Happy 100th birthday, French Communist Party!

An interview with historian Guillaume Roubaud-Quashie

Dec 29th, 2020

***Version française ci-dessous***

The French Communist Party (PCF) will be celebrating its centenary between 25 and 30 December 2020. The party spearheaded the French Resistance against Nazi occupation and was instrumental in the creation of France's social security system. It now has more activists than any other left-wing party and is the organiser of the Fête de l'Humanité, the largest festival of its kind in Europe. Historian Guillaume Roubaud-Quashie is responsible for coordinating the PCF's centenary celebrations. In this interview, he talks to Ethan Earle about the history of the party, its achievements and setbacks, and its prospects for the next 100 years.

Ethan Earle: The fact of this centennial celebration shows that the French Communist Party has a long history. How has the PCF left its mark on contemporary France?

Guillaume Roubaud-Quashie: France has been deeply marked by having an active communist presence over the past 100 years, whether it be in its Constitution, the social model, public services, the social security system, or in more symbolic ways such as the names of streets, squares and metro stations, and in the broad resonance of the poetry of Aragon and Éluard. We could also mention its cultural and sporting influence and the many municipal initiatives aimed at breathing life into the slogan 'Only the best for the working class'. Without those decades of communist action, France really wouldn't be what it is today.

EE: What has remained constant, and what have been the major changes over the past 100 years?

GRQ: What is striking when you put the present into a historical context is that the PCF is probably the only major party (with its two parliamentary groups, in power in many municipalities) which has continuously advocated for an alternative to capitalism. It hasn't always been alone in this ambition. Think back to what socialist leaders said for decades. Léon Blum, for example, leader of those who refused to join the Comintern and who went on to reinvent the French Socialist Party, called for a dictatorship of the proletariat in 1920. François Mitterrand, half a century later, insisted that socialists had to be in favour of a break with capitalism. Overtly anti-capitalist forces are much rarer nowadays. Even the Socialist Party, which gave up pursuing any alternative to capitalism a long time ago, is considering changing its name, at the very time when capitalism is coming to be seen by many people in France as a woeful dead end.

What has clearly changed is the PCF’s relationship with 'socialist' countries. The Tours Congress [where the PCF was founded] arose from a rejection of war following the horrors of 1914–18, but also from a great sense of hope inspired by the October Revolution. For a long time, French communists put their trust in the 'East'. That said, we shouldn't over-simplify. The period from 1920 to 1991 had its fair share of ups and downs, most notably in 1968, when French communists condemned the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. There were also other prolonged disagreements over the conception of communism. All in all, the relationship between the PCF and its counterparts in Eastern Bloc countries fluctuated between very close and very distant, although most of the time it was closeness that prevailed. The fact remains that, if we have to compare the 1920 version of the party with its 2020 counterpart, the most eye-catching difference is no doubt that the 1920s idea that we should follow in the footsteps of, and in some way imitate, a revolution that would be enduringly victorious, no longer has any currency today. For the PCF, which never idolised Havana or Beijing, there was never any real successor to the great hope of the October Revolution, which began to fade for French communists in the 1950s and had lost most of its sheen by the 1970s. Indeed, for several decades now, refusing to follow any particular model and charting a course based on the French domestic situation has become a recurring theme at PCF party congresses.

EE: What have been the PCF's three greatest successes in its 100-year history?

GRQ: That's a difficult question to answer because everyone could come up with different rankings. We could further complicate matters by asking: what constitutes a success? In whose eyes and for how long? But anyway, let's take the plunge and try to answer the question.

Undoubtedly, its working-class presence sets the PCF apart. More precisely, the strong working-class presence in political leadership positions has set the PCF apart for most of its history. Why is that? Well, before the First World War, the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO) already had many working-class members, as did the various socialists movements prior to unification in 1905. But in a classic study, the historian Claude Willard showed that the working-class presence declined the higher up the party ranks you went. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there were only a handful of working-class members at the SFIO congress in Tours held to decide whether to join the Comintern. However, when Bolshevisation began a few years later, the face of the Communist Party changed radically – so much so indeed that the legislative elections of 1924 resulted in France's first-ever parliamentary group where working-class members were in the majority. That was the communist group, and it remained a majority working-class parliamentary group for decades. Even now, although the social composition of the party and of its leadership has changed, the role of the working class within it remains pretty much unparalleled.

