The French Communist Party within the Left and Alternative Movements

David S Bell. Modern & Contemporary France. Volume 12, Issue 1. February 2004.

French Communism once dominated the Left of the Left and assimilated within itself most of the ‘alternative’ political movements. However, the decline of Communism has created a space on the extreme Left that has been exploited by a myriad of small movements. These have occupied a political territory that the Communists would like to claim for their own, but they are unable to reclaim their once hegemonic position and find themselves a junior partner in many of the transactions on the extreme Left. Communist decline and their inability to find a way out of their impasse are connected with the same thing–their rigidity. However, if Communism changes it will cease to be Communist and the indications are, given Communist history and politics, that it is not capable of making the changes.

On the Left, French political life was, for many years after the Second World War, dominated by the Parti communiste français (PCF), and for most of this period the ‘alternative Left’ was the Communist Party. Its influence extended across the political spectrum to the Socialist Party and it all but controlled the ‘alternative Left’, mobilising issue groups for its own purposes. However, the Communist Party faced competition in the 1970s from the revived Socialist Party and then in the 1990s from the ‘alternative Left’. By the 1980s its hegemony over the Left had disappeared, and by the 1990s its ‘tribune’ role had been challenged and even appropriated by other movements. There are therefore two separate questions to be answered about the PCF and ‘alternative’ politics. First is the nature of its decline and the nature of the Party (and how these are linked), and second is the problem it faces in the new competition for the ‘tribune’ role and its consequent lack of presence in contemporary ‘alternative’ movements.

There have always been groups to the left of the Communist Party and these have played important roles on sporadic occasions since the war. These groupuscules of mainly Trotskyists infiltrated unions and the Socialist Party and exerted influence in that way, but were in electoral terms insignificant. But, although they had no long‐term success, they proved adept (as they did in the 1990s) at picking up and expressing discontent that the Communist Party either neglected or—in some cases—contested. This competition probably worried the CGT unions more than the Party itself because the grip of the unions on French working life was weak, and, politically guided as they were, they were not always attuned to the problems on the shop floor. Overall, however, the Communist Party–CGT tandem remained hegemonic on the extreme Left until the 1990s.

In October 1946 the French Communist Party polled 28.6 per cent and for a long time it was by far the biggest western Party. In 1978, despite a challenge from the new and fast rising Parti socialiste (PS), it still attracted 5.8 million voters, or 20.6 per cent of the vote. At this time it still constituted almost the totality of the Left of the PS and its importance as an alliance partner was its capacity to bring to the union of the Left a bloc of votes crucial to electoral victory. Its ability to deliver that bloc was eroded over the 1980s and 1990s. Although the Communist Party continued to decline, it remained the dominant force on the ‘alternative Left’, and even if the ecologists made some electoral headway, the extreme Left did not. Although there was no immediate change, probably the key turning point was 1968. Until then, Communists had not recognised competition on the Left and in May 1968 it did not know who the various groups were. It was forced to take notice and responded by fighting (sometimes violently) with the rising new groups because its ‘halo of proletarian sanctity’ had been lost and its legitimacy challenged. However, it still retained a dominance over the Marxist Left and over the working class that was without equal. Its search for an alliance with the Socialist Party mobilised workers and activists but it also opened a door to non‐parliamentary protest movements.

When the Communist Party’s demand for ministerial portfolios was granted in 1981 with four posts, the Party’s decline continued unstopped. On the one hand, the Communist Party became part of the governing coalition and unable to use its freedom in opposition to capitalise on discontent (not that it did not try), but on the other hand, the prestige of the USSR and of international Communism was damaged beyond repair. In the 1988 general elections the Communist Party was undergoing its own crisis: the Eastern bloc fell in 1989 and then the USSR itself was dissolved in 1992. French Communists chose to ignore this as far as possible and made only minimal concessions to the post‐Socialist world, and other political forces emerged on the ‘alternative Left’.

In the 1990s their vote fell to 6.8 per cent in the 1999 European elections and 2.5 million votes representing 9.9 per cent (or so) of the voters in the 1997 general elections. Warning was given of a challenge from the Trotskyists in the 1995 presidential elections when Lutte ouvrière’s Arlette Laguiller polled over five per cent, but the Party had polled better than it had expected and went into government with the Socialists. This governmental phase turned out to be another stage in its decline. It was no longer a national party having its vote concentrated in a small number of départements, but decay extended further into its municipal strongholds. Before the 2001 municipal and cantonal elections, it held 74 towns and cities with a population of over 15,000, but kept only 51 towns. As we shall see below, this decline turned to catastrophe at the presidential and general elections of 2002.

