDATE: France Inter’s Thomas Legrand, in an editorial on Tuesday, argues that Manuel Valls and Emmanuel Macron are not the true hiers of rocardisme.