Obituary: Jean Poperen

Jean Poperen was well known in French politics for some 50 years. From the 1970s he was one of the leaders of the Socialist Party. But it is significant that he only held ministerial office once, when he held the somewhat non-ministerial post of Minister in Charge of Relations with Parliament in the government of Michel Rocard from 1988 to 1992. Poperen was concerned with ideas and with the organisation of the party around those ideas.

Perhaps he preferred being in opposition. He was often accused of being too caught up with detail. His colleague Lionel Jospin, the present Prime Minister, is supposed to have said to him, "You are difficult". To which the reply came, "I'm a socialist". The opponents of socialism used to make much of Poperen's interventions in Socialist Party conferences. They were often preceded by newspaper articles, much rumour and gossip, and they were eagerly awaited. Then, his opponents gleefully observed, he said very little. His constant opposition and criticism was partly a matter of temperament. But it was also a matter of intellectual probity. Poperen saw himself as being in the line of the "Republique des professeurs".

Born in 1925 at Angers, Poperen's father was a school-teacher and his mother, who died when he was very young, a seamstress. He won a scholarship to the Lycee Louis le Grand in Paris and in 1943, when he was just 18, he joined the Resistance. In April 1944, before the Allied landings, he took part in a dangerous demonstration on the Boulevard Saint Michel, handing out Communist leaflets.

After the Liberation he became the leader of the Communist students. His academic career was very successful. In 1947 he came first in the prestigious examination of the agregation in history and taught in the lycees at Amiens and at Janson-de-Sailly in Paris, before being appointed to the Sorbonne as a specialist in the French Revolution. He wrote an admiring biography of Robespierre, Oeuvres Choisies de Robespierre, published in three volumes 1956-58.

But the Communist Party thought that his future lay with them. In 1953 he was sent to the Kominform centre in Bucharest. He remained a member of the party at a time when many others were leaving. Although he criticised Soviet actions he did not wish to desert his fellow-members. The celebrated Khrushchev report in 1956, condemning Stalinism, did not persuade Poperen to abandon the cause; he wanted rather a Marxist analysis of Stalinism. But he could only condemn the ineffectiveness of the party as the political situation of the Fourth Republic worsened in the course of 1958. He was under the surveillance of Philippe Robrieux, the future historian of the party and biographer of Thorez. Poperen was expelled in 1959 after he had written, along with other Communist intellectuals, a condemnation of the party that had accepted the coming to power of Charles de Gaulle and the defeat of the French working class.

He was one of the leaders of would-be independent socialist parties, particularly that directed by Michel Rocard. He was expelled from this in 1967, and after some ineffective wandering, became part of the reformed Socialist Party that emerged from the congress at Epinay in 1971 with Francois Mitterrand at its head. But Poperen was never an unconditional follower of Mitterrand, and there was always a group, "une tendance", which represented his views. At this date some 12 per cent of party representatives supported Poperen, an important section in a divided party.

In 1973 he was elected as deputy in the Rhone, a position he was to hold for the next 20 years. In 1977 he became Mayor of Meyzieu, also in the Rhone, two years after he had joined the Secretariat of the Socialist Party. With Mitterrand being elected President of the Republic in 1981, Poperen became the number two of the party, with Lionel Jospin as the number one. But Poperen's promises of being a loyal supporter of the government suffered a setback when the education law which sought to bring private (mainly religious) schools into a closer alignment with state schools was suddenly withdrawn. Mitterrand bowed to the pressure of large crowds, but did not inform the minister of education, Alain Savary, of what he was doing. Poperen was indignant that socialist principles were being abandoned and was bewildered that his friend Savary leaned of the decision by listening to the radio.

Poperen believed in Europe but he was reluctant to accept the austerity and the abandonment of socialist measures. In 1986 he was removed as the party number two.

As Minister in Charge of Relations with Parliament, Poperen was relatively successful. But when Pierre Beregovoy became Prime Minister in 1992 he did not keep Poperen in his government. Although he considered this to be an injustice, he also saw it as the opportunity for him to save the Socialists. He stood down as deputy in 1993 and devoted his time to organising the recovery of socialism. He published his own bulletin, he wrote books and he made many speeches, all towards the end of recreating a new socialism.

What his attitude would have been in the elections of 1997 cannot be divined. Early in January he had a fall in his house from which he never recovered.

Douglas Johnson

Jean Maurice Poperen, politician: born Angers, Maine-et-Loire 9 January 1925; Minister in Charge of Relations with Parliament 1988-92; married 1960 Nathalie Valcourt; died Paris 24 August 1997.