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Red flag droops in Paris as old guard marches out

The old guard of France's decidedly old-style Communist Party finally bowed out yesterday, on the last day of a party congress, after five days of line-by-line resistance to a programme of change.

The victor was Robert Hue, the party's candidate in last year's presidential elections, who was able to stamp his genial pragmatism on the party for the first time.

Fate played its part: Georges Marchais, who led the party in its pro- Moscow course until well after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and whose influence persisted even after he left the leadership, spent the opening day of the congress on the operating table. Yesterday, Mr Hue denied reports that his 76-year-old predecessor had had a Yeltsin-style heart bypass, saying that he had "only" had a pacemaker fitted.

But the image of the ailing Comrade Marchais hung over the congress as a symbol of the party's past. A chapter in the party's history was over, and a clutch of senior figures resigned, for reasons of age, policy differences or expediency, from the policy-setting national bureau.

This was a congress shot through with ambiguities. Held in a cavernous hall beneath the futuristic arch of La Defense, it was attended by more than 1,000 delegates, many of them sporting Karl Marx beards, Lenin goatees and Mao jackets straight out of the party's glory days. Unsmiling doormen preferred the black-clad Che Guevara look.

Everyone sat at long tables arranged in a huge square, designed to foster a spirit of "free discussion". By Friday afternoon, they were barely beyond the "Preamble", voting page by page, with yellow party cards lifted high in the air. It was back to basics in a big way. "What is meant by the term `working class' in the hi-tech age?" But the votes were easy: overwhelming victories for Mr Hue and the "modernists".

The result is a policy document described as "realistic" or "Janus-like", depending who is speaking. The party continues to recognise the need for "class struggle", but will tolerate capitalist (private) money to help out the public sector. It opposes the Maastricht treaty and the single currency, but favours "European construction". It would take part in a Socialist government, but objects to key planks of the Socialists' policies on social matters and on Europe.

With an eye on its real opponents for the workers' vote - the extreme- right National Front - the party presents itself as France-centred and protectionist compared with the Socialists. The dominant colour at the congress was yellow (the colour often adopted by the National Front). The red flag was barely to be seen: just a corner on the congress banner, balanced by a tricolour; proceedings concluded with the Marseillaise and the Internationale - in that order.