Communist Strengths and Weaknesses

Communism has always been capable of attracting motivated Party workers. Comparatively, Party membership has been higher than other parties (on the Right as much as on the Left), and there is ample testimony to the devotion and hard work of its activists. However, membership has by the Party’s own account fallen dramatically. In January 1994, at the end of the Marchais era, it stated that its membership was 590,000, but by 1996 this had fallen to 274,000. This dramatic fall might just have been a less optimistic counting but it was confirmed in June 1997, with the first Party members’ vote (on whether to participate in the government), and by 1999 the numbers had fallen to 210,000. In April 2000 at the 30th Congress, Robert Hue gave a figure of 203,500, but by June 2001 it was said to stand at 150,000. L’Humanité has also suffered a falling circulation and has made lay‐offs (56 jobs were lost in May 2001).

The French Party remains a substantially unaltered Communist Party despite talk about mutation by the leadership. It is a recognisably Leninist Party of professional revolutionaries organised in a hierarchical and disciplined manner. Thus the main factor in the comportment of the Communist Party is its sizeable but rigid organisation. This is a Party still run by its permanents (full‐time employees), with all the strengths and weaknesses inherent in such a system. The strengths are the Party’s ability to deploy dedicated workers and to manipulate meetings and other ‘mass’ organisations. Its weaknesses are its inability to adapt or to incorporate new forces. For example, the Communists once ran fronts (which they controlled) and organised demonstrations but they are not constructed for the give and take, flexible, variable geometry coalitions of contemporary alternative movements. One example is the historian Roger Martelli, who refused to participate in the committee preparing the April 2003 Congress because it would not allow discussion of strategy or ideology.

Communist fronts manipulated in the Party’s interests were a valuable resource. But there are few of these left and only the CGT remains a credible ‘transmission belt into the masses’—though it is not what it once was. This close CGT/PCF association has always been denied and it is now supposedly different (symbolised by CGT leader Bernard Thibault’s withdrawal from the National Council). Yet it was the PCF leadership itself which decided not to re‐elect Thibault, a decision that threw into doubt the claim that ‘les rapports entre la CGT et le PCF […] caractérisés par la primauté du parti sur l’organisation syndicale’ have changed. Moreover, the orthodox line is still emphasised, which is that the ‘mouvement syndical n’est pas spontanément porteur des solutions nouvelles’ or, in other words, the guidance of the Party is still needed.

There is no sign of the PCF loosening its grip on the CGT because the Communists on the CGT Comité national and Executive are particularly hardline, but the PCF has evidently decided it needs to retain control. Although much was made of Bernard Thibault (CGT Secretary General) standing down from the PCF’s National Council he owes his position to the PCF. Of the 17 CGT Confederal Bureau members, 12 are Communists and the National Council of the PCF has its contingent of CGT members, as does its executive. Thibault’s incoherent line is a reflection not of independence but of the turbulence in the Party itself. Most of the public believe that the PCF dominates the union, as the CGT’s own poll confirmed when it found that 54 per cent thought that the CGT was not independent and only 38 per cent thought that it was. The Trotskyite accusation that it was dominated by the PCF and through that by the Socialist government found some echo.

But the CGT faces competition, and its position as the principal union federation has been steadily eroded, although it has had occasional successes (such as the split of the Fédération syndicale unitaire (FSU) from the teachers’ union). Although Force ouvrière is ostensibly reformist, Trotskyism is highly significant within it, and it has been infiltrated by the Parti des travailleurs. Moreover, while reformist unions like the Confédération française des travailleurs are growing, the CGT also finds itself rivalled by other confrontational unions like the FSU and others within the Groupe des dix. In the small unions of the Groupe des dix, the Trotskyists are strong and they challenge the CGT in the post office sector, France Télécom, hospitals and railways.

