Olivier Ferrand grew up in the Mediterranean sunshine.
The Marseilles constituency he won in the June 2012 parliamentary elections had seemed an impossible win, but he gave the campaign all his strength – he wanted to represent the people he’d grown up with. From the South of France, Olivier had kept a ubiquitous smile and love of warm, lengthy talks. But his brilliance and competitive nature meant he had a disdain of time-wasting squabbles and the pretence of debate.
Born in 1969 and a graduate of top business school HEC, Ferrand was also a former student of the Paris IEP and ENA, two elite colleges supplying government and political parties with their best talents. Many wondered at his intellectual and academic excellence, athletic credentials, his ability to rise through the ranks in a short time and attract the attention of (then prime minister) Lionel Jospin, (IMF Director) Dominique Strauss-Kahn, (European Commission President) Romano Prodi. To us, however, Olivier Ferrand was most noticeable for his ability to generate constructive and controversial debate.
Shocked in 2007 by a third successive defeat of the French Socialists at a presidential election, he decided to act by creating the think-tank Terra Nova. The first and most noticeable project he sought to defend led to the spectacular success of nationwide primaries for the designation of a socialist presidential candidate. The socialist primaries allowed anyone “sharing the values of the left” to vote, a fact largely credited with offering investiture to the moderate Francois Hollande, where party activists favoured their less convincing chairwoman Martine Aubry.
Ferrand rarely went unnoticed among the French left. In 2010, with the primaries project well underway, he launched an ambitious series of contributions to the presidential debate called “Projet2012”. This was followed in election year by commentaries and analyses, as well as public events, talks, debates, encounters in localities and regions far from the Paris media cauldron. Debate was more than a commitment, it was a core belief.
The first of these contributions made a damning statement on the state of the Left in France, openly criticizing the traditional party line on addressing its popular electorate. Ferrand liked to remind his audiences that the so-called “working classes” the Parti Socialist (PS) and European Left spoke to had become the “non-working classes”. Statistics in hand he evidenced his claim adding that only 13% of the French active population were now industry workers with stable jobs, while 40% were unemployed, part-timers and temporary workers or service employees. Precarious social and economic situations were the issue, not class struggle. And the Left was changing: a Left of cultural values, of openness, of progressive thinking looking forward into a fast moving future. Ferrand did not care for the Left of reactionary speeches and bitter anti-liberalism. One of a few of his kind, he saw progressive politics with hope and enthusiasm. We followed him.
Many more did. All through the 2008/2012 period, while some pandered to the power in place or sat out the conservative dominance, Ferrand reached out to numerous industry leaders and high ranking civil servants. A former decision maker in several public institutions including the almighty seat of the French Treasury at Bercy, and always noticed for engaging positions he did not mind defending against a tough challenge, he gradually set to work a matrix of ruthlessly effective analysts and experts.
Reports would often come out under the anonymous cover of a pseudonym. Contributors were seldom staff members but always highly knowledgeable and experienced professionals in the field explored, be it international cooperation, education, social mobility or climate change. Report after report, essays, notes, articles would come out and spark outrage, arouse interest, define issues, bring forth proposals.
For the Terra Nova brand would proceed through analysis, synthesis and proposals. Ferrand wished to bring forward ideas that could be examined and used by politicians. He yearned for the chance to do this himself, only too aware of the limited impact a think-tank can have on actual political decision-making. He went for difficult electoral campaigns. He succumbed to the last, that was to be his first national mandate and a new beginning. Tragedy has no better name.
His vision is better understood than it is spoken of. Vocal reactions in the socialist old guard against his ideas do not get past the outrage at suggesting class struggle had to be discarded as a narrative for a modern 21st century European Left. But the spirit of our times is filled with an outlook into the future of Europe and the World he had utterly penetrated.
Far from the passé nationalist and dogmatic narratives that so many European politicians still ride, Ferrand had understood that national politics increasingly depended on the management of macro-economic trends and geopolitical rebalancing. He knew that these were to be placed at the center of local developments through European Democracy. He believed that open debates and clear-headed analysis was a key component of such democracy. He had a passion for the common good and the means to foster its discussion by civil society. He had a will to take this to the heart of local communities, through Terra Nova branches and political initiatives within the PS. He was an inspiration to us.
He died on Saturday 1st July, suffering a fatal heart attack at his home near Marseilles. The Terra Nova London team wishes to extend its most sincere regrets to his family and friends, and pay this first homage to the life of its founder.
Condolences and messages of support to his family may be posted on his website at http://www.olivierferrand.fr/