In the final run-up to the French presidential election, the Moscow-oriented French Communist Party is conducting its campaign with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop.
Faced with the prospect of their poorest election showing since the war, the Communists appear to have decided to pull out all the stops in a bid to rally popular support for their leader, George Marchais, by launching a concerted attack on immigration. It's a battle couched in the crudest of terms, which plays on the prejudices of those who resent the presence in France of some 4 million immigrants -- most of them North Africans.
It is a strange policy for any party of the left to adopt. For the French Communist Party -- which a few short years ago was loudly proclaiming the need for French and immigrant workers to recognize their common interests -- it represents a complete about-face.
The logic behind it, however, is obvious enough. The Communists badly need to win over a new sector of the electorate. Since their break with the Union of the Left in 1977 and subsequent rapprochement with Moscow (they) support the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan) -- they have many of their traditional supporters on the Left.
Some polls are predicting Mr. Marchais will get only 15 percent of the vote in this spring's election -- down 5 percent from the last national election in 1974. What the Communists are seeking to do is to make up that loss by angling for the vote of those they call the "pauvres" -- the low-paid urban blue-collar workers.
With high unemployment, and given the fact that large immigrant communities dom pose real problems in France, the appeal of the anti-immigration "bait" is clear.
But as the Communists' campaign gains momentum, their apparent readiness to resort to strong-arm tactics (to the point of victimizing individual immigrant families) is arousing increasing public indignation.
Recognized Communist Party stalwarts, including a number of distinguished lawyers, have taken pains to publicly dissociate themselves from the anti-immigration drive. And political commentators of every hue are beginning to ask whether the Communists have not, this time, overplayed their hand. Even the present French government -- whose own immigration policy has been at best selective -- has been drawn into the debate. Ironically, it finds itself attacking the Communists for a closed-door immigration policy not altogether unlike its own.
The current Communist campaign began in earnest last October, with a call by Communist mayor of Aulnaysous-Bois, near Paris, for an immediate end to all immigration and a more equitable distribution of immigrants throughout the country. The theme was swiftly taken up and elaborated by George Marchais. In tones more reminiscent of the extreme right than the left, he stated that further immigration would only serve to increase unemployment among both French and immigrant workers.
The next few weeks these appeals transformed abruptly into action: Just before Christmas, a group of some 50 Communist activists in the PAris suburb of Vitry-sur- Seine, led by the local Communist mayor, carried out a military-style raid on a newly completed hostel intended for immigrant workers from Mali. Using a bulldozer, they broke down the door, cut off gar, electricity, and water supplies. They then blocked windows and staircases with earth and rubble before retreating.
The bulldozer incident was just the first in a rash of similar attacks on immigrants in Communist-controlled areas. A week later, Bagnolet, another Communist municipality near Paris expelled 60 North Africans from their hotel lodgings, on the grounds that the buildings were "unsanitary."
Two other Communist councils in the Paris region (Nanterre and St. Denis) have since refused to make homes available for workers from French overseas territories; the mayor of a third (Dammarie-les-Lys) has announced his intention to close a local hostel which houses workers from Tunisia, Portugal, Algeria, Italy, and Morocco. And the Communist councilors at Ivry have voted to impose a quota of 15 percent on the number of immigrant children to be allowed into the local holiday camp.
The latest and most controversial in this series of exploits involved some 100 Communist Party activists in the town of Montigny (Val d'Oise). Led by their mayor, and complete with banners and megaphones, they staged a "spontaneous" demonstration outside the home of a Moroccan worker, Muhammed Kharbouch, whom they accused -- on the strength of an anonymous letter -- of dealing drugs. The charge, as it turned out, was baseless.
Condemnation of the Montigny incident has been swift and unanimous. The Moroccan ambassador to France, Youssef Ben Abbes, deemed it sufficiently important to call a press conference, at which he declared: "It is clear that the Communists will stop at nothing -- not even the victimization of the innocent -- to achieve their electoral aims." One of France's major trade union organizations, the Confederation Francais Democratique de Travail, which is close to the Socialist Party, issued a statement in which it accused the Communists of "setting up a policy based on electoralism and designed to appeal to the racist sentiments of part of the population."
Lionel Stoleru, the minister of state with special responsibility for immigrant affairs, gave the government's view: "I shudder to think of the future for immigrants in France if the Communists should ever come to power, for it seems they would not hesitate to set the country on the road to apartheid. . . . Or could it be that on becoming a candidate for the presidency, George Marchais tumbled on the fact that immigrants don't have the vote?"