Competition on the Left

In today’s France the space exploited by ‘alternative’ parties is already full; neither should it be forgotten that the extreme Right is also now a well‐implanted challenge in formerly Communist milieux. In addition to the several ecologist parties, that is the Verts, Génération écologie, CAP 21 and others, which now constitute an important part of the party spectrum, there are Trotskyist challenges to the Communist Party itself in its core areas, as well as interest groups like ATTAC or SOS‐Racisme.

Of the myriad Trotskyist organisations the most important are Lutte ouvrière (LO), the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) and the Parti des travailleurs. Trotskyist organisations have kept a revolutionary perspective alive without qualms and have recruited, in the process, many of those who refuse to contemplate l’exercice du pouvoir. None is a friend of the Communist Party and both LO and LCR have expressed the hope to replace it as the ‘workers’ party’. They are, nevertheless, tiny and divided, and may number only about 6000 or so activists between them.

However, since the breakthrough by Arlette Laguiller in the 1995 presidential elections, the Trotskyist movement has made significant electoral progress. In the regional elections of 1998, LO and LCR jointly polled 4.35 per cent of the vote (13 councillors); in the 1999 European elections their list took 5.18 per cent (five MEPs) and there are probably about 70 local councillors; and of course, in 2002 they took almost 11 per cent in the presidential elections. Trotskyists have made advances in electoral terms but also in the unions and in the ‘alternative’ movements in some of which they are much more attuned than the PCF.

Lutte ouvrière, of which Laguiller is the public face, is led by the authoritarian and shadowy figure of Robert Hardy and it is secretive, monolithic and disciplined. It may well be attractive precisely because it is unchanging and repeats the message that the PCF has changed and it shows none of the hesitations of the Communist leadership. It is perhaps a home for some orphaned Communist voters, but the party itself is rigid and that is a potential weakness.

Alain Krivine’s LCR has taken a variety of different positions in the past since the 1968 student movement. In 2002, it may have had as many as 3000 members and at its summer meeting in Gourette there were 800 attendees. Its official position regrets the passing of the USSR, it is anti‐Israel and it was to the fore in organising an anti‐war campaign at the end of 2002. But it has been more factional and supple, having a variety of currents ranging from the social democratic through to the ouvriériste, to nostalgic Communists, libertarians, and so on. LCR often played a part in the ephemeral organisations that surged to the fore on particular questions like the strikes of 1995 (where it made great progress) or unemployment. LCR was a major beneficiary of the 2002 presidential elections at which their young candidate Olivier Besancenot made an impressive showing, enthusing the younger activists. Besancenot drew strength from adversity by taking to the streets 30 seconds after the announcement of the first ballot results to demonstrate against Le Pen (this LO refused to do). LCR, feeling no doubt that it was in a position of strength after the elections, also called on the PCF to break with the ‘plural Left’. It has regularly sought alliances with LO and Krivine claims that the ‘alternative Left’ are on the same wavelength. It just as emphatically claims that it will not cooperate with the governmental Left (they say gauche alternative, and not gauche alternance), and would not have supported Jospin at the second ballot in 2002.

It has offered to campaign with parties of the Left and especially the Communists on issues such as pensions. Its intention here has been to trap the Communists who, if they accept, will seem to be drawn by the LCR, and if they reject them, can be denounced as allies of the Right. Communist leaders have tried to avoid a debate with the LCR, but did say that both parties ‘menaient le même combat’, and of course the PCF is competing for the main role in promoting the same issues such as globalisation, working week legislation, anti‐racism, and so on. As to the third Trotskyist group, Pierre Lambert’s Parti des travailleurs, they do put up candidates but are of importance chiefly because of their influence in the Force ouvrière unions. In 2002, their presidential candidate Daniel Gluckstein polled a mere 132,686 votes (0.47 per cent) but its position in the unions is strong and as influential as its rival Trotskyites.

Trotskyist movements—LCR in particular—have been less directive in their approach to issue groups than the Communist Party, and that is no doubt part of their success in these areas. Issue groups contesting or supporting the sanspapiers are not manipulated by sinister Trotskyists (many are not Marxist) and are rarely ideologically coherent, but they are the platform for modern activism. Recently Droit au logement, Ras l’Front, Agir ensemble contre le chomage, ATTAC and others, have confronted the mainstream Left and forced the issues onto the political agenda.

