Obituary: Georges Marchais

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The Independent Online
Georges Rene Louis Marchais, politician: born La Hoguette, Calvados, 7 June 1920; Member Central Committee Communist Party of France 1956-97, Political Bureau 1959-95, Deputy Secretary-General 1970-72, Secretary- General 1972-94, Deputy for Val-de-Marne 1973-97, Member European Parliament 1979-89; married 1941 Paulette Noetinger (three daughters; marriage dissolved), 1977 Liliane Garcia (one son); died Paris 17 November 1997.

Georges Marchais was leader of the French Communist Party for over 20 years. During his tenure the party's share of the vote sank from 20 per cent to 6; each electoral setback led to waves of dissidence which all but drained the party of activists.

Although challenged several times and subject to severe criticism over his personal style, his pro-Russian strategy and intellectual shortcomings, he was never dislodged because the party remained internally undemocratic. Marchais projected himself as an aggressive, knockabout character, but as the party's vote sank his media appearances became less frequent. He left the party unreformed and, unlike most western Communist parties, committed to the Leninist project.

He was born in 1920 in a small village in Calvados. In 1935 he left Normandy for Paris and became a skilled worker in aeronautics. On 12 December 1942 he signed papers as a volunteer worker to go to Germany (for which he got a bonus) and went to Leipheim to work for Messerschmitt.

Marchais always claimed he was a forced labourer. He was not. Service du travail obligatoire was not introduced until 17 February 1943. Marchais could have escaped or applied for exemption. The subsequent cover-up was a minor Watergate.

Marchais remained in Germany until 1943. His life from 1943 to 1947 remains obscure, but the controversy is such that, as Auguste Lecoeur noted, sooner or later witnesses will come forward to swear that Marchais and Maurice Thorez (the French Communist leader, in the Soviet Union at the time) were together on the barricades in Paris in August 1944.

Marchais joined the Communist Party in 1947, the beginning of the Cold War, when the Communists were in a sectarian phase. Thorez's hand can be easily detected in Marchais' ascension. He was active in the metalworkers' union, one of the strongest Communist unions and became a full-time union official in 1951. He began to move up the party in 1955 when he joined the secretariat of Thorez's federation and he probably attended the international school in Moscow the same year.

In 1960 he joined the Central Committee as an ``alternate'' and in 1961 he was made organisation secretary after the ousting of Thorez's rival Marcel Servin. Marchais took the lead in condemning the students during the May 1968 events, dismissing them as petit- bourgeois adventurers. The union strategy to buy off the strikers with wage rises and to isolate them from the students was enforced by Marchais with characteristic authority.

Control of the party organisation had enabled Marchais to build up a strong position and in 1970 he was made joint secretary-general and in 1972 full secretary-general. In 1973 he was returned to the National Assembly from the Val-de-Marne, a seat which he held in subsequent elections.

Marchais had the luck to be associated with the popular strategy of alliance with the Socialists in the early Seventies but the misfortune to be at the top when the strategy paid dividends to the Socialists rather than the Communists. The alliance concluded in 1971 did not bring victory in the legislative elections of 1973 but those elections did show the danger for the Communists of the rising Socialist force led by Francois Mitterrand and, after the presidential elections of 1974 and Socialist gains in by- elections, Marchais decided to ride two horses.

On the one side he decided to put a new face on old doctrines and embarked on a campaign to modernise the Communist image. It started with his book Le Defi Democratique (1973) and continued through the 22nd Congress in 1976, remembered as the high point of ``liberalisation''. In his book, he accepted multi-party politics and gave Poland as an example of a multi- party system. The attitude to the Soviet bloc was that if there were spots on the sun it did not mean that there was no sun. The East remained the model. Marchais did stop visiting Russia from 1974 to 1976, although high- level contacts were maintained.

On the other side were the attacks on the Socialist Party, which steadily increased in tone. Marchais attacked Mitterrand personally and accused the Socialists of moving rightward. In 1977 Marchais decided the alliance with the Socialists was undermining the party and he torpedoed it. The result was a disaster for the party, but it enabled a rapprochement with the Russians. Marchais moved back into the Soviet fold and showed support for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (delivered on television direct from Moscow) and for the Polish Communists against Solidarity.

In early 1980, after Marchais' meeting with Brezhnev in Moscow, the party started to campaign against the emplacement of cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe by Nato and hosted with the Polish Communists a disarmament conference in Paris.

The 1981 presidential campaign was a desperate one. Marchais as Communist candidate faced the principal figure of the French left, Mitterrand, whom the Communists had helped to build up. The anti-Socialist tone of Marchais's campaign was strident, but despite the party's quasi-racialist appeal to anti- immigrant feeling, he lost one quarter of the party's vote and was easily outdistanced by Mitterrand. Making the best of a poor hand, the Communists bargained for four ministerial portfolios, but Marchais remained outside government. In 1984, after a further electoral setback Marchais pulled the party out of government and it once again went on to the attack against the Socialists, hoping to capitalise on rising discontent. The result of yet another sectarian turn was a further wave of dissidence, again debilitating the party - although Marchais remained easily in control.

Although he at first welcomed Gorbachev's perestroika as a new anti-capitalist offensive, he became increasingly dismayed at the direction of Russian policy. The result was the emergence in the mid-1980s of a trend in the Communist international, dubbed the ``third and a half'' international, in which Marchais got together with hardliners (Cuba, North Vietnam, North Korea and so on) and obliquely criticised Gorbachev's policies. Marchais had good contacts with Kremlin hardliners.

When the Eastern bloc collapsed in 1989 Marchais reacted by reaffirming faith in the totalitarian project - central planning, state industry and the guiding party. He was forced to go to war against yet another wave of French Communist discontent, this time around his old associate Charles Fiterman.

The party machine enabled Marchais to dominate the December 1990 congress to the extent that there was only one vote against his policies. However, the effort gave him his third heart attack in 15 years.

The collapse of the Communist bloc and then of the Soviet Union itself found the French party in a stolid mood. Marchais after an initial feeling of sympathy with the coup against Gorbachev in 1991, had been made to condemn it by the party's political bureau.

Marchais' line was to declare that the French Communist Party was not implicated in the activities of the Soviet regimes and, if the Communist bloc had tarnished the ideal, the values of Communism remained as valid as ever.

Georges Marchais continued to head the Communist Party up to the 28th congress of 1994 at which time he stood aside for his nominee, Robert Hue. But he remained a formidable presence within the machine, acting as a vigilante against any liberalising backsliding. Marchais's federation, the Val-de-Marne, emerged as a stronghold of resistance to the new leadership as it tried to introduce a new style.In December 1995, Marchais was retired from the party's top bodies but still faced possible investigations on charges of illegal party funding.

What Marchais was like as a personality is difficult to say, because he had very few contacts outside the party apparatus. He was supposed to have had a passion for football.

When somebody mentioned deportations and executions in Russia, Marchais sceeched: ``Yes, they arrested people, they imprisoned people! Well I tell you, they didn't arrest enough! They didn't imprison enough! If they had been tougher and more vigilant, they wouldn't have got into this situation now.''

The image of a working-class Parisian lad, outspoken, aggressive, cocksure, was cultivated as a style. Marchais was the most zealous of activists and the most verbally vigorous of his contemporaries, capable of histrionics, turning on floods of tears like an old-time music-hall performer. He applied the Party's line with aggression and agility and the turns and twists of Communist policy were executed with exemplary loyalty.

It was probably inevitable that the Communist Party in France would have declined in the past 20 years, but Georges Marchais showed no flair in managing that decline.