The French Communist Party has become (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) a puzzle wrapped in a mystery. It made a poorer showing than many expected in the recent French election. Its whole current performance poses a number of problems. At least two are most pertinent.
* The other two of West Europe's main communist parties, the Italian and the Spanish, have widened the gap with the Kremlin and look forward to the emergence of a third force independent of both Washington and Moscow. the french communists, instead, are identifying more and more with Moscow. Why?
* As the Italian and the Spanish communists see it, a third force should represent the European left as a whole. They accordingly advocate a close cooperation among communists, socialists, and social democrats. The French communists, for their part, consider that the socialists are an instrument of reaction disguised as progressives and as such more dangerous than the political right. Why?
There was a time when the French communist position was very close to the "Eurocommunism" advocated by their Italian and Spanish comrades. Then why the change?
A number of explanations have been advanced by European political commentators. Two appear to be particularly relevant:
(1) The French Communist Party (PCF) has come to the conclusion that in the competition between East and West the Soviet camp will finally triumph.
(2) The PCF is apparently convinced that its only chance to gain power is not through free elections but in the wake of victorious Soviet armies. Its interest, therefore, is to identify with the Soviet camp and to contribute to the latter's success.
As to the first point, the evidence is conclusive. On his way back from a trip to Cuba some time ago, French communist leader Georges Marchais stopped over in Rome for talks with his Italian counterpart, Enrico Berlinguer. Marchais told the Italians that conversations with Fidel Castro had strengthened his conviction in the final triumph of the Soviet camp. The West, he said, is disintegrating under its contraditions, it's just a question of time, so why not set aside all reservations and join the winning camp?
The Italians were not in the least impressed by Marchais's arguments and told him so.
Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While Berlinguer was denouncing the Kremlin before the European Parliament, Marchais was mounting a major campaign in support of the Soviets. Lately, the PCF has been critical of the Eurocommunist parties for warning Moscow of the gravest consequences should it intervene militarily in Poland.
To identify with the Soviet camp betting on its final triumph has implied for the PCF a change of direction. Marchais's main concern today is to preserve the party's structure, especially the well-disciplined hard core, those who will be ready to strike for power when the moment comes. But most members will stay with the party only if convinced that it has a future. Marchais must therefore periodically show the party's muscles and convince as many voters as possible that it, and it only, can lead France to socialism.
* The PCF controls the powerful General Confederation of Labor, a very important asset especially at a time when unemployment is very high, young people reach working age by the hundreds of thousands with no hope of finding a job, inflation soars, and not much has been done to reduce the inequalities of fortune.
* The party can exploit some positive aspects of its past. It was undoubtedly the movement that contributed the most to the anti-Nazi underground during World War II and whose sacrifices in terms of human lives was the greatest. It also played a significant role in the struggle for the independence of North Africa and decolonization.
* Many social conquests (40-hour week, social security, paid vacations, etc.) were made possible by that indirect form of pressure that is fear of communism.
* The PCF also appeals to many noncommunists who consider it a bulwark against a resurgence of fascism. A widespread identification of the US with imperialism and neocolonialism is also an element.
* With so much unemployment, the presence of 1,500,000 foreign workers causes discontent. The PCF exploits it with initiatives that can only be defined as racist.
It is not easy, of course, for a party to operate knowing that it will never be able to gain power through the democratic process while waiting for the West to collapse. But the PCF has placed its men in all key spots throughout the country, and come the day it awaits it will be ready.