Communist Structure and Ideology

Hue did make some cosmetic changes and altered the names of the main organs: the Central Committee became a National Council of 286, the Secretariat has been replaced as has the Executive college, and a National Secretary is elected for three years (renewable once). At conferences, separate motions can now be tabled, ‘tendencies’ are permitted (in theory), and since October 2001 activists have joined sections (not cells). Inside the Party the universal ‘tu‘ has gone, as has ‘camarade‘, and leaders now speak to ‘citizens’ and have ‘friends’ (communists now meet in ‘citizens forums’). However, the transformation of the Party was not profound because change is restricted by having to keep a balance between the hardliners on the one hand and the modernists on the other.

But the defeat of 1997 has freed the Party from coalition responsibilities (‘enfin libre’ as Alain Bocquet put it). Buffet’s first act was to repudiate the possibility of a fusion of the parties of the ‘plural Left’ (to compete with the new consolidated conservative party). In the interim, the Party has its autonomy and Buffet has about three years’ grace before the decisions about the next general election have to be taken. In the meantime a more anti‐capitalist and anti‐Socialist line has been taken with the CGT, and popular action has been supported. This leftward shift, in competition with the ‘alternative Left’, is not a long‐term solution to the Party’s dilemmas.

One thing that needed to be modernised was the Party’s ideology; this was still stuck in a Cold War groove in which the Party continued to lay emphasis on the state (in economics, especially). Communism was once a carefully honed philosophical system that attracted recruits seeking a philosophy; activists were paid off in the faërie gold of total certainty. Communism had an enemy (the bourgeoisie) and a solution: the abolition of property and the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange to run a planned economy. This formula was applied in the Soviet lands of real existierender Socialismus, with the consequences that are now well known. But, if the Party at least had a route and a clear ‘Socialist’ destination, this worldview no longer convinces.

Yet the Communist leadership cannot afford to examine the Party’s past or its relationship with the Soviet Union, and like its confrères elsewhere, it has tried to dissociate ‘Communism’ from the practices of the Eastern bloc. These régimes were, in its view, distortions of the true ideal. In main part, however, the PCF has either ignored the Soviet experience or dismissed the argument that it was an essential part of the Communist tradition. That tradition, states the Party, is a humanist one which stretches back to the Great Revolution and the Enlightenment and has at its core human rights and an empathy with the downtrodden and dispossessed. Hence the old dogmas of collective ownership, planning, and working class (or rather Party) supremacy have been dropped in preference to a more nebulous patriotic leftism. There is no longer, as Hue has put it, a model of Socialism ‘clés en main‘.

The French Communist Party has, however, kept the symbols of Communism, and one may detect echoes of the old rhetoric in a pleurnicherie universelle. In this way what Marcel Gauchet calls the ‘sentimentalité de la radicalité’ has not been eliminated, as is underlined by the repudiation of social democracy and reformism. The Party is still, at a rhetorical level, anti‐capitalist. This ground has not been relinquished to the Trotskyites or to other radical movements. It claims to ‘repudiate capitalism’, asserting, as ever, that ‘capitalist states’ are evil and that ‘the domination of money’ must be ended while it claims to ‘go beyond’ (dépasser) capitalism. This is the ‘dimension visionnaire’ of a Party open ‘au grand large des rêves’.

It is the Party’s inability to move on and to draw lessons from the failed utopia of the Eastern bloc that has led some to condemn it as ‘sterile’. Roger Martelli (despite differences on Party internal functioning) did influence the old leadership and that can be found in Communisme, autrement. Georges Labica argued, at the fall of the USSR, that the Left should start again from zero once the mourning for Communism was over; this is far from a minority view, although most people holding it are now outside the PCF itself.

Buffet’s Party

Communism, once characterised by its monolithic nature, is currently split into factions and baronies. Communist leadership has partly been a matter of jockeying these divisions and keeping the Party together, or at least preventing wider fissures. Among these are the ‘refounders’, who have a journal (Futurs) calling for further mutation. Martelli, notably, has called into question the ‘Leninist Party’ (in his words) and called for the superseding of the old Third International Party. It is a stance which would develop a ‘catch‐all’ strategy on the Left of the Left to function as a pole of transformation. There are also hardliners like Remy Auchedé (former deputy of the Pas‐de‐Calais), Henri Alleg (of the Honecker Committees), and Jean‐Jacques Karman who runs Coordination communiste. But there are also former Marchais loyalists, including Maxime Gremetz, Gisèle Moreau and Alain Bocquet (the parliamentary group’s president).

