French Communists elect a 'vacuum'

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THE French Communist Party has elected Robert Hue, a little known mayor of a Paris suburb, to succeed Georges Marchais, the party leader since 1972.

The election on Saturday closed the five-day 28th congress which brought just cosmetic change to the once-powerful party which now ranks only fifth in French political groups, taking fewer votes than even the far-right, anti- immigration National Front.

Mr Marchais, 73, was elected to the National Bureau, the new name for the Political Bureau, suggesting that he may retain a good deal of influence. He had been expected to step down entirely.

Name changes were among the few innovations of the congress. Thus, the Central Committee became the National Committee and the General Secretary became National Secretary as the National Committee voted to pass the job from Mr Marchais to Mr Hue.

Mr Hue, a 47-year-old former nurse, is the mayor of Montigny-les-Cormeilles in the Val d'Oise department on the northern edge of Paris. In this position in 1981, Mr Hue first attracted national attention when he organised a demonstration beneath the windows of a Moroccan family accused by Algerian neighbours of being drug-traffickers. The Moroccans barricaded themselves inside their flat while a crowd shouted hostile slogans below.

Later police raids turned up nothing in the Moroccan household but found drugs at the home of the Algerian informers. Despite an outcry by anti-racist groups, Mr Marchais defended Mr Hue's methods at the time.

Mr Hue told the weekly Journal du Dimanche that he had no intention of 'being a National Secretary of transition'. There was, he said, 'so much to do to serve our people. My only ambition is to be useful to help it realise its aspirations to justice, democracy and social progress. This ambition is that of the other leaders of the party and of all Communists'.

Mr Hue's election to the top post - he has been in the Politburo since 1990 - was seen by most commentators as evidence that the party had little desire to change. 'A vacuum was the candidate, and a vacuum was elected,' said Anicet Le Pors, one of four Communists to serve in President Francois Mitterrand's first Socialist government from 1981 to 1984. The elections to the 22- member National Bureau brought the departure of the last of those four ministers, Charles Fiterman, who held the transport portfolio. Now firmly in the dissident camp, Mr Fiterman decided not to stand.

Two noted dissidents were, however, elected. One was Philippe Herzog, a university lecturer who was the only declared candidate for the leadership before the Congress opened last Tuesday. The other was Guy Hermier from the often recalcitrant Marseilles party.

Mr Marchais, who was in tears as Mr Hue's election was announced, said four months ago that he would not stand for re-election at this congress. In his speech last week, he told delegates who represent a party that has dropped to below 10 per cent of electoral support from a post-war high of 30 per cent that change should not mean becoming 'less Communist'.

Apart from renaming some of the party institutions, the congress also voted for the end of the Communist doctrine of 'democratic centralism', suggesting an effort to listen more to the grass roots.

(Photograph omitted)