Can Europe Make It?

Death, Rocard and the demise of European social democracy

The Big Tent model has given way to a fight to the finish between ideologues and pragmatists, both further and further away from the “People” they are supposed to represent. 

Patrice de Beer
5 July 2016

Michel Rocard in 2012.WIkicommons/ Rama. Some rights reserved.An icon of French social democracy, flag bearer of the “second left”, strong partisan of the “parler vrai” (speaking the truth) – so rare in today's politics where spin doctors are running the show – Michel Rocard passed away on Saturday July 2. He was 85.

Rocard was perhaps the last French, and European, politician who clung to his ideals and moral values in these days of triangulation and so-called efficiency, even at the expense of his own political career.

Deeply and sincerely reformist with a strong social urge, perhaps too far ahead for his time, he was as different as possible from former Labour PM Tony Blair and ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who both skilfully converted their political experiences into the art of making money. Or from François Mitterrand's Florentine pragmatism, who was his political nemesis.

Elected President twice, Mitterrand crushed Rocard's ambitions, using him as his Prime Minister between 1988 and 1991 before dumping him brutally, thus ending his political career. But not his intellectual and moral image, and the few important reforms he managed to pass, which have made of him one of a handful of respected statesmen and political thinkers of recent decades. Yet no one knows if he would have been as successful and popular had he remained in power for a longer period of time. Yet no one knows if he would have been as successful and popular had he remained in power for a longer period of time.

His demise comes at a time when the European social democratic model he so much believed in as the tool to modernise France as well as politics, is in deep crisis. It is almost everywhere out of power after having been dominant for years, and appears less and less able to retain, or regain it. Lack of vision, lack of leadership, lack of empathy with real people and too much party infighting with petty ambitions, so blatantly out of touch with the hard realities of today's European peoples' life experience.

Torn between a conservative opposition – who, for tactical reasons, refuse to support some of his reforms, even if they agree with them, and the left of his own Socialist Party, whose aim is to destroy the so-called rightist “traitor” at the expense of their own party, even if it means risking oblivion after next year's general and presidential elections - French President François Hollande will most likely be ousted from the Elysée Palace in May 2017. Long fighting neck and neck with the Christian Democrats, the German SPD, also threatened on its left by Die Linke, is now so far behind in seats in the Bundestag that it has little chance to come back to power in the foreseeable future.

Long a social democratic paradise, Scandinavia has now turned to the right, and sometimes even the populist extreme right. Outgunned by a corrupt and authoritarian Popular Party, unable to benefit from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's unpopularity, Spanish socialists of the PSOE have seen voters leaving in droves even if the populist Podemos, long influenced by Venezuelan “Chavism”, was not able to catch up with them in last June's elections. In Austria, the two main partners since WWII, the Red and the Black, Socialists and Conservatives, have been expelled from the second round of presidential election by a green and an extreme right candidate; a rerun between the two is due next Autumn.

In most cases the left, long united in her goal to achieve power, is now hopelessly divided, weakened by the surge of new populist, nationalist or extreme right parties and, at least in France, threatened by self-destruction and oblivion. How painful must it have been …for a man like Rocard, who always stuck to his moderate line, pragmatic, open to discussion with other people's ideas.

The Big Tent social democratic model which united for decades all facets of the Left, open to new ideas and experiments, has given way to a fight to the finish between ideologues and pragmatists, both further and further away from the “People” they are supposed to represent.

And now, in France, far leftist groups are resorting to violence, breaking up shops and attacking police during anti-government demonstrations and even ransacking and shooting at local socialist surgeries. Even more threatening for democracy, some groups are taking the law in their own hands, as in the bitter controversy on the future airport near Nantes. When the government organised a local referendum they say they would only accept a “No” vote, even after the “Yes” prevailed.

Not to talk about British Labour who threw itself into the arms of an old leftie, Jeremy Corbyn, a Michael Foot or a Tony Benn without charisma, in order to exorcise Ed Milliband's inability to win elections as well as the dark memories of the Blair era.

Now it is torn by an internecine war between its moderate wing and most MPs, and far left corbinistas. Like many other leftists throughout the continent, they prefer their enemies' victory to that of their rival comrades, more comfortable in vocal ideological opposition than with the hard realities of government.

Worse, the ambiguities of Corbyn's anti-Brexit campaign has led more than one quarter of Labour voters to cast a “Yes” vote. Just like in France with the National Front, or Germany with the AfD, disenfranchised voters long faithful to traditional left wing parties have been massively shifting to the extremes. Will this be a one off or the beginning of a new trend from disgruntled voters eager for new faces even if they are selling worn out, or even unsavoury ideas? It is still too early to say, but the threat is definitely there.

How painful must it have been to witness this demise for a man like Rocard, who always stuck to his moderate line, pragmatic, open to discussion with other people's ideas; ahead of his times when he fought against colonialism and the Algerian War; or when he fought for social democracy at a time Mitterrand was clinging to Marxist slogans and nationalization, before being caught by the hard realities of the world economy; as well as for ecology at a time when it was hardly popular anywhere. And who never shied away from criticising the French left as “the most backward in the world”, including his own fellows Socialists, starting with Hollande. How painful too for this staunch European and former MEP to see the crisis which is engulfing the European Union. The blame for which he put squarely in front of Great Britain.

Even before Brexit, he was in favour of the UK leaving the EU. In an interview given last year and quoted in the daily, Libération, he bluntly said: “If the Brits were to leave the EU I would say Hurrah!(...) Great Britain is a very big country which has always refused that Europe meddle with her own business. She has blocked any deepening of European integration(...) She never knew what she was doing in Europe. The English never Europeanised. Their departure is the necessary condition for a deepening of the EU”.

Which did not stop him for criticising the way Europe has been run from Brussels as well as from the other 27 capitals, Paris included. Always, his “parler vrai”!

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