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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unreconstructed Marchais Bows Out

PARIS -- French Communist leader Georges Marchais has bid farewell to his comrades, chastened by the party's dramatic decline during his 22-year stewardship but unrepentant over an intolerance for dissent that drove away many loyalists.


At a party congress in the working-class suburb of Saint-Ouen on Wednesday, Marchais, in his retirement speech, appealed to 1,500 delegates to build on his legacy by creating a "new kind of party that would not be less communist, but better." The road to social democracy followed by Italian and other European Communists, he warned, would lead them all to moral bankruptcy.


But the lukewarm applause and passive inattention of his audience suggested that Marchais, 73 and ailing, may quickly become a relic of the past. The 28th French Communist Congress is set to renounce his cherished principle of "democratic centralism," which ruled out any pluralism within the party. And his successor, to be chosen from among a half-dozen candidates Saturday, seems likely to modernize the party in a way that may soon banish Marchais' legacy.


A former metalworker whose bushy eyebrows and boisterous temperament made him an amusing part of the French political landscape, Marchais saw his party's share of the vote plummet from over 20 percent in the 1970s to barely 9 percent in national elections last March that produced a conservative government with an overwhelming majority. After being the country's largest political party after the war -- in which it played a key role in the resistance --the Communists now hold only 23 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly.


A favorite of Soviet party chief Leonid Brezhnev, Marchais remained steadfastly loyal to Moscow's leadership during the years when other European Communist parties sought to enhance their appeal with voters by embracing democratic methods and moderating their policies. He endorsed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and rejected criticism of Moscow's human rights abuses.


Marchais' dogmatic style enraged and frustrated other members of the French Communist hierarchy, driving longtime supporters such as his former spokesman, Pierre Juquin, to break with the party. Other dissenters stayed the course with the intention of reforming the party, but Marchais invariably found ways to quash their voices.


As the party steadily slipped, Marchais' authority came under increasing fire. He was nearly dumped at a Central Committee meeting 10 years ago but called off the debate before a vote could be held, saying patriotism required all members to watch a crucial soccer match between France and Spain.


In 1981, Marchais accepted Socialist President Fran?ois Mitterrand's offer for the Communists to participate in France's newly elected leftist government. It turned out to be a massive political blunder. The Communists plunged in popularity as they bore the brunt of the blame for the government's disastrous economic policy.


Mitterrand's decision to invite four Communist ministers into the government even though the Socialists held a parliamentary majority had frightened the United States and other Western allies. But he gambled that sharing power would ultimately drive the Communists into political disfavor, and he won the bet.


Marchais later acknowledged that he had committed a terrible mistake by linking his party with the Socialists, and within three years it left the government. One of the Communist ministers, Anicet Le Pors, wryly observed that the experience with the Socialists proved Marchais was a man of "positive instincts and disastrous initiatives."


At the same time, the industrial and blue-collar workers who formed the core of the Communist support became frightened of losing their jobs to North African immigrants willing to accept lower wages. Many of them crossed the ideological spectrum to vote for the National Front, an extreme right-wing group that advocated expulsion of most Arab and African immigrants.


Marchais, however, kept a tenacious hold on the French public because of his proletarian bluster and a penchant for tantrums that set him apart from the button-down style of most politicians.


He once told the country's top news anchorman to "shut up" on the air. His syllogisms were legendary. Asked to clarify his views on nuclear weapons, he replied: "I wish neither to repeat nor to contradict myself."