Before the 2002 elections, Hue moved to the newly created position of Party President and made another product of the apparatus, his colleague Marie‐George Buffet, secretary. But the bicephalous party was unstable and Hue’s position became impossible after the defeats. Party centralisation enabled Buffet to impose her nominees on the leadership fairly rapidly, although the big federations were able to resist the centre maintaining themselves as cores of factions (the Nord’s pro‐Soviets, for example, and Marseille’ ‘refounders’). Robert Hue, the would‐be Pygmalion, was ousted by his chosen successor.

Marie‐George Buffet is the daughter of a garage owner in La Croix‐du‐Berry and was a history student before joining the Party; she has feminist views but is a ‘Party patriot’. She was described by Malek Boutih (of SOS‐Racisme) as having ‘un angélisme dévastateur’. It was Buffet, then a government minister, who noted that the occupation of the job‐seekers offices (ASSEDIC) in January 1998 was ‘quite legitimate’, and who disapproved the intervention in Yugoslavia; she then leaked a threat to resign from the government. Buffet gave the impression of impeding Jospin on certain issues while implying that for the Party ‘son avenir n’est pas au gouvernement’. Women leaders are no longer a sign of being ahead of the times in France and the strategic dilemmas and Party weaknesses faced by previous leaders were not eliminated by the fact of having a new National Secretary. As a product of the apparatus, Marie‐George Buffet is typical of the ‘prodigious mediocrities’ who lead Communist Parties. Buffet’s problem remains what it was for Hue and Marchais, one of defining a strategy or, put another way, of answering the question ‘what is the difference between the Communist Party and the Socialist Party?’

Communist Support

There is a traditional Communist vote in France situated in the north‐west (Aisne, Ardennes, Nord‐Pas‐de‐Calais, Oise, Seine‐Maritime, Somme), the borders of the Massif Central (Allier, Cher, Corrèze, Creuse, Dordogne, Haute‐Vienne), the Mediterranean Midi and the east of the Paris suburbs, as well as the Val d’Oise in the west (eight départements). These are the old industrial areas of mining, steel and metallurgy where heavy industry and textiles are still factors. There are also the areas of marginal farming such as the Limousin. Despite the rise of new classes and of middle managers, the Communist Party has been unable to break into these areas or social classes and remains tied to declining industries.

Economic changes leading to deindustrialisation, a decline in the agricultural workforce and the small farming sector and the rise of service industries have dissolved the close‐knit working‐class communities with their feelings of belonging to a ‘working class’ on which the Party depended. Between 1954 and 1982 the number of those working on the land fell by two‐thirds, and in the 21st century, only about 3.5 per cent of the population were directly in farming. In addition, heavy industry, on which the Party relied, has also declined and immigrants have replaced many workers in these low‐paid and unskilled jobs. Overall French industry has shed 3.3 per cent of its unskilled workers per year since 1975. French Communists polled 39 per cent of the blue‐collar vote in 1988, but at the 1997 general election its share had fallen to 15 per cent and was well below that of the Front national (Le Pen came ahead of Hue even in PCF bastions). There are thus fewer workers, and those who remain no longer feel that sense of belonging to the ‘working class’ on which the PCF depended.

Hue’s vote from 1995 dispersed in different directions in 2002: mainly into abstention, but also to other candidates such as Laguiller and Le Pen. Hue’s vote seems to have gone to his competitors as follows: Laguiller 9 per cent, Jospin 8 per cent, Mamère 6 per cent, Saint‐Josse 6 per cent, Chevènement 5 per cent, Besancenot 5 per cent and Le Pen 3 per cent. In rural districts like Corrèze, Haute‐Vienne and Creuse, there was an appreciably increased vote for Laguiller and Le Pen and in the urban areas, the Verts, Taubira and Chevènement seem to have been the beneficiaries of Communist decline. In the ensuing general elections, the Socialist Party probably gained a considerable part of the Communist vote but there does not seem to be a strong correlation between the fall in Communist vote and the extreme Left’s vote. But LO picked up votes in the regions of the North and West where the recession had hit and the LCR in urban areas and in particular in Paris.

