French Communists sell history to make ends meet

Some of Western Europe's once-powerful communist parties find it hard to stay afloat since fall of USSR.

Black traces are all that's left of the plaque that once hung on the ornate stone facade, identifying the apartment building in a quiet residential neighborhood as the place where Vladimir Lenin lived during a stay in Paris from 1909 to 1912.

The first-floor apartment, where the Russian revolutionary and Communist ideologue wrote some of his works, was a pilgrimage site for Soviet leaders such as Michael Gorbachev. But a museum owned by the French Communist Party is no longer in evidence. "I remember when delegations carrying banners and flags would come here and sign the Internationale [a socialist anthem], but no one comes here anymore," says an employee of a religious bookstore across the street.

The French Communist Party, once one of the most powerful and pro-Soviet in Western Europe, denies reports that it has sold the apartment to raise badly needed cash. But party officials have sold other properties, including the building that housed the North Vietnamese delegation to the 1968-1973 Paris peace talks on the Vietnam War, and received loans of about $1 million over the past year.

More than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communist parties across Western Europe are in the midst of an ideological, financial, and organizational crisis, unable to clearly define what communism means after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Unable to attract young voters, they are loosing out to more radical formations on the left and at times to the extreme right.

Once-powerful parties in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece have either split, merged into broader left-wing coalitions, or lost most of their clout as European societies have modernized and industries such as steel, coal, and shipbuilding - once the Communists' core voting base - have largely disappeared.

"All of the communist parties are in a very bad situation," says Mark Lazar, a French political scientist who has studied European Communism. "Their one remaining trump card is that the Socialists still need the Communists in order to govern." In Italy, the Communists provoked the fall of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's Socialist government in 1997 in a dispute over reducing the work week to 35 hours. In France, Communists were successful at cutting the work week, with four ministers in the Socialist coalition led by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. "The Socialist Party has put the French Communist Party on life-support for the simple reason that it prefers to see the Communists on its side rather than as part of a more left-wing movement," Lazar adds.

He estimates that most Communist parties in Western Europe will attract between 6 and 10 percent of the vote in coming years, a far cry from the 20 to 25 percent the French and Italian Communists regularly received in the 1970s. In last year's elections for the European Parliament, Communist parties declined sharply or were barely able to match their levels in the 1994 contest.

By its own account, the French Communist Party has lost 90,000 members in the past three years. While it claims to have 184,000 dues-paying militants, some observers believe the real number is much smaller. "I haven't paid my dues in ages, and I still get my card in the mail every year," says one woman, who didn't want to be identified.

The French Communist Party is one of the few that has not changed its name, although party president Robert Hue has tried to modernize the party by admitting the mistakes of Soviet-style Communism, democratizing its internal structure, and allowing more open debate. "Being a member of a communist party is like being a member of a church. The moment you try to reform, the whole thing collapses," says Josseline Abonneau, a journalist at the daily Le Figaro who is an expert on French Communism. "Hue made the same mistake as Gorbachev. When you try to reform, you loose your militant base, but do not gain new voters."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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