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May 19, 2023

What happened to the French Communist Party?

What happened to the French Communist Party?

We explore the spectacular rise and fall of the French Communist Party.


            The Parti communiste français, abbreviated PCF and in English ‘the French Communist Party,’ was one of the most popular political parties in France. Following the 10 November 1946 elections the PCF won more votes and held more seats in the National Assembly than any other party. It maintained the largest membership of any registered political party during the entirety of the Fourth Republic, that is from 1946 to 1958. As of 2023 the PCF struggles to stay in the top 10 parties by votes and regularly gets 2% or less in modern elections. This begs a number of questions: how did the PCF emerge? How and when did it become popular and what led to its downfall?

            The PCF has its origins in World War I. When war broke out socialists were divided. Most socialist intellectuals held that wars were a way for the bourgeoisie to control the working class. They argued that the bourgeoisie declared wars in order to secure more wealth for themselves at the expense of other countries. Furthermore, this wealth seized from other countries would not be shared with the workers who would only grow poorer. Additionally, socialists argued that it was the poor workers who were sent to the frontlines while the rich were better able to avoid conscription laws and often served as officers who were usually in less danger. As such, socialists argued that every war was a class war and that the real enemy was not the poor soldiers from other countries but the international bourgeoisie.

            During the July Crisis many hardline socialists held to their beliefs and opposed French entry into the war. Given the surge in nationalistic sentiment opposing the war could be dangerous. One of France’s leading socialists and ardent anti-militarists Jean Jaurès was assassinated on 31 July 1914 before he could attend a peace conference. His killer was later acquitted for the murder despite having been caught in public shooting Jaurès in the back two times.

            While dogmatists held the pacifist line many others had complex feelings towards the upcoming conflict. Most socialists opposed war in practice but this was against Germany, which French people had a particular hatred for given its seizure of Alsace-Moselle. Moreover, even if they did not want to go to war, once war broke out many believed that they had a right to defend themselves. Finally, many left-wing politicians feared that if they opposed the war they and their parties would be labelled anti-patriotic or even treasonous, turning public opinion against them.

Despite all their rhetoric about international brotherhood in the face of senseless conflicts, most socialists, their parties and trades unions voted to support the war. This included the Section française de l'Internationale ouvrière, abbreviated SFIO, in English ‘The French Section of the Workers' International.’ The SFIO was the major socialist party that was part of the Second International, an international organization of socialist parties who aimed to overthrow global capitalism, promote workers’ rights and bring peace between countries, if not eliminate the entire concept of nation-states altogether. The SFIO abandoned its internationalist principles and voted for the war, which would have been very awkward except that pretty much every European organization within the Second International and every major left-wing party did the same thing. The only political party that consistently opposed the war was the Russian Communist Party and its uncompromising leader, Vladimir Lenin. 

            While the SFIO was officially pro-war a significant minority opposed the war and the government. However, between 1914-1916 the anti-war advocates mostly operated underground due to government censorship and broad popular jingoism. By 1917 the French people were increasingly frustrated at the costly, unending war. Meanwhile the Russian Revolution convinced many workers that there was an alternative. The success of the Russian Communist party reinvigorated the radical minority to advocate strikes, civil disobedience and revolution more openly.

            The war ended in late 1918 and many urban workers hoped for significant reforms if not a total change in their economic system. However, the following year the SFIO got crushed at the polls and the conservative National Bloc assumed power. To many workers the SFIO was a decrepit, corrupt organization that had betrayed the workers before and during the war as its leaders sided with the government. Between 25-30 December 1920 the SFIO held its national congress at Tours where the party split in two. 3 out of 4 voting members chose to align themselves with the Third International, a communist organization overseen by Vladimir Lenin. While the vast majority of the rank-and-file wanted to join the International, most of the elected officials, led by Léon Blum, were conservative socialists who opposed joining a revolutionary organization, preferring democratic reform. As the conservative wing dug in its heels the majority of the SFIO left the organization to form the Section française de l'Internationale communiste, the French Section of the Communist International, which later came to be known as the Parti communiste français, the PCF, that is the ‘French Communist Party.’

