Mr Rocard, the principal pretender to President Mitterrand's crown in the 1995 presidential elections, on Wednesday night blasted a gaping hole through Socialist Party unity by calling for a 'big bang' in French politics. He demanded the creation of a 'new' Socialist Party, embracing Greens, centrists and reformist Communists. President Mitterrand responded last night, saying an alliance must have a clear basis and must not 'mix cats and dogs'.
Mr Mitterrand was forced to appear on television to re-state his refusal to resign and to reject Mr Rocard's vision. 'I remain loyal to the ideal of a union of the Left. We must not be frightened to broaden our appeal but we cannot do this by abandoning the base of our support,' the President said.
Saying he would not resign in the face of a widely predicted conservative landslide, 'no matter what its magnitude', he warned he would 'go to the people' in case of crisis in the cohabitation government expected to come to power after two-tier elections on 21 and 28 March.
Taking questions from citizens across France, the President covered a variety of issues, ranging from unemployment to social affairs, by way of immigration and the future of the Socialist Party.
Unemployment - at 3 million, or 10 per cent of the active French population - 'is not a French ill, not a socialist ill', he said. It resulted from 'a hurricane that began in 1973 with the oil crisis . . . the Japanese explosion and competition from South-east Asia . . . which can produce for almost nothing, because there is no social cover'. He called for European unity on social issues, criticising Britain's 'lack of solidarity' in staying away from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty.
The Rocard speech was interpreted as a direct challenge to President Mitterrand's supporters, and in particular the President's former protege, Laurent Fabius, who had intended to announce his own reform plans after March's elections.
'What we need and what I urge you to join is a huge, open, modern movement; outward-looking, rich in diversity and even encouraging it, a movement gathering all those who share the values of solidarity and a goal of transformation. It will embrace reformist ecologists, centrists loyal to the concept of social tradition, refashioned Communists,' he said.
Mr Rocard accused the modern Socialist Party - which is essentially President Mitterrand's creation - of being 'a closed society attached to its rituals, riven by factionalised in-fighting while endeavouring to present to the outside a single party line from which any deviation is a sacrilege, disagreement a drama and which will only accept allies if they have submitted to it'.
The Socialists face a humiliating defeat in legislative elections next month. The latest opinion polls, published the morning of Mr Rocard's bombshell, predict that the centre-right coalition will carry 42 per cent of the vote in the National Assembly, forcing the President to nominate a right- wing prime minister to lead a government of cohabitation.
The Socialists, at 21 per cent, risk being beaten into third place by the ecologists. Their declining support is weakened almost daily by fresh allegations of political corruption.
Mr Rocard is not the first socialist to have suggested that political salvation lies in a more broadly-based party. But his timing, and exhortation to begin building the new party as soon as the elections are over, amounted to a public concession of defeat in March. It is likely to split the divided Left wide apart. Either he will be attacked for having hastened defeat, or he will succeed in giving himself a head-start in re-energising the party the better to assure a Socialist victory in 1995.
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