Michel Rocard (born 1930) was one of the most respected politician on the French left in the period from 1965 into the 1990s.
Michel Rocard was born on August 23, 1930, in the outskirts of Paris. His father was a nuclear physicist who worked on France's first atomic bomb. Like many politicians of his generation, he got his start by attending the National School of Administration (ENA) and then beginning his career in the civil service.
He was a leader of the student wing of the socialist party (SFIO), but gradually grew disenchanted with its conservatism and support for French war policy in Algeria. In 1958 Rocard was part of a group of socialists who left the SFIO and with other activists formed the new Unified Socialist Party (PSU). Throughout the early 1960s the PSU remained small and lacked a firm identity. Many party leaders advocated merging with other non-communist left groups following François Mitterrand's surprisingly strong (but unsuccessful) presidential campaign in 1965.
Rocard, on the other hand, realized there was a need for a party like the PSU that could be an incubator for new ideas, especially regarding democratic socialism and decentralization. Therefore, he spearheaded a campaign to save the party and was named its national secretary in 1967.
Still, Rocard was primarily a theoretician who was little known outside of Parisian intellectual circles. Then came the uprising of May and June 1968. The PSU enthusiastically supported both the students and the workers in their protests against the Gaullist regime. By the end of 1968 the PSU started calling itself a revolutionary party and based its appeal on the issues and enthusiasm of the revolt, especially on the idea of autogestion or self-managed, decentralized socialism. Rocard came to personify the ideas and enthusiasm that had burst into the open during those two months.
President Charles de Gaulle resigned in 1969. In the ensuing presidential elections, Michel Rocard did remarkably well, almost as well as the conventional socialist candidate, Gaston Defferre. That showing catapulted Rocard into the front ranks of French politicians. Public opinion polls for the next two decades showed him to be one of France's most popular politicians. Late in 1969 he won a seat in the National Assembly in a by-election in Paris' western suburbs.
Rocard began having troubles with the PSU at this time, however. The center of gravity of the party shifted further and further to the left. In the meantime, Rocard and his supporters came to the conclusion that revolution was not possible at the same time that a new reformist party (the Socialist Party [PS]) adopted many of the PSU's positions, including autogestion.
The PSU did quite poorly in the 1973 legislative elections. Rocard himself lost his seat in Parliament. On the other hand, the PS did extremely well, ending almost a generation of losses for social democratic parties. Rocard gave up the leadership of the party and returned to the civil service. Finally, in 1974, Rocard led his supporters into the PS, just after the presidential elections in which Mitterrand barely lost to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.
Rocard became the PS national secretary for the public sector and saw his national popularity soar. In addition, as he began to grapple with both the economic and the electoral realities he shifted quickly to the right, shelving virtually all of his radical past except for autogestion.
Began His Ministerial Career
Rocard was reelected to the National Assembly in 1978. In 1980 public opinion polls showed him having the best chance of defeating President Giscard d'Estaing, but out of loyalty to François Mitterrand he withdrew his candidacy that October. When Mitterrand won the presidency the next May, Rocard began his ministerial career. Under Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, Rocard served as minister of state for planning and regional development. Under Mauroy, and later Laurent Fabius, he also served as minister of agriculture. In both positions his influence was limited by his rivalry with President Mitterrand. Finally, in May 1985, Rocard resigned from the cabinet in opposition to the government's "expedient introduction of proportional representation" and the following month announced a tentative decision to run for the presidency when Mitterrand's term ended in 1988.
Appointed as Prime Minister
Rocard lost the 1988 presidential election to Mitterrand, but was named Prime Minister. Two days after his appointment, Rocard allocated 16 of the 26 cabinet posts to Socialists. This cabinet was the first minority government formed under the 30-year-old fifth republic. Rocard continued to be a popular politician with the public, winning a popularity poll in 1990 as the leader in whom the public had the most confidence. In May 1991 Mitterrand replaced Rocard as Prime Minister with Edith Cresson, the first woman to claim the position. Rocard stated that he resigned the post to concentrate on the 1995 presidential campaign. In 1993 Rocard became the leader of the Socialist Party but resigned after only 14 months, when the party held a vote of no-confidence. This vote was due to poor election results for the Socialists, who received only 15% of the vote, the worst showing in two decades. This put an end to Rocard's presidential aspirations.
In 1995 Rocard was chosen to be one of the 15-member Canberra Commission for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, an international group formed by Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating and charged with helping to abolish nuclear weapons. He also was elected a board member of the International Crisis Group, founded in 1995 to help governments head off impending crises in unstable parts of the world.
Even though never achieving his goal to become president, Michel Rocard still had a remarkable influence in shaping French political life. He had a great ability to define issues and to set the agenda that politicians and intellectuals must discuss in confronting France's problems.
Further Reading on Michel Rocard
There is no biography of Michel Rocard in either French or English. On his PSU years, see Charles Hauss, The New Left in France (1978). On his years in the PS, see D.S. Bell and Byron Criddle, The French Socialist Party: Resurgence and Victory (1984).