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.