Comrade Marchais bids the party adieu: France's veteran Communist leader is ending his turbulent career. Julian Nundy reports

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK marks the end of an era in French politics. Yet its passing will cause hardly a ripple. At the 28th Congress of the French Communist Party, Georges Marchais, the ailing 73-year-old general secretary of 24 years' standing, will finally bow out.

So low is the impact of the Communist Party on French political life these days that Charles Fiterman, a Communist who served as Transport Minister in Francois Mitterrand's first government from 1981-84, said the five-day congress, opening today, would register '0.5 on the Richter scale'. But the French party was once, along with Italy's, one of the two most powerful in Western Europe.

In the Seventies, Mr Marchais used to draw phenomenal television audiences, first for his gaffes or displays of temper, then for his humour, as he began to master the medium. On one occasion he told an interviewer live on television: 'Shut up, Elkabbach'. The hapless man who had tried to interrupt his flow was Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, last month appointed president of France's two state television channels. Mr Marchais was also the virtuoso of the Communist non-answer. Once asked to clarify a remark he had made about nuclear policy, he replied: 'I wish neither to repeat nor to contradict myself.'

Mr Marchais' adult life spanned the most glorious days as well as the eclipse of the party. A metalworker in an aircraft factory at the outbreak of the Second World War, he spent much of the war in Germany working for Messerschmitt. He always said he was forcibly deported by the Germans; his opponents claimed he had gone as a volunteer at a time when the Communist Party, in the image of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, was in collusion with the Nazi forces occupying France. This collaboration ended and the Communists joined the resistance in 1941 when Hitler invaded Stalin's Soviet Union.

After the war, when Charles de Gaulle briefly took power, the Communist Party had a staggering 30 per cent of the vote, making it the biggest party in France. In 1946 the party had 182 seats in parliament, compared with 23 today. When De Gaulle returned to power in 1958, after the turbulent period of the Fourth Republic, support for the Communists stabilised at between 20 and 25 per cent. Mr Marchais took the helm in 1972 from Waldeck Rochet, who had suffered a stroke shortly after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

While history was to be mainly responsible for the decline of Communism and of Soviet client parties abroad, Mr Marchais proved an able catalyst, refusing to modernise and sticking to slavish admiration of the Soviet Mecca. Membership began to decline.

Even so, it was the Communists who appeared the senior partner in a pact concluded between Mr Marchais and Mr Mitterrand's Socialist Party in 1972 to form a 'Union of the Left' to wrest power from the right. The differences between the two parties constantly surfaced, however, over issues such as Vietnam, Cambodia and the Portuguese revolution of 1974, when each party naturally sided with its counterpart in Lisbon.

As the non-Communist left in France, later than in most Western societies, began to criticise the Soviet Union's human rights record, Mr Marchais stubbornly insisted that Moscow's 'balance sheet is globally positive'. Belatedly, at the behest of the Italian party leader Enrico Berlinguer, the French party joined the short-lived 'Eurocommunist' movement, promising to democratise and distance itself from Moscow. To this end it adopted the cause of Leonid Plyushch, a Soviet dissident held in a lunatic asylum, and helped to engineer his exile to France.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 put an end to all that. Mr Marchais, in Moscow, expressed his support for the action of his Soviet hosts, infuriating the Italian party and reinforcing his personal hard-line image.

It was therefore to general astonishment that President Mitterrand invited the Communist Party to take part in the new government after his first election in 1981 - despite the fact that Mr Mitterrand's Socialist Party held an absolute majority in parliament. The President's decision infuriated Washington and France's other Western partners. But it was later to be seen as a wily masterstroke. With four Communist ministers in the cabinet, the Communist-led Confederation Generale du Travail, traditionally the most militant trade union, became a docile partner, ensuring social peace while the new government put through its programme of nationalisation.

By the time the Communists left the government in 1984, when Mr Mitterrand opted for a decidedly more social democratic model, the party's support was hovering around 10 per cent. Decline seemed irreversible. More and more of its senior figures, including Pierre Juquin, a university lecturer and politburo member who had once been Mr Marchais' spokesman, left or were expelled. At one party meeting, when Mr Juquin tried to speak his microphone was switched off.

By the end of the Eighties, when support dropped below 10 per cent, even the faithful, such as Mr Fiterman, who had constantly been by Mr Marchais' side a decade earlier, were in the dissident camp. Another dissident, Philippe Herzog, 53, is thought to be a possible successor for party leadership. Mr Marchais once dismissed Mr Herzog, a university economics lecturer, as a 'social democrat' - one of the most contemptuous epithets in the Communist lexicon.

Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and the upheavals in Eastern Europe did nothing to further the party's cause. Its newspaper, L'Humanite, sealed its own fate when it lent hasty support to the organisers of the failed August 1991 putsch against Mr Gorbachev. Once a powerful daily, its circulation has plummeted to around 60,000.

As Boris Yeltsin took over in Moscow, and secret archives were opened, a plethora of evidence emerged showing how the Soviet Communist Party and the KGB had financed the French party; documents implicating the current leaders were reproduced in the French press.

The revelations caused nothing like the scandal that might have been expected. They did not seem to surprise anybody, and nobody seemed to care any more.