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. Of Mitterand, Rocard declared, “Le mépris profond que je porte à son absence d'éthique est compatible avec l'admiration totale que j'ai pour sa puissance tactique.” (“My deep contempt for his lack of ethics matches my total admiration for his tactical prowess.”) Of course, this might well 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 Unified Socialist Party (known as the 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 Socialist Party, known as 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 European Union. 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 François Hollande and Manuel 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, as Mitterand was known. 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.