While the PCF was set up primarily to serve mainland France it included members from across the empire. One of its initial delegates representing Indochina was the young activist Nguyễn Tất Thành, later known as Hồ Chí Minh. Not long afterwards, France’s largest trade union the Confédération générale du travail, or CGT, also split with communist-aligned radicals who took most of the workers and formed their own union, the Confédération générale du travail unitaire, or CGTU. The traditional socialist groups fell dramatically in popularity while communism dominated the far-left.

            In early 1921 the PCF began to organize under its first general secretary Ludovic-Oscar Frossard. The party immediately ran into problems as it tried to comply with the Third International’s 21 Conditions. Vladimir Lenin stressed that any party in the International needed to have unity and strict adherence to dogma. Lenin wanted every communist party to be modeled on the Bolsheviks. Before seizing power in late 1917 the Bolsheviks were an exclusive group of ideological radicals whose overriding strategy was quality over quantity in their party membership. Lenin believed that traditional parliamentary parties who adhered to democratic decision-making were slow-moving, lethargic, incapable of acting in the ‘revolutionary moment’ and prone to divisions. In contrast, the communist parties were meant to be organizations whose entire purpose was to overthrow the government and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, as expressed by the party. This was because Lenin believed most workers were naturally reactionary and had to be led by an elite group of professional revolutionaries.

            Lenin’s strict demands divided the party. Many idolized Lenin for creating the first worker-controlled state. Furthermore, any self-respecting communist party needed to be associated with the Third International. Despite this, some PCF members were deeply disturbed at the impositions by Moscow, including the general secretary. For Frossard the final straw was a ban on communists being members of the Freemasons. In 1923 he left the party to form his own communist unity party. Frossard’s party failed because most communists stuck with the PCF, believing that Lenin’s harsh rules were probably necessary to achieve revolution. Meanwhile, the reformist socialists were nearly all members of the SFIO, which Frossard rejoined when his party fell apart.

            In the 1924 legislative elections political parties from the center-left to the far-left formed the Cartel des gauches, a political coalition which finally defeated the right-wing National Bloc. The PCF won a respectable 10% of the vote but refused to join the government. For the communists elections were just a means to acquire power and they chose to concentrate their energies on popular agitation. By 1928 Josef Stalin assumed near-total control of the Soviet Union and the Third International. Stalin imposed a new dogma on international communism called “class on class” which forbid working with democratic socialists. The PCF’s strict adherence to Stalinism alienated some party members, particularly those who wanted to emulate Leon Trotsky.

The onset of The Great Depression altered the political landscape of France. Widespread economic misery caused many people to lose faith in democratic capitalism. Centrist political parties declined. Some French moved to the far-left to join the socialists who promised government intervention and aid programs for workers. Others moved to the far-right whose leaders claimed that their country was suffering from decadence and needed to be revived with traditional values. During the early 1930s fascism became a popular new political movement, with fascist-aligned leaders seizing control of Italy, Germany and Portugal. A reinvigorated far-right emerged in France as members of fascist, Catholic reactionary and hardline conservative parties fought with left-wingers in the streets.

On 6 February 1934 far-right political groups marched on the French National Assembly. There they met with police who ended up killing 15 of the protestors. The general consensus among historians is that this was a peaceful political movement aimed at expressing anti-government frustrations and intimidating the Cartel des Gauches. However, the government had good reason to believe that the far-right demonstration was an attempted coup. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had famously come to power in his March on Rome. Austrian-born dictator of Germany Adolf Hitler had attempted to seize power in his failed Beer Hall Putsch. Violence was a staple of fascist rhetoric and action across Europe, and France was no exception.

            With fascism spreading across the Continent, Stalin changed the International’s policy. Communists could now form governments with other left-wing groups to prevent fascist takeover. In the 1936 elections the communists won 15% of the vote, making them the third largest party. The largest party, the resurgent SFIO, invited the PCF and other left-wing groups to form the Popular Front, a left-wing government meant to stave off the conservatives.

