Moves are already well advanced to persuade Jacques Delors to compete for the party's nomination for the presidency, because of the widespread belief that he has the best chance of holding on to the job for the Socialists when Francois Mitterrand steps down next year.
Liberation newspaper had earlier described Mr Rocard as 'sexton of the elephants' graveyard' preparing to give way as herd leader to Mr Delors.
Mr Delors is on the point of retiring as President of the European Commission, where he has been an imaginative and widely-admired leader. He is also believed to be President Mitterrand's personal choice as successor and Socialist Party leaders have been trying for some time to get him to enter the nominations race.
Mr Rocard's hold on the party, always shaky, became untenable after the 12 June elections in which the Socialists had their worst performance since the party was founded in 1971. They were trounced at the polls, getting less than 15 per cent of the vote after campaigning on a distinctly pro- European Union line.
The extremist Europhobe right saw a sharp rise in its support in the elections and Mr Rocard's populist left-wing rival Bernard Tapie also did extremely well.
Mr Rocard, 63, who was a prime minister in the last Socialist government, lost a confidence vote as the party's executive committee met to discuss the dismal election results. The tally was 88 for Mr Rocard with 129 against, 48 abstentions and two delegates refusing to vote. Convinced that he could still lead the party to victory, Mr Rocard had asked it to decide to back him or dump him.
'If you do not like what I propose to you because you have a better solution, then choose that,' he told the National Council of 300 party leaders through pursed, unsmiling lips.
A moderate, he has been party leader since the Socialists were driven out of office by a centre-right coalition led by Edouard Balladur in March last year. But in the recent elections he was sharply attacked for running a timid campaign and for playing down the party's left-wing credentials.
'The left was never able to explain the difference between left and right,' Mr Tapie said . 'They didn't even put the name Parti Socialiste nor the rose emblem on the ballot. You can't play yourself down more than that.'
One of Mr Rocard's greatest handicaps as party leader was his failure to communicate clearly with the electorate. During the elections he concentrated on fending off the 'Bosnia' platform of Paris intellectuals at the expense of addressing the traditional supporters among young workers. Their votes were snatched away by Mr Tapie, whose faction, the Mouvement des Radicaux de Gauche, traditionally follows the Socialist line but is threatening revolt.
Search for credibility, page 9
Leading article, page 17Reuse content