Paris — In the world of French politics, he is a Formula 1 race driver. But if Michel Rocard wins every Grand Prix, he has failed so far to win the world championship. According to opinion polls, Mr. Rocard is the most popular politician in France. He is short and slight, perky, spontaneous, fast-thinking, and fast-talking.
The Socialists may founder at the legislative elections next spring, but Rocard, a party leader, keeps getting higher grades. In opinion polls, Rocard comes out ahead of President Franois Mitterrand and a host of other French politicians.
Yet many members of the Socialist party machine dislike Rocard. His opponents call him politically naive and immature. The Socialists selected Mr. Mitterrand at the party's 1979 convention to be its presidential candidate. Even now, facing strong public disfavor, it seems as if some Socialists would rather sink politicaly than allow Rocard to take the helm.
Rocard, a Protestant, conveys an impression of honesty. His brand of socialism -- some call it social democracy or democratic socialism -- is closer to Sweden's and West Germany's than to Mitterrand's. It is pragmatic. It does not call for the state to run the economy.
President Mitterrand outmaneuvered him within their party. Once elected President, Mitterrand appointed Rocard to two posts where he seemed certain to fail: minister of economic planning and development, and later, minister of agriculture. Against all odds, Rocard performed each job well.
Last spring he resigned from the government and declared his candidacy to the 1988 presidential elections, causing an uproar in his party. He said he intended to ``be neither a traitor to the socialists nor their hostage.''
In an interview with the Monitor, Rocard claimed that the Mitterrand administration has been a failure, and has seriously damaged the French Socialist Party for years to come. Rocard says he is convinced that between the Marxist left and the ultra-liberals, there is a more moderate third way: democratic socialism which cherishes freedom and social justice equally.
``Freedom is at the center of our Judeo-Christian civilization. We created the civil liberties. Through its police, the state is supposed to intervene so as to protect these liberties against abuses and infringements. Yet, when it comes to the economy, the ultra-liberals turn a blind eye to abuses -- attempts to dominate others. The state's role . . . is to determine and protect the fair rules of the game,'' he says.
Rocard says the industrial nations must show much greater flexibility toward the developing nations in order to avert a world economic crisis. ``We must work with them as partners, or else we will dig their and our own grave.''
On European affairs, Rocard says the nations must rally around Eureka, a West European space technology research program aimed at civilian applications which was initiated by the French. Eureka is an alternative to President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. ``Otherwise in five years Western Europe will lag so badly behind the United States and Japan, with regard to advanced technology, that it will no longer be a credible force in world affairs.''
Rocard is also is a firm believer in the Franco-German alliance. ``When we and the Germans work closely together, Europe begins to exist,'' he says. A common European currency and sharing European technology are vital, he says.