            The PCF’s admittance into the government had mixed results for the party. Before, many French saw them as radical ideologues incapable of actual governance. Since the PCF helped create and enact policies this had the effect of legitimizing them as a serious political party to many in the general public. However, the PCF compromised on some of its dogma, especially anti-colonialism. The PCF had been a fiercely anti-colonial party. It had opposed the Rif War against Morocco in 1925. In 1931 the PCF protested the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris by hosting their own show called “The Truth about the Colonies,” which documented atrocities committed in the name of French imperialism. During the late 1930s the PCF deprioritized antiracism, anticolonialism and internationalism. In fact, it adopted nationalistic propaganda, casting itself as the defender of France against the foreign threat of fascism. Finally, its affiliated labor organization, the CGTU, dissolved with its members rejoining the CGT. The PCF was effectively moving away from its role as a radical anti-government organization towards becoming a regular parliamentary party.  

            The PCF adamantly supported the USSR whenever it could. It supported intervention in the Spanish Civil War. While the PCF failed to get the French government to officially back the Republicans many communists traveled to Spain to fight. In 1938 the PCF opposed the Munich Accords which made legal Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. PCF figures argued that Britain and France were acquiescing to Hitler’s demands because they wanted Germany to fight the USSR. The PCF’s opposition to the Munich Agreement was the final division between the left and far-left that killed the Popular Front coalition. That year Édouard Daladier’s Radical-Socialist party rose in power and increasingly opposed the communists.

            In August 1939 the news broke that Germany and the Soviet Union had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, guaranteeing neutrality in the event of a war. This shocked French communists. For over a decade they had been fighting fascists, sometimes literally. Now their leader in Moscow had made an arrangement with communism’s greatest enemies. Many PCF members were disillusioned with the USSR, believing that Stalin had become a dictator who had abandoned doctrinaire communism. Yet, a majority still stuck with the PCF with many justifying Stalin’s actions as necessary because they claimed that Britain and France were trying to start a war between Nazi Germany and Russia.

            As war seemed inevitable, Prime Minister Daladier led the government to outlaw the PCF on the grounds that it was officially subordinate to a hostile foreign power. When war broke out the government banned all communist-led organizations. Police routinely reported that communists were sabotaging industries to weaken the country. The narrative that the communists were crippling France before the war was at best greatly exaggerated as every mishap at a factory was blamed on communist sabotage. The communists had been pushed underground and formed networks for clandestine activities, which primarily meant anti-war propaganda.

            On 10 May 1940 Germany invaded the Low Countries en route to France. Novel German military tactics combined air power, tanks and infantry to stunning effect. Within six weeks it was clear that Germany was winning. Rather than suffer countless dead, the government granted emergency powers to Marshall Philippe Pétain who led peace negotiations. The north and the entire Atlantic coastline fell under German occupation while the south became a rump state under the control of a Catholic reactionary government. The Nazis and hardline conservatives did not agree on every issue but they were of a complete accord that communists were their primary enemy. This was a desperate time for the communists who could only meet in secret, sometimes spread anti-government propaganda and encourage strikes. Armed resistance was extremely limited as both governments in France cracked down on communists, socialists, trade unions and left-wing organizations in general. Moreover, the French people were demoralized and largely wanted to live in peace rather than suffer grievously in another world war, especially one where they were already in a terrible position.

            In June 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This revived communist activity and spirits. First, the USSR was a global power, one which the Germans would have to commit most of their soldiers and resources to defeat, leaving far fewer to occupy France. While Stalin’s 1939 actions had dismayed many communists, most still idolized the Soviet Union as the first worker-controlled country and were dedicated to its defense. Finally, under the Third International, Stalin ordered that communists in all fascist-occupied countries launch resistance movements to hamstring Germany and its allies.

