Sinking French Communist Party looks for a way out

The French Communist Party is struggling for survival. The Communists suffered their worst electoral defeat since the 1930s in the recent presidential election. One-quarter of the party's traditional base, some 1.5 million Frenchmen, cast their votes for Socialist Francois Mitterrand in the April 26 first round of presidential balloting.

Since the election, PCF leader Georges Marchais has been pushing the Socialists for Communist participation in a future left- wing government. In an agreement announced June 4, the two parties said they would work together to "create the conditions for a new policy as demanded by the French [people]."

But, for the moment, there is no question of Communist ministers being appointed. Although the Communists and Socialists have come to terms on a limited number of social and political issues, they still remain divided over vital foreign policy matters such as Afghanistan, Poland, the installation of Soviet SS-20s in Eastern Europe, as well as certain domestic problems, above all , nationalization.

Past experience, particularly in regional and municipal councils, has shown that French Communists and Socialists make, more often than not, incompatible coalition bedfellows. In the months preceding the May 10 presidential election, Mr. Marchais, while trumpeting himself as the "only anti- Giscard candidate," seemed just as determined to discredit Mr. Mitterrand.

But when the disastrous Communist election results were announced -- indicating the PCF had dropped from 20 to 15 percent of the French vote -- the party leadership realized that it could not afford to ignore the desire among the Communist base for a new left-wing majority, Socialist-dominated or not.

Only the forthcoming legislative elections (June 14 and 21) will demonstrate to what extent these Communist defectors have left the party for good. And only then, maintains political analyst Raymond Aron, will one know whether the PCF has become an "anachronistic fossil of the past . . . condemned to mediocrity."

But the signs of decline abound. At least 10 percent of the PCF's estimated 650,000 registered party stalwarts have failed to renew their membership this year. Thousands more, including intellectuals and leading activists, have either resigned or been expelled since the dissolution of the Socialist- Communist Union of the Left in late 1977. During the same period, the Communist-led Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) trade union lost half its members.

For decades, the majority of French workers have regarded the PCF as the party of hope and progress. This role now appears to have been assumed by the Socialists. In contrast, the PCF is increasingly considered by many not only as old- fashioned and uninspired, but also completely out of touch with reality.

Indicative of the PCF's entrenched suspicions to anyone not of "the party," Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer specifically designed the building, nicknamed "the bunker," to deter intruders. Television cameras screen the narrow main entrance, and low-ceilinged zig-zagged corridors are purposely obstructed to prevent a clear line of fire. Obstacles on the roof make it impossible for a helicopter to land.

The PCF switchboard also does its utmost to discourage inquiries, even seemingly innocuous ones, particularly if they originate from the media. Unlike the Communist Party of Italy, Spain, and Yugoslavia, it is virtually impossible to obtain official comment on touchy matters such as Afghanistan or PCF finances. With regard to present Socialist-Communist relations, all officials have been ordered to withhold comment.

"The party's treatment of the press is always a barometer of what is really happening," noted Maurice Goldring, a soft-spoken communist intellectual and member of the dissident Rencontre Communiste, a group of militants seeking party reform by calling for open debate of PCF policy.

Because of this severe criticism from within, the sectarian, pro-Moscow leadership is groping for new direction in an attempt to shore up losses. Above all, and hence the June 4 agreement, it is hoping to prevent the Socialists from sweeping traditionally Communist-held constituencies during the legislative elections.

"At the moment, the leadership's line is unity at all costs," said Mr. Goldring. "But it really does not know how to deal with the situation," he added. "If it does start changing immediately and adopt a more conciliatory 'Eurocommunist' attitude, the PCF could crumble."

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