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The sheer bliss of thinking with Michel Rocard

The sheer bliss of thinking with Michel Rocard

14.07.2016. France.

Former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard died on 2nd July 2016 at the age of 85. I worked at his side on the writing of a book in which he pronounced himself in favour of Turkey’s accession to the European Union.

Down memory lane.

Will you manage to read what I wrote? You tormented me so much, you know, that’s why I find it hard to write now…” he throws at me, his cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his mug of coffee wedged with his elbow, while stretching out the punishing assignment we agreed on the night before.

Using a computer is something totally foreign to him

This was in 2008. For a few months, once, sometimes twice a week, I went to his office, Boulevard Saint Germain, in Paris. Michel Rocard is still then an MEP (a function he will leave the following year). On the request of Hachette Publishing, he has agreed to explain in a short book why he is in favour of the acceptance of Turkey into the European Union. He dictates the text, I record him, do the transcript, and then we rework the text together.

This is the last stretch. These few handwritten pages that so “tormented” him are getting to the conclusion. Using a computer is something totally foreign to Michel Rocard. His writing is dense, tight, and on paper, it looks like a sort of reversed pyramid. Lines get shorter as they go along. “When he was a student at Sciences-Po, his handwriting was already like that: drawing diagonal lines” one of his classmates later told me.

On that day, his pages are splattered with bizarre smudges of ink. This is the work of one of the many cats in the household, who, he explains to me, lent a paw to his master’s assignment.

Federal Europe is over

In those days, Rocard wanted to outline his vision of the European Union. And today, in these times of Brexit, it takes on a strange ring.

It took me 30 years to understand”, he explains, “that with the entry of Great-Britain into the EU, it was the end of the project of a political and federal Europe as Jean Monnet viewed it, and all the more so that in the East, new comers have no wish to engage in the much bigger issues about which those small countries know nothing”.

He goes on to say that the European Union has turned into a group of countries that manage their mutual relations on the basis of a set of a few human rights, democratic, economic and financial rules. Now, “This is not insignificant! But it no longer has anything to do with political Europe

Giving a foothold to Turkey, the only secular Muslim country, would send a strong message to the world

Therefore, he says, it is possible to integrate Turkey and its 71 million inhabitants, which, added to 550 million Europeans, would make it possible to “have more weight” relative to China and the United States, would help securing the EU energy supplies, extend the market, allow for a better control over our Eastern borders and immigration (though Turkey’s joining the Schengen area should be postponed until much later, he then advised).

And, last but not least, giving a foothold to Turkey, the only secular Muslim country, would send a strong message to the world while “Christians and Muslims are presently living through a serious period of incomprehension

Otherwise, Rocard continued explaining, the risk, is that Turkey might turn towards the Caucasus region and the Middle East. “It could undergo a terror counterattack which would hit Europe far more”, with the massive arrival of refugees (…) “And, this fragile union would start experiencing a degradation of its cohesion, with aspects of extreme risks.

In France, when Rocard says “Yes to Turkey”, insults are hurled at him and he cannot make himself heard.

A reminder: Rocard wrote this text 8 years ago. Every now and then, as he used to discuss this process, he would interrupt his argument and engage with me: “What a business this is, still, what a business!” Deep down, Rocard thought that the accession of Turkey to the EU, no matter what the difficulties and the dangers, would be “less worse” than leaving Turkey turn its back to Europe.

But at that time in France, Rocard’s stance and discourse cannot be heard, as Sarkozy is then quite successfully playing Turkish scarecrow – the linchpin of his home and European policy. Though signed by a former Prime Minister, the book shall sell scantily. Apart from weekly Le Point, the French print media does not bother to review the book.

On this topic, Rocard could only expect to get knocks” aptly wrote his publisher. “Yet, he had the courage to step into the arena. On the other hand, we never showed Michel Rocard the piles of far right and Islamophobic insults that targeted him, on the blog that was set up at the time of the book release.” He was far too intelligent not to suspect it, but as I mentioned previously, he did not use computers, and thus could pretend to ignore this downpour of rubbish.

However, when we travel to Turkey for the release of his book, Rocard is generally welcome, even though his small book, with its red cover, and which shall get translated into Turkish, ruffles a few feathers, particularly when he mentions the 2 “burning issues”.

First of all, the festering Kurdish situation for which, he said, “the sole efficient treatment can only be economic and political, that is, a contractual and negotiated relationship (…), possibly in the broader context of an accession to the European Union (…), since the Turkish army is not in a position to envisage such a development.

What enthrals the Turkish media is the role he played in the Algerian war, with his report on Algerian regrouping camps and his denunciation of torture.

As for the second bone of contention, it is the “Armenian taboo”.  He felt that some French activists of Armenian origins were excessive. He had told them so quite bluntly. But Rocard did not refute the term “genocide” – to the difference of several his close friends, whether historians or journalists. The denial to which it was subject in Turkey reminded him of the difficulties of the French Republic to acknowledge the Vichy regime. “If it took so long as well as Jacques Chirac to overcome this, it means that the entire social body supported the denial, and therefore this was not just a public power issue”. He thought along the same lines when it came to the Armenian taboo.

But in 2008, what enthrals the Turkish media is the role he played in the Algerian war, with his report on Algerian regrouping camps and his denunciation of torture. Turkish people see a continuity going from Rocard’s Algerian commitment during the 50’s and 60’s, and his support for Turkey’s candidacy to the European Union. In their opinion, this political coherence strengthens the Frenchman’s legitimacy when he comes and speaks to them about unpleasant topics.

His ideal feminine type: Audrey Hepburn

Every now and then, our discussion would get side tracked. He was very critical of the French media world, though he actually was one of their darlings. He could not understand why I persisted in working as a journalist.

He could be quite cutting. This actually happened on the occasion of a small man-dominated lunch. I found he was being very harsh towards one of our leading political French woman: “You would not speak like that if this were a man!” I told him. “Not at all, quite to the contrary: precisely because this is a woman, nobody says anything! Had it been a man, that would have happened a long time ago!” he argued back at me.

Around a drink, the conversation could drift towards lighter topics. “How can one not like wine?” he would say if some guest refused the offer.

Rocard thought faster than he spoke. One had to try and keep up with him. His mind was always ahead of his words

My companion had also pointed out to me that Rocard – for whom Audrey Hepburn represented the ideal woman – seemed to start a new love life at every major turn of his political career. I dared ask.

Yes, you are quite right, but I don’t get married every time!” he exclaimed… Marriage was not a sacrament for this Calvinist protestant who valued free will and personal responsibility above anything else. Though not a practicing believer, his faith had taught him he was only accountable to God. Except that there was a time when “God” took on the appearance of Mitterrand.

Rocard thought faster than he spoke. One had to try and keep up with him. His mind was always ahead of his words. This caused him some momentous clashes.

In the evening of Saturday 2nd July, on the announcement of his death, I am again coming across the sheets of paper with cat paws on top of black ink pyramids… And the memory comes back to my mind of a frown that escaped me once while listening to him. He had immediately stopped talking, looking worried: “Did I say something stupid?

As an intellectual, the man was aware of the value of doubt that politician ignore most of the time.

To reflect and think with Rocard, in the midst of the swirls of smoke in his office, what absolute happiness and sheer bliss this was!

Ariane Bonzon

Translation: Laurence Mazure

Photo:  Former french prime minister, Michel Rocard.

French original version (dates back to 3.07.2016: Réfléchir avec Rocard,  que du bonheur.

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