            Communist resistance quickly turned violent as its members assassinated Germans and French collaborators. This led to harsh reprisals by the Germans, which in turn spurred more resistance. The communists were not the only resistors, as people from across the political spectrum joined anti-German and anti-Vichy underground organizations. However, the communists had been working underground since before the war, had the best-established networks and they were ideologically motivated. Moreover, the Vichy state openly appealed to traditionalists, meaning that there was noticeably less resistance from the right-wing. Again, there were conservative resistors, even far-right resistors, but the left-wing, particularly the communists, played an oversized role in the French Resistance.

            In 1944 the Allied powers launched Operation Overlord and invaded mainland France. By the end of the year most of France had been liberated. Due to its role in the Resistance the PCF reemerged as the most popular political party. However, it did not have a commanding majority in the provisional government which was divided between the communists on the far-left, the socialists on the left the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (MRP) on the center-right and the Gaullists, the last of which was a political movement whose ideology was dependent on the personal ideas of General Charles de Gaulle. The right-wing had collapsed in France due to perceived notions that the conservatives had collaborated with the invaders.

            On 21 October 1945 France held its first post-war election. The PCF won 5 million votes, the most of any party, though just barely ahead of the MRP with 4.8 million and the SFIO with 4.5 million. Over the next year the provisional government began work on a new constitution. The communists, socialists and centrists supported a multi-party parliamentary system with a weak president to prevent ideologues from seizing power. De Gaulle believed that such a system would be inefficient and argued that France needed an electoral system that would more easily produce ruling party majorities working under a strong president. The PCF, SFIO and MRP united against the Gaullists and formed the Tripartite Alliance which drafted the constitution for the Fourth Republic. During the 10 November 1946 elections the PCF won over 5.4 million votes. The second-largest party, the MRP, took under 5 million. As it turned out, this was the peak of the PCF’s electoral success.

            The tripartite government quickly set about creating the modern French welfare state and rebuilding of the country. However, reconstruction would be slow unless some giant, friendly superpower just started handing out cash to its allies. As it turns out, such a country existed. The United States of America was then preparing to donate money to its democratic capitalist allies to help them rebuild so that they could form a strong, united front against global communism. The US believed France needed to be part of such a coalition given its enormous power. However, the fact that France’s largest political party was both communist and officially subordinate to the USSR was a problem.

            US Ambassador to France Jefferson Caffrey told Prime Minister Paul Ramadier that the US would only provide economic aid if communists were not part of the government. Ramadier could not turn down free cash. Moreover, as a leading member of the socialist SFIO he wanted to deal a blow to the PCF so that this party could retake control of the French left-wing. In April 1947 hundreds of thousands of people struck for better wages. While the PCF did not lead or organize the strikes, they supported them once they occurred. Anti-communists took advantage of the event and spread a rumor that the PCF was planning a coup. Ramadier used anti-communist fears as an excuse and purged PCF members from the government. Ramadier’s betrayal led to the collapse of the Tripartite government and escalating tensions between the communists and socialists.

            By membership the PCF was the largest party in France. However, most of the country opposed the communists, which led the government to change how elections worked. Under the new rules politicians of one party were allowed to make agreements before an election took place to combine their votes. For example, a PCF candidate could win 45% of the vote in one area. In the same election a Gaullist could win 30%, a socialist 22% with the rest of the votes going to smaller parties. If the Gaullist and socialist candidates made an agreement beforehand, then when the results came out and the two politicians combined their votes they would have 52% and one of them would win the election, presumably the one with the most votes.

The new law was an obvious attempt at reducing communist power and it worked. In the 1951 election the PCF won over 26% of the popular vote while the Gaullists came in second with under 22% and the SFIO won 15%. Yet, the PCF only took about 16% of the seats in parliament compared to 19% for the Gaullists. Despite winning more than one-and-a-half times as many votes as the SFIO, the socialists took slightly more seats in parliament. The new electoral arrangement ensured that the PCF would always remain a minority party as parties in the left, center and right pooled their votes to keep them out of power.

With the PCF out of government France received hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid and quickly began rebuilding the country. Blocked from official power, the communists could only stand on the sidelines and condemn the government as a US puppet. Furthermore, they opposed the war in Indochina and colonialism in general.

