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Winds of Perestroika Bypass France; Communists Face a Record Low Vote

<i> Stanley Meisler is a Times correspondent in Paris. </i>

The French Communists, once the most powerful party in France, ought to be doing better than they are in this year’s presidential election. For years, intellectuals ridiculed them for kowtowing to Moscow, but now Moscow, run by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, has a better image in Europe than ever before.

Many of the French Communist themes--disarmament, solidarity with the Palestinians, higher wages--ought to strike a chord with at least a sizable minority of French voters. But the polls indicate that the Communist Party candidate, a 58-year-old former farmer named Andre Lajoinie, will take no more than 5.5% of the vote in the first round of the election April 24. That would be the worst showing in any French election since the party was founded in 1920. The Communists, who won 28% of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 1946 and more than 20% of the vote 10 years ago, have come to a sorry state.

Some of the most glaring party problems were reflected in the rhetoric at a recent election rally under a tent in Ivry, the main town of Val-de-Marne, long known as one of “the red suburbs” of Paris. Such communities--with worker apartments, near factories--used to produce heavy Communist votes.

Georges Marchais, who has led the French Communist Party as secretary general for 16 years, is one of the deputies representing Val-de-Marne in the French National Assembly.

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Although portions of the proceedings seemed mechanical rather than spontaneous, the Communists proved that they can still put on a fairly good show. They filled the tent with about 4,000 militants who clapped their hands to ear-splitting rock, cheered a slick videotape of Communist achievements, jumped up to applaud any mention of Lajoinie, whistled in derision at the names of political enemies and lustily sang, at the end, “La Marseillaise” and the “Internationale.”

It is not clear why the 67-year-old Marchais is not running for president himself, as he did in 1981, when he won a respectable 15.5% of the vote in the first round. Some analysts believe he is shrewd enough, in this era of hard Communist times, to want to avoid the inevitable personal humiliation.

In any case, Marchais, bombastic as ever, can still hold a Communist Party crowd, and his almost hour-long introduction had more fire than the pedestrian, cliche-ridden campaign speech by Lajoinie. It also told far more about the difficulties of the party in this election.

Marchais spent a good deal of time dealing with the probable candidacy of President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist. Many past Communist voters, like many other French, feel at ease with Mitterrand and want him back.

Marchais told his audience that there is no doubt Mitterrand will lead the first round of voting. He is sure to be one of the two candidates who compete for the second round May 8. If you want to vote for Mitterrand, go ahead, but do so only in the second round, he argued.

Marchais insisted that leftist voters need to deliver a message to Mitterrand: that he has strayed from the leftist path with policies of economic austerity and increased nuclear deterrence.

“Only one vote, a vote for Lajoinie, can signal this,” Marchais said.

As might be expected, Marchais also spent much time deriding the extreme right-wing candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen, who has stumped the country for the last five years preaching that the problems of France have been caused mainly by the large numbers of immigrant workers, mostly North Africans.

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But Marchais did not treat Le Pen with utter contempt. He tried instead to look at his arguments closely and reply to them point by point. It is obvious that Le Pen’s racism makes sense to some unemployed Communists. A survey last year showed that more than a third of Le Pen’s supporters were workers and that a sixth of his probable voters still regarded themselves as leftists.

Marchais described Le Pen as a tool of the bosses who want to divide the workers. “Should we kick out the immigrants?” cried Marchais. “No, Mr. Le Pen. No, Mr. Boss.”

A third candidate, Pierre Juquin, was conspicuous for no attention at all. Juquin is the renegade Communist who tried to reform the party but finally gave up to run on his own. Juquin, according to polls, could get 2.5% of the vote, almost half as much as Lajoinie. Juquin is obviously too embarrassing to mention.

These 1988 electoral problems are deeply rooted. The French Communists have been left far behind by history, sociology and Mitterrand’s tactics. They will probably never catch up.

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Every tidbit of political evidence makes clear that France is much less ideological than it once was. Voters are taken with Mitterrand not because they look on him as a militant socialist but because he strikes them as an avuncular moderate.

On top of this, the Communist Party strikes many French as irrelevant, an image sharpened by the way Mitterrand outmaneuvered it during his term in office. The president not only welcomed the support of Communists in his 1981 election but named four party members to the Socialist government’s first Cabinet.

Although these nominations worried and infuriated the United States, the new responsibility and respectability of the Communists hurt them in the long run. They looked like very junior partners; they impressed no one with their influence and alienated some supporters for accepting Mitterrand’s policies so meekly. When they left the government in 1984, it was too late to change the image.

Finally, the French Communists have been crippled by their refusal to change with the times. Marchais runs an undemocratic party so loyal to Moscow that it still refuses to see anything wrong with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many French intellectuals have been drummed out of the party for daring to question. This refusal to democratize the party was what led to the breakaway candidacy of Juquin.

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But none of this seems to dismay Communist Party officials. If anything, these problems only hone their defiance. In the early Mitterrand years, the party, in what looked like an attempt to subdue its image and win votes, used the innocuous, alphabetical logotype of PCF to represent the French Communist Party on their billboards and stationery. Now that their plight is desperate, party leaders have changed the logotype. In an act much like sticking their tongue out at adversity, they have gone back to the old hammer and sickle.


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