Proposed Strategies

Within the Communist Party, it is the re‐founders who look to reunify the ‘Communist House’ bringing together all those on the Left of the Left into one Party. There are common themes shared by the PCF and the extreme Left, and an examination of these will illustrate its difficulties. In the first place, the PCF is, as it always has been, anti‐capitalist, and from that follow the issues of anti‐Europeanism, anti‐Americanism, and a defence of exclus. This anti‐capitalism may now be presented differently (as an attack on ‘unbridled liberalism’ or ‘neo‐liberalism’) and not apocalyptically, but capitalism is still seen as the root of all ills in contemporary society. But the argument the Party now makes, reprising the young Marx, is about the inhumane effects of capitalism, although the idea of ‘revolution’ has been kept alive (revolution is now defined in a moral sense.) All the same, the utopia is no longer visible and the shape of the future society destined to replace capitalism is no longer discernible—here the Party parts company from Trotskyists and ecologists. But the moral emphasis and the more eclectic use of varied issues generates possibilities for rapprochement with the ‘alternative Left’.

Yet French Communism has been unable to develop a more convincing strategy because it remains the prisoner of its own past. Three possible strategies have been canvassed. First, the Party could move into hardline opposition to the Socialists using its force in the CGT and its activists mobilised to defend ‘workers rights’ and other traditional themes. Because this runs counter to its alliances with the PS at every level, it would undercut its remaining strength in the localities and the Party has not taken this route. Notwithstanding this, a posture of hardline opposition has been adopted with some credibility by the extreme Left and with pay‐offs for the Trotskyist movement. There were those in the Party who wanted the simplicity of opposition even though it meant a clash with the Socialists, but there is the difficulty of a strong presence of other forces on the Left in this role.

Communists could try to federate the ‘alternative Left’ weaving in themes such as ecology, immigration, feminism, human rights, pacifism, anti‐Americanism, anti‐Europeanism, etc. This is the development preferred by the ‘renovators’ and the Gardanne by‐election of autumn 1996 (with its ‘rainbow alliance’ against Le Pen) appeared to promise a future for this alternative. However, the Party did not follow this up with any consistency because Party ‘conservatives’ who do not want to change have hindered any movement, and the leadership did not want to clash with the Socialists. Party contacts with the remnants of the Communist movement are still strong and cannot be swept aside. There is also the problem that the other small parties of the Left—including the Verts and the Trotskyites—now occupy this ground and do not intend to cede it, so that proposals by Martelli and others find no echo.

Third, the PCF could settle down to become a party of government in the role of one of the principal forces on the Left and a junior partner of the Socialists. A falling out with the Socialist Party would further diminish its far from negligible local strength. So far, a break is not a prospect the Party has cared to contemplate. This association has been attractive since 1992, when the PS was in trouble, but internal constraints from hard‐liners made it impossible for the PCF to move much to develop a reformist agenda. However, alliance does enable the PCF to pose as one of the major players on the political scene and it does keep the Party apparatus in being. With the catastrophe of the 2002 presidential and general elections and the municipal losses of 2001, it was this strategy that was questioned and put on ice by National Secretary Buffet in mid‐2002—though without a clear alternative being evident.

Thus strategic flux subsists with no clear course in view, and there are evident disadvantages to both moving and not moving. French Communism finds itself in a constraining alliance with the Socialist Party not only at national level, though that is important, but also at local level. Its remaining resource lies in its local government implantation and it is the strength of its notables that keeps its national position alive. This strength has diminished but it remains significant and far greater than its rivals on the extreme Left or the Verts and Chevènementistes of the Citizens’ Movement. Hence it is important that, despite recent setbacks, the PCF remains a potent local force. It is in power in 90 towns and cities of over 9000 in size (the Verts only in six) and has 131 general councillors (136 in 1998). Where it has a presence of sorts, it polled 11.24 per cent in 1639 cantons in 2001 (close to its 11.5 per cent in 1994). It will be some time before the PCF is ousted from its local positions and thus it remains a greater force in political life than any other ‘alternative’ movement, despite its continuous decline.