On 2 January 1956 France held another legislative election. While the 1951 proportional law was still in place, subsequent laws benefited the PCF. The communists won over 25% of the vote compared to 15% for the next two parties. This time the PCF’s popular vote translated into an electoral victory and the communists held the single largest voting bloc in the legislature. However, anti-communist parties formed a coalition to exclude the PCF from government. The PCF remained an outside party, despite being by far the most popular in the country.

            The 1956 election was the last great victory for the PCF, if one could even call it that since ‘victory’ did not translate into political power. That year the Algerian War, which had started in 1954, increased in intensity. The war was a complex affair. Many French people recognized that indigenous Algerians were rightfully angry at French dominance of their country. However, one million French citizens of ethnic European descent lived in Algeria, mostly along the northern coastline. Many French who opposed empire and colonization still supported military activity in Algeria to protect the French who lived there. Famously, existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who had been born and raised in northern Algeria, called for Algerians to have more rights while the country would remain part of France.   

            The complicated nature of the war meant few people had simple positions or feelings towards it. The PCF’s pro-Algerian Independence stance was popular among dedicated anti-colonialists but did not have broad appeal. Moreover, individual communists openly cavorted with Algerian rebels, leading some to accuse communists of openly supporting France’s enemies in a deadly war.

            Another problem the PCF faced was that stories of brutal repression under the USSR increasingly filtered out to the public. The world had been aware of Soviet authoritarianism for decades. Stories of mass starvation in 1930s Ukraine and testimonies of gulags had made their way to Western Europe. Between 1948-1949 Stalin blockaded Berlin in to starve the city and force the Allies to leave. For 11 months the Allies airlifted supplies into the city, demonstrating their determination and causing global embarrassment for Stalin, who lifted the blockade. In 1951 Albert Camus published The Rebel which condemned revolutionary violence and adherence to set ideologies, which he viewed as totalitarian, something which greatly annoyed his colleague and former friend Jean-Paul Sartre.

            The USSR’s global image took a massive hit in late 1956 due to the Hungarian Revolution. Students in Budapest called on the people to reject Soviet totalitarianism and expand civil rights. When police fired on them Hungarians rose up against the police. The people started forming a government in opposition to the official Moscow-backed one and called for free elections. Soviet leadership did not accept the legitimacy of the popular movement and sent in the army to suppress it. The ensuing violence combined with images of tanks rolling through city streets turned many people firmly against the Soviet Union and communism in general. A small but significant section of communist intellectuals disaffiliated from the PCF because it was officially subordinate to Moscow. These thinkers increasingly turned to China as a model for communism. Leninism and Stalinism were by nature authoritarian and envisioned a ruling political clique dominating the majority of people. Maoism appeared more egalitarian given that Mao Zedong had to construct a popular movement of peasants to overthrow the city-based Republic of China. Moreover, China was not, yet, tainted by the many atrocities which the Soviet Union had committed, making it more appealing for those opposed to Western capitalism and imperialism.

            In May 1958 crisis struck France as the military in Algeria threatened a coup unless the retired General Charles de Gaulle was put in power. President René Coty recognized that the Fourth Republic could not solve the country’s problems and so he invited the former general to write a new constitution. De Gaulle proposed having a strong president and a two-round electoral system which would help larger, more centrist parties assume power.

Every major party recognized that the Fourth Republic was not working and voted for the new constitution, except the PCF. The communists worried that de Gaulle would launch a coup and become a dictator, an idea which was not too outrageous considering that he had just come to power due to the military threatening a coup. On 28 September France held a referendum on whether to accept the new constitution. Almost 83% voted ‘yes,’ delivering a clear victory for the Gaullists and a major defeat for the communists. The Fifth Republic was born.

In November 1958 the Fifth Republic had its first election. In the second round of voting the Gaullist party took first place with over 26% of the vote, the conservatives took 2nd place with almost 24% of the vote while the PCF came in 3rd with almost 21%. However, despite winning 1 out of every 5 votes the communists did not win 1/5th of seats in Parliament. In fact, they only won 10 out of 576.

