By Sybille de La Hamaide and Leigh Thomas
PARIS (Reuters) - Former French Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard, who two years ago urged Britons to leave the European Union before they destroyed it, died on Saturday at the age of 85, nine days after Britain voted to follow his advice.
Rocard, a Socialist who served as prime minister under President Francois Mitterrand from 1988 to 1991, became an ardent European federalist, spending 15 years in the European Parliament until he resigned in 2009.
In 2014 he wrote a bitter criticism of Britain's role in the EU bloc - an article that resonates strongly after Britons voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the EU in a referendum on June 23.
"Get out of Europe before you wreck it," Rocard wrote then in the headline of an opinion piece published by Britain's Guardian newspaper and France's Le Monde.
"You do not like Europe," he told Britons, blaming them for Europe's failures and accusing them of selfishness and an obsession with trade over the project for political unity.
"You never shared the true meaning of the project... always putting the national interest first - you reintroduced these ideas and made them contagious," he wrote.
"A great figure of the Republic and the Left has just disappeared," President Francois Hollande said in a statement.
Among Rocard's achievements were the creation of a minimum welfare benefit in France and reform of the financing of the welfare system.
SHADOW OF MITTERRAND
He lived a political life in the shadow of Mitterrand, the Socialist President of France from 1981 to 1995, but nevertheless helped lead France's Marxist-rooted Socialists toward market-friendly social democracy.
Admired on the Left and the Right as one of the brightest politicians of his generation, Rocard was co-founder in 1960 of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), a leftist group that played a role in the May 1968 student-worker uprising. He ran for president in 1969 but won just 3.6 percent of the vote.
After that he gradually moved to the centre-left in the 1970s and joined the Socialist party in 1974 after Mitterrand reunited it.
But he later fell out with his mentor, and their enmity dogged his long career. Mitterrand fired the popular premier after the Gulf War and kept a lid on his career after that.
In later life, Rocard was a staunch supporter of Hollande who is struggling with record low poll ratings and a deeply divided party.
"Francois Hollande has never run away from intelligent people who could overshadow him. That's the difference. That's the way to be governed," he told Reuters in an interview in February this year.
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor and Yves Clarisse; Writing by Andrew Callus; Editing by Richard Balmforth)