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article imageFrance's Rocard put social reforms over politics

By Claude Casteran (AFP)     Jul 2, 2016 in Politics

Former French prime minister Michel Rocard, who died aged 85 on Saturday, followed a political career in which he placed pragmatism and honesty above personal ambition.

Rocard was on the right wing of the Socialist Party, and called himself a Social Democrat of dialogue who tried to accept economic realities without giving up social ideals.

He made unsuccessful bids to become president, but was blocked by Francois Mitterrand, under whom he served as French premier for three years starting in May 1988 before being, as he saw it, "fired."

Among Rocard's notable achievements were an end to unrest by separatists in French New Caledonia and a minimum social assistance payment, the RMI, aimed at alleviating poverty.

But though he possessed an impressive intellect and was respected for his honesty, Rocard never had Mitterrand's feel for politics and the two were steadfast Socialist adversaries.

"The deep contempt that I feel for his absence of ethics is compatible with the complete admiration I have for his tactical prowess," Rocard once said of Mitterrand.

Born on August 23, 1930 in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie, Rocard attended elite schools for French leaders, the Paris Institute of Political Studies and the National School of Administration.

His father was a physicist who helped develop France's atomic bomb, while his mother is said to have transmitted a strong Protestant influence.

As a young scout, Rocard welcomed people returning from Nazi camps, before working for a couple of years in a factory.

"Shake that together and you have a Socialist," he once joked, and his background also fueled strong opposition to the French colonialist war in Algeria.

But his academic abilities were accompanied by a fairly stiff demeanour, a distinguishing feature along with his relatively short height of 1.70 metres (five feet, seven inches), sharp eyes and bald forehead.

Rocard found it hard to put a large crowd in his pocket, or press flesh and slap backs at political rallies, and was more at ease in solitary environs, such as when he was sailing, skiing, or exploring Arctic regions.

The French public did relate to his desire to "speak the truth" however, and he consistently enjoyed strong results in opinion polls.

- Fall out with Mitterrand -

French President Francois Mitterrand (R) and Prime Minister Michel Rocard laugh during a reception a...
French President Francois Mitterrand (R) and Prime Minister Michel Rocard laugh during a reception at the Elysee Presidential Palace on May 10, 1990
Daniel Janin, AFP/File

Before serving as premier, Rocard headed two ministries -- territorial development and planning, and agriculture -- during the period from 1981 to 1985, when he resigned after Mitterrand introduced the proportional system for legislative elections.

That measure boosted the far-right National Front, and it helped Mitterrand weaken the electoral base of conservative rivals.

Rocard was happy, meanwhile, to serve as mayor of Conflans-Saint-Honorine, west of Paris, winning election four times starting in 1977 and calling the post "the most beautiful political function."

He was also a member of the European Parliament from 1994 until 2009.

Rocard was the father of four children, and was married three times.

In a reference to the prime minister's residence, he said once: "I might have got a divorce without Matignon, but it definitely speeded things up."

While seeming fragile, especially after he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in India in 2007, he bounced back more curious about life than ever, becoming the first person over 80 to reach both of the earth's geographic poles.

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