If you’re wondering how a party that took 21% of the vote won less than 2% of seats it’s simple. Politicians from all parties ran for elections in the first round. The two candidates with the most votes went to a run-off election, at which point everyone who was not communist would vote for the other candidate. When right-wing agrarian voters had to choose between voting for a socialist or a communist they would vote socialist. When socialists had to choose between a Gaullist or a communist they would vote Gaullist. The communists were easily one of the largest parties in France but everyone outside the party distrusted them and they were crushed in the two-round voting system. One advantage of being the outsider party was that the PCF took none of the blame for the government’s problems. Moreover, since it had virtually no role in national politics the communists could concentrate all their energies on popular agitation.

In November 1962 France held an election. This time far more parties were willing to cooperate with communists. The PCF won the same number of popular votes but controlled 41 seats. The Gaullists formed a government through a coalition with the center and right-wing parties while the communists, socialists and the rest of the left created an anti-government minority coalition.

In 1965 PCF leaders believed that they could not win the presidential election and supported the socialist François Mitterrand, who lost to de Gaulle. In the 1967 legislative election the PCF won the same percentage of votes at around 21% but significantly increased their number of seats in Parliament. However, a new left-wing political bloc led by Mitterrand became the second-largest group in parliament.

In May 1968 France experienced the largest strike movement in its history, with roughly 1 out of 6 people protesting. The people were fed up at a number of different things: capitalism, underemployment, low pay, US dominance, environmental devastation, racism, sexism, queerphobia, the state of prisons, over-policing and a whole bunch of other issues which all blew up at once when a workers’ strike movement linked up with a student movement in Paris. The PCF did not organize or lead the strikes, some of which it viewed with trepidation. The PCF supported the workers but openly opposed the students because most of the far-left agitators on college campuses were Maoists, Trotskyites or anarchists. In response, the young far-left increasingly viewed the PCF as a relic, with its adherence to Leninism and subordination to Moscow.

            The May Strikes were a period of questioning for the PCF. Officially, the PCF held that political and economic reform were futile as capitalism was by its nature unjust. They held that elections were simply a means to further their aim of overthrowing the government and replacing it with a dictatorship of the proletariat. However, 1969 was the 49th anniversary of the communist party and it had never once launched a revolution or attempted a coup. Between 1945-1947 the PCF helped found France’s welfare state. Ever since they were permanently excluded from power and constantly agitated for workers’ rights, not revolution. During the May Strikes the PCF called for increased wages, not the overthrow of society.

            The PCF was an anti-democratic, revolutionary party in theory, but in practice it was a parliamentary party like any other. However, the party leadership was in denial over this, in part due to the authoritarian structure of the party. The PCF retained a Leninist top-down organization. Members had to follow the dictates of the Central Committee without question or be expelled. Only an elite circle of high-ranking members could influence policy. The PCF was a rigid organization that purposefully cut off most of its own members from the decision-making process, making the elite leaders unresponsive to the needs of their own constituents and the French people in general. Likewise, people increasingly balked at the PCF’s authoritarian nature. It had been more than 20 years since the Second World War and virtually every other party in France was committed to liberal democracy, leaving the PCF as the odd man out. Thus, the communist party suffered from an organizational and ideological disconnect. It was set-up as a revolutionary organization but acted as a parliamentary party. Most French opposed the communist party because of its official commitment to revolution, a commitment it never acted on. Meanwhile, its authoritarian structure alienated the younger generation.

If the May Strikes themselves did not wake up the PCF to its problems the ensuing elections sent a clear message. The May Strikes brought down de Gaulle but his party emerged stronger than ever, and the communists lost half their seats in Parliament. In 1969 they ran a candidate for the presidency who failed to make it to the second round.

In the wake of the Gaullist victory François Mitterrand created the Parti Socialiste, a new socialist party meant to unify the non-communist left wing. In 1972 Mitterrand created a platform which all the left-wing parties could agree to, called the Common Program. Mitterrand wanted to unite the left into a coalition which could seize power from the right. The PCF leadership agreed to the Common Program, effectively abandoning its revolutionary prerogative and finally becoming a parliamentary party. However, it was too late. The following year Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago, which detailed the brutal labor camps within the USSR. The PCF leadership increasingly distanced itself from Moscow but Soviet atrocities still hurt the party image.

