Toulouse, known as the cité rose because of the color of its walls, was the palest pink in October as the French Socialists held their congress there, the last before their inevitable and deserved defeat in the parliamentary elections next March. It was an occasion for looking back at the road the party has traveled during its four years in power, or, more accurately, in office. When they were in opposition, the Socialists used to talk, however vaguely, of a "break" with capitalism. Now they discuss how best to manage this indispensable system. For the first time the Socialists unashamedly proclaim themselves social democrats. In 1959, at Bad Godesberg, the West German Social Democrats severed their official connection with Marxism. The Toulouse congress was billed as the Bad Godesberg of French Socialism. It proved much worse, if you will forgive the pun.
The metamorphosis of the Socialist Party is probably best illustrated by the political journey of Michel Rocard: the man who was expected to dominate the congress but didn’t; the former Minister of Planning, then Agriculture, in the Mitterrand government; the ex-radical socialist, ex-New Leftist, ex-champion of. worker-management and current panegyrist of profit; the perennially unsuccessful political climber. Oddly, Rocard, who used to criticize the state in the name of workers’ councils and now does so in the name of private enterprise, has a reputation for political candor and plain speaking. That is stranger still when one recalls that his famous outburst on television in 1978 following the Socialist defeat in the parliamentary election ("The left has again missed its appointment with history") had been rehearsed for hours on videotape.
Yet the reputation is understandable. As soon as he switched, in 1974, from the more radical Unified Socialist Party to the bigger but more moderate Socialist Party, Rocard began a swing to the right, in policy if not always in political vocabulary. An inspecteur des finances (a high-level civil service rank) by profession and an economist by training, he grasped at once that the economic crisis was altering the premises on which the program of France’s United Left was based. Instead of arguing that more radical means should be used to achieve the left’s objectives, he concluded that its aims should be modified. Mitterrand the politician would not hear of it; that, after all, is not how you win elections. Rocard then made the mistake of challenging Mitterrand’s leadership and of treating him as a man of the past. He was soundly defeated at the 1979 Socialist Party congress in Metz, and when Mitterrand was elected President, in 1981, Rocard and his followers, had to eat humble pie. He was politically silenced until he resigned from the government, in April. Since then he has not only repeatedly said to his comrades, "I told you so"; he has urged them to square their ideology with their practice, to stop pretending they are the gravediggers of capitalism. This candid admission apparently plays with the general public–judging by Rocard’s favorable ratings in opinion polls–and even in a Socialist Party bewildered and facing certain defeat. In votes taken as part of preparation for the Toulouse congress, the Rocard resolution drew 28.6 percent of party members’ votes, considerably more than had-been expected.
It is a custom in the Socialist Party when there are significant divisions over two or more motions to apportion seats in the executive committees in accordance with the votes cast for each motion beforehand, and then seek a composite resolution during the congress. Rocard was thus traveling to Toulouse to reach an inevitable compromise, but also to be the star of the show. He was outwitted by Lionel Jospin, Mitterrand’s handpicked successor as party secretary in 1981. Jospin, shall we say, turned Rocard on his right. We don’t want to be a small center-left party, he argued, but we have no objection to being a big social democratic one like the West German, British or Swedish parties. Yesterday’s insult became a term of praise among leaders who suffer from acute amnesia. Rocard, his political clothes stolen, no longer knew how to act. Usually an effective speaker with a machine-gun delivery, he came across as muddled and boring. To make things worse, on the last day the limelight was seized by the youthful Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, Rocard’s main rival for the presidency.