After years of retreat and opportunism and consequent loss of support and influence, the French Communist Party (PCF) is showing signs of life. Aligned with smaller parties in the Left Front (Front de Gauche, FG), the PCF has rallied around the presidential candidacy of Jean Melenchon for the forthcoming first round of French elections. The latest polls show Melenchon with over 14% of the prospective voters, ahead of all other candidates excepting Hollande (PS) and Sarkozy (UMP).
This once dynamic party succumbed to the allure of reformism, anti-Sovietism, and compromise with its embrace of the so-called “Euro-Communist” stance in the seventies. With over half a million members immediately after World War II, and garnering more votes than any other party at that time, the PCF was poised to become the dominant force in French politics, if not the first CP to launch a Western European country onto the road to socialism.
In fairness, the US and its NATO allies did everything to see that this did not happen. The Marshall Plan, coupled with covert activities of the CIA, served to undermine the Party’s ascendancy. But as early as the 1960s, the PCF began a rightward tilt to curry electoral favor and seek a left coalition with the compromised Socialist Party of Francois Mitterand. This trend escalated under the leadership of Georges Marchais, who constantly repositioned the CP ideologically to earn “respectability” and middle-strata appeal. Locked in this concessionary cycle, the Party leadership distanced itself from the Soviet Union and its history while seeking an image of bourgeois civility and sobriety.
Thus began a long period of further compromise and decline.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the leadership – first under Robert Hue and then Marie-George Buffet – the PCF embarked on a process of discarding Leninism entirely and refashioning the organization as a social-democratic formation—the so called “la mutation.” Believing that the departure of the Soviet Union reflected a failure and rejection of Leninism and revolutionary Marxism, Hue and Buffet sought to establish a moderate party of the left suitable to the new moment. Instead, the PCF membership and electoral strength sank dramatically, culminating in Buffet’s failure to attract even 2% of the votes in the 2007 Presidential first round election, a nadir unprecedented since the Second World War. The Party’s courtship with opportunism proved disastrous.
The creation of the Left Front and the ascendancy of Pierre Laurent to the position of National Secretary have seemingly brought a modest reversal to the Party’s long-term decline. Beginning with the municipal elections of 2008, the PCP has shown some electoral vigor.
But most significantly, the 2012 electoral campaign behind Jean Melenchon has brought new energy and organizational credibility to the Party. Opinion polling has shown a strong and unexpected support for the Melenchon candidacy. The campaign culminated in a mass rally of between 110,000 and 150,000 at the Place de la Bastille in Paris on March 18, the anniversary of the Paris Commune. Speeches demonstrated at least a new symbolic militancy, with references to the Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune.
Perhaps the surest mark of the new direction of the PCP is the endorsement of Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate, by the PCF’s former leader, Robert Hue. Hue led the Party from 1994 until 2002, the period of its most dramatic ideological and popular slippage. Surely that unfriendly endorsement demonstrates that some things have changed for the better.
Melenchon has campaigned on re-nationalizing many of the leading corporations, strengthening the public sector, and criminalizing corruption and fraud in the private sector. He favors direct democracy—national referenda -- on all questions of French sovereignty, especially with regard to the EU. In addition, the Left Front supports higher taxes on the rich, a substantial increase in the minimum wage, and expanded rights of immigrants.
Pierre Laurent, National Secretary of the PCF, sees the campaign as more than another call for electoral support; rather, he views the movement as an invitation to “prenez le pouvoir”—to take the power.
Christian Piquet, spokesperson for the Gauche Unitaire, a component of the Left Front, reminds us that with the campaign "We are building a force indispensable for the defeat of the right, and also for the redistribution of the cards on the Left." This resolve to unite the objective of defeating the right with strengthening the left is a mission lost on much of the left in Europe and the US, and a welcome reminder of the dialectics of Marxist politics.
Hopefully, the Communist Party of France has taken a large step towards returning to the militancy and tradition of its past.