In the 1974 presidential election the PCF endorsed Mitterrand since they believed a communist could not win. However, many PCF leaders were elated when Mitterrand lost by a mere 2%. The communists had joined the Common Program to soften their image and become a mainstream political party which could retake the leadership of the left-wing from the socialists. The Socialist Party was thus their main partner and simultaneously their main rival.

            Despite changing their official ideology, and playing nice with the other lefties, the communists declined in popularity. In 1978 the Socialist Party won almost 28% of the vote, just ahead of the Gaullists at 26% and well ahead of the PCF at 18%. In fact, the PCF was now the fourth largest party by total votes. For the first time since 1936 the PCF was not the most popular left-wing party.

            1981 brought about a titanic shift in French politics as economic problems and infighting on the right-wing provided the left with an opportunity. In May Mitterrand won the presidential election, becoming the first socialist to do so. The following month the Socialist Party won 269 of the 491 seats in Parliament giving it an outright majority. The Socialists won over 37% of the vote in the first round and over 49% in the second, making them the most popular single party and a party that was acceptable to almost half of the French electorate. In contrast, the PCF won 16% in the first round and 7% in the second. The PCF still had a large following but it was entering a steep decline. Furthermore, its attempts to enter the mainstream had completely failed as the Socialist Party became the umbrella that the left rallied under. Mitterrand brought the PCF into his government as part of a broad left-wing coalition, but the PCF had virtually no real power.

            In 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved and its former members abandoned communism. The failure of communism’s largest state was a deathblow to the PCF. Increased liberalization and democratization meant that new information about Soviet atrocities reached the public. Finally, the non-Russian ex-Soviet countries firmly condemned Russian dominance over them. Anti-communist sentiment became widespread.

The PCF had nowhere to go. Its claim that it was going to create a workers’ utopia no longer appealed to people given the abject failure of its ideological model. Its move towards democratic reform went unrewarded as the Socialist Party seemed to offer all of the same benefits with none of the baggage. That, and the socialists could actually win elections. Thereafter the Communist Party went into sharp decline and today acquires less than 3% of the vote in legislative elections.

The PCF tied itself to the Soviet Union, rising and falling with the eastern superpower. When the Soviet Union was popular in the 1930s and 1940s so was the PCF. Its role in the Resistance earned it fame and a large following, making it the single-largest party of the entire Fourth Republic by votes. However, the general public perpetually distrusted communists. Electoral rules favoring vote-sharing and two-round voting kept the communists from translating their large following into political power. In 1972, after 25 years out of power, the PCF’s leadership decided to adapt to the electoral rules and try to win broad support. The fact that it took the PCF two-and-a-half decades to face these challenges shows how unequipped its organizational structure was to parliamentary democracy. By the time the party addressed its major problems the left-wing was coalescing around the socialists and the PCF was left behind. Attempts by the communists to soften their image by affiliating with the socialists only benefitted the latter.

            A Leninist political party is capable of immediate, decisive action, making it ideal for overthrowing a government in a coup. Yet, its authoritarian structure makes it unresponsive to its constituents, resulting in ideological rigidity. Leninist parties do not usually win elections because they are inherently opposed to parliamentary democracy and operate as self-contained dictatorships. The PCF was made to overthrow the French government but its members never tried. Instead, it failed to adapt to new situations as it stuck to party dogma. Its substantial electoral victories stemmed from its role in countering fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. French communists coasted on that reputation for decades and could always appeal to anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and anti-American frustrations to drum up support. But the party never expanded its appeal and when the old communists died off no one replaced them.




D.S. Bell and Byron Criddle, The French Communist Party in the Fifth Republic, 1994.

Talbot Imlay, “Mind the Gap: The Perception and Reality of Communist Sabotage of French War Production during the Phoney War 1939-1940,” Past & Present, No. 189 (Nov., 2005), 179-224, 2005.