In each election since World War II, conservatives have confronted the French public with a stark choice: elect us or face a doctrinaire Communist Party. The communists stubbornly held a loyal one-fifth of the electorate, making it impossible for more moderate leftists to rule without them. It was an effective scare tactic. Until 1981, the conservatives won every Fifth-Republic election.
But today, France finds itself in the midst of a presidential campaign - the first round of voting is on April 24 - and no one is talking about the communist menace. The communists have split into hard-line and reformist factions.
Official party candidate Andr'e Lajoinie is polling only 6 percent. Dissident candidate Pierre Juquin, until recently party spokesman and a politburo member, is expected to win 3 percent.
``You can't say that the Communist Party is buried,'' says Le Monde journalist Olivier Biffaud, ``but they are well on their way to their graves.''
Not long ago, the communists earned respect for their large role in the resistance to Nazi occupation. After the World War II, many French intellectuals rallied to the party. Marxism and the Soviet Union were in vogue. Comrades included shining stars such as Michel Foucault, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Then came the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, the intervention in Afghanistan, and the pressure on Poland to ban the independent trade union Solidarity. The French Communist Party gave vocal support to Moscow. And one by one, French intellectuals quit the party.
The crushing blow came at home when socialist Fran,cois Mitterrand was elected President in 1981. The Socialist Party's victory awakened hopes of a break with capitalism and a transformation of society. Mr. Mitterrand brought the communists into his government, but gave them little real power, thus neutralizing them as an opposition force.
When the socialists' spending binge caused inflation and the trade deficit to soar, Mitterrand turned to austerity and the communists pulled out of the government.
The damage was done. The party had lost its status as the voice of the disaffected. Today, Mr. Lajoinie admits it was ``a mistake'' for the communists to join the government in 1981.
``We lost our credibility as defenders of the underdog by joining a governmment which didn't carry out our policies,'' says Gerard le Puill, of the official communist daily L'Humanite. ``Now the person who screams the loudest gets the attention.''
Jean-Marie Le Pen of the extreme right National Front is screaming the loudest. Many unemployed or working-class former communists support him and his promises of jobs in an Arabs-free France. Polls show Mr. Le Pen could win as much as 12 percent of the votes.
Battered and beaten, the Communist Party structure is sectarian and split. Glasnost and experiments in multicandidate elections may be in vogue in Moscow, but when reformers pressed for such changes inside the French party, they were branded ``traitors'' and forced to quit the party.
Lajoinie and the hard-liners want to return to communist purity. They fear the communists lost their identity when they cooperated with the socialists, and say that only by striking a hard line will they once again be able to act as a serious alternative party.
In contrast, Juquin and other dissidents want to unite a divided and disgruntled left ranging from disillusioned socialists to militant Trotskyites.
``Our organization is a rainbow coalition,'' says Marie-Helene Lalande, Juquin's press secretary.
As with communist reformers elsewhere in Western Europe, Juquin's tactic is to stress his independence from Moscow and to compromise on ideology. He supports unilateral disarmament, letting immigrants vote, mandating equal numbers of men and women to elected positions, freezing salaries while trimming the work week, and independence for the territory New Caledonia.
Both Lajoinie and Juquin have image problems. Lajoinie, with his gruff manner and harsh working-class image, fails to capture the public's imagination in this increasingly middle-class country. Juquin comes off as a cultivated, sophisticated Parisian intellectual, but observers say his communist past threatens potential noncommunist supporters.
``Juquin's like a defrocked priest,'' says Mr. Defarges of the International Relations Institute. ``And who trusts a defrocked person?''
These days, the same question holds for all French communists.