The 2002 Elections

Robert Hue’s poll of 3.37 per cent (959,328 votes) in the 2002 presidential elections represented, with 5 per cent less than the Party’s 1997 vote, a possibly terminal result. It came behind the other candidates of the ‘alternative Left’ (except the Parti des travailleurs), the Verts, Chevènement’s Mouvement des Citoyens, the LCR and LO, who together took as much as 20 per cent of the PCF’s usual vote. In 2002, Hue’s vote was too low to qualify for the reimbursement of election expenses, worsening the Party’s financial crisis. Hue’s vote was the traditional Communist one located in the north, on the fringes of the Massif Central, the Mediterranean Midi and the east of the Paris agglomeration, and it held out best in the rural areas. This vote was very much one of workers and employees, and had little support from the young, although its biggest losses were in areas where it was already weak (like Alsace, Savoy and Burgundy).

In the first round of the presidential elections, the Trotskyist ballot was almost 11 per cent, composed of Arlette Laguiller’s 5.75 per cent (1,625,169 votes), LCR’s Olivier Besancenot’s 4.27 per cent (206,782) and the Parti des travailleurs’ Daniel Gluckstein’s 0.47 per cent (132,335). Votes for the extreme Left do not come from the dynamic regions of France and are a reflection of the regions in economic trouble or stagnating. LO’s voters are more ouvriériste and closer to the PCF than LCR’s who are ‘protest’ voters of a more diverse nature and located more in the south than are Lutte ouvrière’s. Although Hue was supported most strongly among the workers (5.3 per cent), he was behind Laguiller’s 9.9 per cent and far below Le Pen’s 26.1 per cent. Hue retained only 51 per cent of his 1995 electors, and 8.8 per cent of these switched to Laguiller and 5 per cent to Besancenot. Hue’s campaign was able to fend off LO’s Laguiller in only six départements. On the second ballot of the presidential elections, 88 per cent of Besancenot’s voters and 85 per cent of Hue’s voted for the outgoing President Chirac, but only 80 per cent of Laguiller’s voters supported Chirac.

At the general elections of June 2002, the Communist Party’s very existence was at stake. In the general elections, its vote fell by half to 4.91 per cent on the first round (in 1997 it had been 9.91 per cent), and it was challenged by the extreme Left. Hue’s electorate was mobilised (only 22 per cent of professed Communists abstained) although 42 per cent of extreme‐Left sympathisers abstained. Again the problem was that it was unable to give a convincing account of its role. It had maintained governmental solidarity and had not made capital out of the government’s difficulties but it had not been able to show how it had contributed to social reform. A space thus opened out for the extreme Left to exploit. Although the Communist vote fell once again, the support of the mainstream Left, its superior organisation and its local implantation (most of those re‐elected were outgoing deputies and some were over retirement age) meant that it kept 21 deputies, enough to form a group in the Assembly.

In the June elections, the LCR fielded 440 candidates who polled 1.3 per cent (328,620) and for the first time they came ahead of LO. In June, Laguiller’s voters dispersed across the spectrum from the extreme Right (20 per cent), the conservatives (21 per cent), whereas Lutte ouvrière candidates took only 1.19 per cent (303,288) and polled 2 per cent less than in 1997, although they had some support in Communist areas. Even at this level, the extreme Left still presented a challenge to the Communist Party, and the result in seats is to that extent misleading.


In most western European societies there is an ‘alternative Left’, and in some there are quite large former Communist Parties that play a governmental role. There is no a priori reason why the same should not be true for France where the Trotskyist and ecologist vote, and other interest and issue movements from ATTAC and Saint‐Josse or José Bové to the extreme Right, have flourished. However, the key thing about these movements is that they are ‘post‐communist’. Where Communist Parties have remained orthodox as in Greece, Spain, Portugal and France, they have all continued to decline and occupy a diminishing space on the political spectrum amounting to about 4 per cent or so of the vote.

French Communism has affinities with these varieties of the Left, but it is torn between its need to retain its orthodox credentials and the imperative to renovate. However, the history of Communism in the 1990s is littered with abortive attempts to renew itself, confirming the old adage that Communism can break but cannot bend. Within the Party, bastions have been built up and the Party is no longer the hierarchical monolith of the Cold War, so that the recomposition of the Left of the Left would tear it apart. Even if the root and branch change needed to rebuild the PCF were attempted, there is no guarantee that it would be successful, and that explains the leadership’s hesitancy in undertaking more than timid reforms. A reconstruction of the extreme Left in France would require the destruction of the PCF. Frédéric Beigberger, the Party’s principal publicist in the 2002 presidential elections, was asked why he was helping, and he retorted: ‘J’aime les causes perdues …’