The French Communist Party has no future in the government. Does it have a future outside it? Answering that question, crucial for the left well beyond France, requires an analysis of the party’s recent spectacular decline in more than electoral terms.

At the beginning of 1968 the French C.P. was a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a party committed to parliamentary participation pretending to be a revolutionary organization. That May, when students and young workers precipitated the biggest strike in the country’s history, the C.P., far from leading the movement, found itself in the rear, dragging the French workers by their overalls toward electoral defeat.

Its reputation and its revolutionary’ prospects both shattered, the C.P. realized it was vital to clear the parliamentary road. For that it needed partners, and therefore came to the rescue of the Socialists, who at the time were in even worse shape than the Communists. In 1972 the C.P. signed a common program with the convalescent Socialist Party just taken over by François Mitterrand. This was the period when the French Communist Party could have become, like the Italian, the dominant force on the left, the largest reformist party in its country. To achieve that, it should, like the Italian party, have dismantled its Stalinist heritage quickly, thoroughly and visibly.

The French Communists have so far proceeded with that task both clumsily and halfheartedly. They broke officially with the Soviet model but never examined its nature seriously and did not dissociate themselves from Soviet policy in, for example, Afghanistan. They took chunks out of their program, including such ideas as the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” without explaining why or replacing them with anything new. The very process of liberalization was carried on in a most undemocratic way, the poor rank and file learning the latest twist in the party line when its leader, Georges Marchais, was being interviewed on television. Truth and power were flowing from above.

The inevitable happened. The Socialist Party recovered, then began gaining ground. The Communists found out where it hurt–in the ballot boxes–and they altered their strategy of alliance, again misleadingly. They suddenly “discovered” that their Socialist partners were not “revolutionary” and precipitated a break, not on any fundamental issue about the future of society but on the precise number of firms to be nationalized. Though in 1978 the divided left thereby lost a general electron that was well within its grasp, the Communists did not immediately pay a penalty. Three years later, in the presidential poll, they paid it with a vengeance, losing a quarter of their support (their share of votes dropped from around 22 percent to just over 15 percent). Eager French leftists rallied to the Socialists, who not only conquered the presidency but also won an absolute majority in the. lower house of parliament. With no bargaining power, Marchais opted for government participation without influence.

American commentators who wrote about the “Red peril” in June 1981, when the Communists obtained four of forty-four seats in the new government, had a strange sense of humor. The deal was good for Mitterrand as insurance against labor unrest. It brought little to the C.P., whose ministers soon had to sit silently while the French President preached publicly for Reagan’s Euromissiles. True, the first year went smoothly, as electoral pledges were met. Then, the attempt at a Keynesian recovery having failed, the government opted for the classic capitalist cure of austerity, with dire consequences for employment. With the Communist working-class bastions of coal, steel, the automobile industry and shipbuilding under attack, the partners were set on a collision course.

In fairness to Marchais and his colleagues, it must be said that France in the last few years has witnessed a change of ideological climate and an unprecedented anti-Communist campaign. However, the party did its best to help the gulag philosophers, siding with General Jaruzelski rather than the Polish workers, for example. Still, the heart of the matter was economic. You could not belong to a government ostensibly acting as the manager of a capitalist society in crisis, talk like the opposition and remain credible. The verdict came in June in the European Parliament elections. With the C.P. vote at 11 percent–back at its 1928 level–the days of government participation, and probably of Marchais, were numbered. Mitterrand’s change of government on July 17 merely precipitated the Communist departure.

If the French Communist Party is to recover, its task is immense. It must solve the never-answered question facing “Eurocommunism”: what to put in place of the shattered Soviet model. For a time Western Communist Parties seemed to be groping toward a social democratic solution. The Mitterrand government has dramatically proved that in time of crisis, that is no solution–at least not one that appeals to a left-wing electorate. The C.P. would thus have to demonstrate to a doubting public that a realistic alternative does exist, that the choice is not limited to “really existing socialism” or bankrupt social democracy.

Throwing Marchais overboard is not enough: The party must undergo a political and cultural revolution, cease to be a machine–by now inefficient–for carrying out orders from above and become a living body searching for a radical alternative. Most people in Paris think the heritage of Stalinism, sclerosis and parliamentary cretinism is by now fatal. But most French Communists are deeply aware that their party’s survival is at stake. If they do not soon embark on a genuine and open debate, the Communist exit from the government will merely be a pause on the road toward historical doom.