In terms of major successes, it would be hard to avoid mentioning the communists' role in the great reforms that followed the Liberation. They played a leading part in the creation of what Claire Andrieu has termed the Programme commun de la Résistance ('Common Programme of the Resistance'), in particular through a Resistance movement they launched as a follow-up to the [pre-WW2 alliance of left-wing movements] Popular Front. That movement was called the National Front (although unrelated to the far-right party that took the same name several decades later) and was led by Roger Ginsburger, better known as Pierre Villon. As the biggest party in France at that time, in terms of both activists (over 700,000 members) and electoral support, the PCF threw its weight behind implementing this programme, which included multiple nationalisations and spurred on the establishment of the social security system. Despite coming under frequent attack in the interim, many of these measures have endured and have helped to give France its distinctive set-up.

Last but not least, we could perhaps point to the PCF's role on the issue of secularism. It was the communist Étienne Fajon who introduced the adjective laïque ('secular') into the Constitution of the French Republic. In the wake of the Holocaust and all the discrimination suffered by Jews, this was an important measure, enshrining in law the freedom of all citizens to believe in anything or in nothing and to enjoy the same rights regardless of their choices in this area. In recent times, the word has been hijacked, strangely enough, by conservatives (who also give it a different meaning), but in fact it reflects a historic struggle of the Left and of the labour movement for freedom and equality. Before the war, Jean Jaurès was the main proponent of this idea in France, helping to bring about the 1905 Law on the Separation of Church and State. In a way, the PCF took that momentum forward. In addition, the PCF tried (and, for several decades, largely managed) to actively reconcile two camps: on the one hand, a fraction of the powerful anti-clerical movement that has existed in France since the French Revolution (and before), and on the other hand, working-class believers, or even the worker-priests who were soon to be condemned by the Pope.

EE: What about its failures?

GRQ: Again, it isn't easy to come up with a ranking, but let's take three, bearing in mind that the choice is somewhat subjective and reflective of current preoccupations.

The first is the election of the French president by universal suffrage. Of course, having extensive powers vested in a single individual is contrary to the French revolutionary tradition. At the very least, most power should lie with Parliament. This was the thrust of the constitutional proposals put forward by the communists during the Resistance and after the Second World War, for instance. However, in 1958, amid the serious unrest caused by the Algerian War, Charles de Gaulle pushed through a new Constitution that considerably strengthened the powers of the president. This was a major setback for the PCF, which until then had remained the leading force on the Left and, often, the biggest political force in the country, garnering over 5 million votes in elections and boasting hundreds of thousands of members in a country where mass parties were virtually unknown. The Cold War hugely isolated the party, but in 1958 it found new allies in its rejection of the Constitution, including the independent socialist François Mitterrand and the moderate left-winger Pierre Mendès France, a former prime minister. This raised hopes of a possible victory against de Gaulle, but it was not to be: the number of 'No' votes in the referendum on the ratification of the Gaullist Constitution barely exceeded the number who voted communist in national elections.

In 1962, when de Gaulle proposed that the president be elected by direct universal suffrage – something that had never happened in France since the ominous precedent of 1848, when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, soon to become Napoleon III, was elected – the PCF was fiercely opposed to this but, once again, failed to win the day. Since then, the presidentialisation of French political life has continued unabated. This is a failure for the PCF not only because it is opposed to the principle of presidential centrality but also because, despite the millions of French voters who have long backed the PCF, anti-communism remains a very powerful force in France, raising doubts about whether the PCF could ever command an absolute majority of support in the country. On top of that, communist support varies geographically, being strong in some areas and less so in others, so while the PCF may be able to return large numbers of deputies to the National Assembly, winning a presidential election looks like a tall order. If presidential elections become the be-all and end-all, doesn't that risk marginalising the PCF?

