"The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not the only reason behind my not renewing my membership with the party," explained a former French Communist Party militant in a boisterous shopkeepers' cafe in the former Parisian market district of Les Halles.
Complaining that he had become disillusioned with the PCF's hardline leadership and blatant obsequiousness to Moscow, the 30-year-old French printer, a party activist since his late teens, emphasized, however, that he would not join any other party. "I shall remain a communist sympathizer," he said, "but for the moment I see no political alternative."
Over the past two years, the PCF has increasingly isolated itself not only from the rest of France, but also from its "Eurocommunist" allies in Italy and Spain. It has also returned to a strong public pro-Moscow stance.
Many left-wing supporters, both Communist and Socialist, feel that the PCF torpedoed the March 1978 legislative elections because it feared that the Socialist Party of Francois Mitterrand would gain the upper hand in the event of a united left victory.
All hopes for a renewed left coalition appear to be dashed.
All this, particularly the PCF's support of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has contributed to a small but significant number of Communists leaving the party. It has also caused serious in-house dissension among supporters, such as journalists at L'Humanite, the communist daily, over PCF policy.
Communist officials here in Paris mechanically pass off defections from the party as "isolated cases." But it is quite obvious that much concern has arisen over dissatisfaction among its militants.
In several local elections earlier this month, the Communists, who represent roughly 20 percent of the national vote, lost at least two points.
Furthermore, the now 90,000-strong French communist youth movement, considered a vital grass-roots base for the party, has lost more than 20,000 supporters since spring 1978.
The PCF blames this decline on the Left's failure to win the legislative elections two years ago. But it also virulently accuses the Socialist Party of spreading falsities about the Communists that "only serve to confuse young people."
The bulk of Communist supporters, however, tend to remain faithful no matter what. As one analyst put it: "A marginal portion of the PCF will always react critically to party policy, but the broad mass of militants will follow the red banner out of stubborn ideological principle, particularly if the party is being attacked from the outside."
This is exactly what is happening now. When the PCF found itself under heavy fire because of its support for the Soviet Union in January, thousands of communists rallied to the cause by signing "anti-imperialist" petitions condemning the "destablizing role of the United States."
Similarly, when two weeks ago the French newsweekly L'Express resuscitated the 10-year-old investigation into the wartime activities of PCF leader Georges Marchais, the party immediately closed ranks behind him.
The issue has been developed much further than simply trying to prove that he had gone to Germany to work in the Messerschmidt factory as a volunteer laborer, instead of a deportee, or that he remained for two years, and not one, as Mr. Marchais insists.
The publication of a registration document from the Augsburg archives in West Germany by L'Express cannot be considered sufficient evidence to prove Georges Marchais a liar and blacken the legitimacy of his wartime credentials, which, to enter the PCF, had to be impeccable.
Yet the French communist leader's own version of events remain extremely vague, despite editorials and testimonies in L'Humanite claiming that Mr. Marchais was one of the 125,000 Frenchmen forcibly deported to Germany prior to February 1943, and that he had indeed left Germany in 1943 never to return.
The question now being raised is whether Mr. Marchais was an agent for Comintern or not. (Comintern was the international organization of communist parties between 1919 and 1943). According to the Socialist-leaning newsweekly Nouvel Observateur, Mr. Marchais cultivated close contacts with Comintern before 1947, the date he joined the PCF. It further alleges that Mr. Marchais attended the communist training school in Moscow in 1954-55.
According to the magazine and follow-up pieces in the media this then explains how Mr. Marchais was able to rise so spectacularly in the party hierarchy and why he was chosen to attend the exclusive training school in Moscow.
A running controversy, these investigations into Mr. Marchais' background are denounced by the Communists as a "plot by the politicians with no holds barred." More precisely, L'Humanite pointedly accused the "right-wing and socialist parties for joining up in an anticommunist front."
Mr. Marchais, who is expected to be nominated as PCF candidate in the 1981 presidential elections, maintains they are trying to smudge his electoral credibility. In anger, the Communists have now begun flinging mud at their opponents, most of it directed at the Socialists.
Not only is the PCF accusing them of having collaborated with the government during the Algerian war of killing and torturing freedom fighters, but it is also seeking to exploit the fact that Vichy France awarded Mr. Mitterrand the franquiste, a wartime medal for esteemed citizens.
The Communists conveniently neglected to point out that Mr. Mitterrand was at that time operating out of London with the Resistance.