Seeing the further decline in support for the French Communist Party, illustrated afresh by opinion polls taken during the presidential campaign, one might reflect how inevitable this is. The only surprise might be that in France the extinction of the heirs of Stalin has taken so long. One doesn't even have to know France very well to suggest reasons why the party, which in 1978 attracted 21 per cent of the electorate, may find that this time it has held on to only 5 per cent. Heavy industry has declined and, just as in Britain, more people think of themselves as middle class rather than working class.
Look again. Four of the candidates standing for election as president either are, or have been, members of Trotskyist parties, the other branch of Marxism. And one of these, Arlette Laguiller for Lutte ouvriere ("working class struggle") is scoring around 9 per cent in the opinion polls, nearly double the support for Robert Hue, the leader of the traditional French Communist Party.
Likewise the candidates for the Ligue communiste revolutionnaire and for the Parti des travailleurs are picking up small percentages. Together these three Trotskyist parties could receive 10 to 12 per cent of the votes in the first round of the election, due to be held in four weeks. Add 5 per cent for Mr Hue, and we see that Marxist political parties in France, with 15-17 per cent of electoral support, have a combined following similar to the Liberal Democrats in the UK, who scored 17 per cent of voting intentions in the ICM poll published last week.
To British eyes, this is a remarkable aspect of French politics. While everybody has focused on Italy, where the trades unions and the government are now engaged in mortal combat over attempts to liberalise employment laws, let us not ignore the fact that our civilised neighbour across the Channel retains an affection for revolutionary creeds.
Consider another candidate with a Trotskyist past, Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister himself. He recently admitted, to everyone's astonishment, that he had been a member of a Trotskyist party, the Organisation communiste internationaliste, until the end of 1987. Indeed, he had been a sous-marin, or mole, somebody who had joined a mainstream political organisation without declaring his membership of a revolutionary sect. By the time Mr Jospin says he ceased to be a Trotskyist, he was 50 years old, had been a member of the French parliament since 1981 and had become general secretary of the Socialist Party.
It is not easy to get used to this fact. That is why, since Mr Jospin revealed his links, a rash of books has appeared seeking to explain Mr Jospin's motives and the history of Trotskyist cells in France. Because the followers of Trotsky have always been the persecuted minority of Marxism, they do not feel discredited by the excesses of Stalin and the subsequent collapse of Communism in the old Soviet Union and eastern Europe; though, in truth, Leon Trotsky committed crimes against humanity on a grand scale when he was in power.
Moreover, French intellectuals as a group, working as they do in journalism, in cultural activities, in schools and universities, have always placed themselves in opposition to the government of the day, whether of the left or of the right. They are virulently anti-establishment.
They have translated the nostrums of Marxism into modern terms. Instead of denouncing imperialism, they campaign against globalisation. Instead of condemning capitalism, they criticise what they call neo-liberalism. Rather than opposing fascism, they are more likely to attack racism. And to hostility to the market can be added a visceral rejection of the US, a profound distrust of all reform and a never-satisfied passion for equality.
All these opinions and attitudes, of course, can be found in British life. Many of them are widespread. Respectable people make respectable arguments in their favour. But there are differences. We do not recognise a class of intellectuals as such. We withhold the label. And we have no revolutionary tradition to live up to or to inspire us. The British rarely descend on to the streets to advocate political change. Every generation or so, the French do exactly that – in 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1936 and 1968.
So when Marxist sympathisers in France see Mr Jospin coming forward with a programme for his presidential campaign which includes tax cuts (hardly egalitarian) and which advocates more resources for the forces of law and order (scarcely civil libertarian), they turn to the candidates of the far left.
It matters not a bit that Arlette Laguiller's programme is simple but absurd – no sacking of workers and the lifting of banking secrecy, so that everyone can see how much money the bosses receive and what they do with it. For French Marxism is a cultural phenomenon. It expresses an attitude rather than a strategy for political change. It is as much part of French life as a bowl of coffee and a croissant, or as a glass of Beaujolais and a piece of smelly cheese. We shall always find it there.