He was educated at Lycee School Tananarive. His good scholaship won him a place at the rench Naval Officers’ School.
Ratsiraka served as Minister of Foreign Affairs under Gabriel Ramanantsoa from 1972 until 1975. Known as the "Red Admiral", he was made head of state, as President of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, by the military leadership on June 15, 1975. He began setting up a socialist system, guided by the Charter of the Malagasy Socialist Revolution, which was approved in a referendum held on December 21, 1975, establishing the Second Republic; Ratsiraka was also elected President for a seven-year term in this referendum, which received the backing of 95% of voters according to official results. The political party Vanguard of the Malagasy Revolution (FNDR) was founded; in 1989 its name was changed to AREMA (Andry sy Rihana Enti-Manavotra an'i Madagasikara) (Pillar and Structure for the Salvation of Madagascar).
In the midst of a poor economic situation, Ratsiraka began to abandon socialist policies after a few years in power and implemented reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund. He was re-elected as President with 80% of the vote in 1982 and with 63% of the vote in 1989. The latter election was condemned as fraudulent by the opposition, which protested, and at least 75 people were killed in the resulting violence.
Ratsiraka faced intense opposition to his rule in 1991. On August 10, 1991, about 400,000 people marched on the Presidential Palace, and the Presidential Guard attacked the demonstrators with gunfire and grenades. The government placed the death toll at 11, although other reports placed the toll much higher. Ratsiraka said that he had not ordered the Presidential Guard to open fire, but Ratsiraka's orders have been recorded and in these records, he orders the helicopter to shoot the car of the HAS president and open fire on the strikers but the incident severely undermined his already precarious position. On 31 October, he signed the Panorama Convention, establishing a transitional government and stripping him of most of his powers; although he remained President, opposition leader Albert Zafy became head of the newly established High Authority of the State.
Didier Ratsiraka returned from exile on November 24, 2011, a move that was welcomed by the Rajoelina regime as well as by former presidents (and former opponents) Ravalomanana and Zafy. Ratsiraka has called for resolution of the political crisis through direct talks between all four political leaders, talks that should also involve other parties and civil society groups according to him.
He consented to a dialogue without any form of complacency on his life and political action with Cécile Lavrard-Meyer, lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris, which was published by Karthala in July 2015.
Ratsiraka ran in the multiparty November 1992 presidential election, placing second behind Zafy in the first round. In the second round, held in February 1993, Ratsiraka lost to Zafy, taking about one-third of the vote, and left office on March 27. Zafy was impeached in 1996, and Ratsiraka, who had been in exile in France, achieved a political comeback in late 1996 when he won that year's presidential election, running as the candidate of the AREMA party. He came in first place in the first round with 36.6% of the vote, ahead of his three main opponents: Zafy, Herizo Razafimahaleo, and Prime Minister/Acting President Norbert Ratsirahonana. He narrowly defeated Zafy in the runoff with 50.7% of the vote and took office again on February 9, 1997.
Members of the opposition, including Zafy, unsuccessfully attempted to impeach Ratsiraka in February 1998, accusing him of violating the constitution through decentralizing reforms that would increase his own power at the expense of that of the National Assembly. The impeachment motion also accused him of perjury, nepotism, and failing to act as supreme arbiter of disputes, and it cited his ill-health. In the National Assembly vote on February 4, 60 deputies voted for the impeachment motion, well short of the required 92.
He announced on June 26, 2001 that he would be a candidate for the presidential election to be held in December of that year. In the election, he took second place; according to the government, Marc Ravalomanana won first place with 46% while Ratsiraka took 40%. Because, according to the official results, no candidate won a majority, a runoff was to take place, but due to disputes over the election it was never held. Ravalomanana claimed to have won over 50 percent of the vote, enough to win the presidency in a single round. Ravalomanana was sworn in as President by his supporters on February 22, 2002, and the two governments fought for control of the country. By the end of February 2002, Ravalomanana had control over the capital, which had always been his base, but Ratsiraka largely maintained control over the provinces and established himself at Toamasina, his primary support base. However, within a few months Ravalomanana had gained the upper hand in a struggle. In mid-June Ratsiraka went to France, leading many to believe he had fled into exile and lowering the morale of his supporters, although Ratsiraka said he would return.He did return to Madagascar after more than a week, but his position was continuing to weaken militarily. On July 5, Ratsiraka fled Toamasina, taking a flight to the nearby Seychelles. Two days later he arrived in France.