Its second failure is the way the PCF has joined forces with other political groups. While periods of isolation (voluntary or otherwise) have alternated with periods of rallying together, there has been no shortage of setbacks in this area. Take 1936, for example, when the communists joined forces with the radicals and socialists to secure a majority victory for the Popular Front. It all fell apart in no time, with the coalition divided on the question of the Spanish Civil War, and soon afterwards on the Munich Agreement and even on social issues. Another example, with the PCF in opposition this time, was the common programme of the Left in the 1970s. The PCF struggled to convey the idea of being allied while remaining different, and to focus on specific areas where common ground could be found. Admittedly, it takes two to tango, and the problem lay partly with those receiving the message, not just with the party conveying it. We should also consider the Plural Left coalition of socialists, radicals, greens and communists that was in power between 1997 and 2002. Despite trying to express its opposition to some of the measures taken by the socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the PCF was caught up in the meltdown of the Left in the 2002 legislative elections, having failed to convince voters that it represented a different path. I could go on. In 2005, the PCF was a key player in the Left's drive to thwart the European Constitution and its liberal architecture, heavily symbolised in our country by the (divisive!) figure of the man who oversaw its development, former right-wing President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (who held office from 1974 to 1981). The attempted alliance following the 'No' victory in the 2005 referendum proved unsuccessful in the 2007 presidential election, leading to a catastrophic result for the PCF. A Left Front was launched in 2008 but the melange of different ideas and strategies eventually broke apart after dissident socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon leapt to prominence in the 2012 presidential election, enabling him to assert his full autonomy.

If I had to cite a third failure, it would be the party's image. I remember one of my history teachers at university, Christian Chevandier (not a communist), who told me, with some bewilderment, that the PCF would soon go down in history as having protested against the feminist movement, not having been anti-colonialist, and so on. It's quite astonishing to see how much the party's image and memory are attacked – and that is when they aren't airbrushed out of the picture entirely! When Resistance heroes were being inducted into the Panthéon, there was not one communist among them, even though communists played an absolutely central role in the Resistance. When they wanted to honour a First World War writer, who did they choose? Maurice Genevoix. Henri Barbusse didn't get a look. Turning to the present day, the PCF's image is that of an outdated party on its last legs. And yet, when you examine tax administration documents about membership fees for political parties, it turns out that the party with the largest number of paid-up members is currently the PCF (regardless of what the other parties may claim). There's also a whole new generation within the party, which Ian Brossat's campaign in 2019 started to bring to greater public prominence. How do we explain all this? There are, as always, several factors at play.

A relentless political and ideological battle has been waged, in which the PCF has taken a battering and lost points. But there are also a number of objective factors. 1) The Eastern Bloc countries were long held up as proof that an alternative to capitalism was possible. Whatever tensions there may have been between the PCF and the communist parties in those countries, there was a clear link between them in the public's mind. Inevitably, the collapse of these regimes seemed to consign communism, and any communist project, to the past, to a bygone era. The PCF, which continued to push a communist agenda (unlike its Italian counterpart, for example), inevitably suffered from this association with a world that was deemed to belong irrevocably to the past. In other words, in the 1990s and 2000s, the word 'communism' smacked of the USSR, which was redolent of the 20th century and hence ancient history. 2) The demographics of the PCF's activist base have been very uneven. In the same way that major wars leave deep gashes in the age pyramid of a population, the Mitterrand presidencies (1981–1995) combined with the end of the socialist experiments in Europe seem to have created a big hole in the PCF. Objectively speaking, the PCF was, for many years, an ageing party. The renewal, which has been under way for the past 15 years judging from the membership of the French Young Communists Movement (an organisation that interests me particularly, having been the focus of my research for years), has not yet managed to impress itself on the public consciousness. Perception lags behind reality, as historian Ernest Labrousse said.

EE: How do you explain the paradox that the PCF always has the most activists of any party and yet performs poorly at the national level?

GRQ: That's a complex question if there ever was one, and one on which I can only speculate. It seems to me that there are a number of reasons for the strong activist base. It is partly inherited – in two senses. Firstly, the party's strong momentum in the past attracted a lot of members, who have remained with it ever since. I'm thinking in particular of the common programme, which prompted many people to join the PCF in the 1970s. It had over half a million members back then! Some of those have just stayed put, you might say. Secondly, a significant number of today's communists are also the children of communists. However, those factors alone don't give the full picture, I think. At a deeper level, people are looking at the way the world is today and at the shortcomings of capitalism, particularly on the pressing issue of the environment. That's apparent in the new interest being shown in Karl Marx and all the alternatives to the current system. It probably makes sense that this would prompt more people to join a party like the PCF.

As for the party's national performance, that's another matter entirely. No doubt there are a range of factors at play. I will pinpoint three, but many others also deserve a mention. There is a wave that has travelled a long way but is still having an impact: generally speaking, the major social mobilisations in France since the 1970s have been failures. In the best cases (1995 and 2006), they've prevented things from deteriorating, but more often than not, they've failed and haven't led to victory. If we agree with many historians and political scientists, including Raymond Huard, Michel Pigenet and Roger Dupuy, that politicisation in working-class circles feeds on concreteness, proximity and immediacy, this emerging crisis in the PCF's effectiveness at changing the course of events has severely hampered its ability to engage and mobilise working-class voters, who have lapsed into resignation and mass abstention. Another factor to note is the great difficulty the communists have had in formulating and popularising a clear, coherent and concise programme. The twin setbacks of the 1980s – the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the failure within France to harness a 'common programme' of the Left to move towards a French brand of socialism – plunged the communists into deep disarray in the 1990s. True, there was Robert Hue's attempt to effect a transformation (mutation), but this was soon perceived as being purely a PR initiative. For several decades, communist texts have talked about the need for 'reinvention' and the willingness and resolve to 'reinvent', but do they succeed in carrying through this reinvention by giving voice to a clear, coherent and concise programme, and by responding forcefully and succinctly to the question 'What do you want to achieve and how do you plan to achieve it?'?

Finally, the wide range of tactical positions adopted over a couple of decades (from being closely allied with the Socialist Party under Robert Hue's leadership to the formation of the Left Front under Marie-George Buffet, through to the reciprocal estrangement of the Front's two main components, and the dissolution of the Front since 2017–2018) has perhaps made it harder to identify a strategic PCF approach within the country. But these are only a few of the factors at play in a French political landscape that is far from stable.

EE: How are you planning to celebrate the party's centenary?

GRQ: The PCF had planned a series of initiatives to mark its 100th birthday. In the context of French political life, it is a fairly momentous event: not many parties have been around for 100 years. Whether to mark a break or for PR and marketing reasons, many political formations change their name, close themselves down and re-emerge under another name, and so on. This is particularly characteristic of the Right (where the main forces change their name every 10 or 15 years) but the Left isn't immune to such temptations either (as shown by the successive structures launched by Jean-Luc Mélenchon).

In any case, the Communist Party had grand ambitions, with various initiatives planned between March and December 2020. In particular, given how the French communist conception of politics is deeply imbued with a popular taste for celebration and fraternity, we'd planned a packed national week of initiatives in June, combining music, memory and politics, in the strict sense of the word, and culminating in an event on Place du Colonel-Fabien around the PCF's national headquarters, which was designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and is celebrating its 40th birthday this year.

But there's no point going through all the centenary plans devised in 2018 and 2019. After being initially postponed due to the pandemic, in the end most of the planned events had to be cancelled.

As for those that are going ahead, the Fondation Gabriel-Péri has organised a major exhibition of PCF posters spanning the past 100 years, providing an opportunity to look back over the party's slogans, campaigns and positions. While the exhibition couldn't open to the public, a number of short videos and a short film have been made and posted on the foundation's website. The exhibition features some great names in poster design and art history, from Jules Grandjouan to Grapus, André Fougeron to Pablo Picasso. Also, to reflect the close ties between the history of the PCF and French cultural life, there are plans to put on a large art exhibition entitled Libres comme l'art ('Free as art'), bringing together Duchamp, Giacometti, Picasso, Léger, Masson, Taslitzky, Le Parc, Pignon-Ernest and others. It will feature works which were donated to the PCF by these artists and which the party has deposited in museums or looks after itself and will be brought together for the first time in this exhibition at the PCF's national headquarters. The event was originally due to take place in 2020, but has been postponed to spring 2021.

Obviously, we shouldn't forget about the more traditional 'political' initiatives that the PCF is planning to mark the centenary. The aim of these is not just to look back on and celebrate the past century, but also to affirm the PCF's vision of communism and to show how it is responding to the major challenges of our time.

About the author

Guillaume Roubaud-Quashie has a doctorate in history and is a research associate at the Centre d'histoire sociale des mondes contemporains (University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne/CNRS). He is also vice-president of the Fondation Gabriel-Péri, director of the PCF's political action review Cause commune (http://www.causecommune-larevue.fr) and coordinator of the PCF's centenary celebrations.