Paris, 13 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- In a striking demonstration of how ideology-minded the country remains, France's National Assembly erupted angrily yesterday afternoon over a polemic surrounding a new book about the crimes and victims of Communism in the past 80 years.
The row was triggered during the Assembly's weekly televised question time by opposition deputy Michel Voisin, who strongly criticized Socialist Prime Minister Michel Jospin for having French Communist Party (PCF) ministers in his five-month-old government. Voisin cited the just-published "Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror and Repression," an 848-page encyclopedic work by a group of French historians that documents the murder by Communist regimes of at least 85 million people, 20 million of them in the Soviet Union, since the Bolshevik coup d'etat of 1917. In a preface, the book's principal author, scholar Stephane Courtois, wrote that methods used by Lenin and Stalin presaged the later murderous excesses of Nazi Germany --a thesis challenged by some of his co-authors, although it has been argued previously by many non-French Western historians.
In an equally emotional response, Jospin said he was "proud" of Communist participation in his government. The PCF, he argued, had distinguished itself by participating in the Socialist-led Popular Front government in the 1930s and by its resistance to the German occupation during World War Two. True, he allowed, the party had, in his words, "not distanced itself early enough from Stalinism (but) it has never attacked (French) liberties." And added Jospin, a one-time university lecturer, he refused to "put Nazism and Communism in the same box....There were never gradations in Nazism (as there were) in analyses and practices among Marxism, Communism, Leninism and Stalinism."
Jospin's remarks brought him a standing ovation from all Left parties, the first such demonstration since the Assembly was elected in June. They also provoked an angry rebuttal from Center-Right deputy Voisin, who demanded that "those who supported these (Communist) abominations" be held responsible, and shouts of dismay from his colleague Charles-Andre de Courson, who feverishly brandished the "Black Book" as cries mounted throughout the chamber.
Seeking to calm the atmosphere, Socialist Assembly President Laurent Fabius ordered: "Mr. Voisin, pose ("posez" in French) your question and you, Mr. de Courson, put down ("posez" in French) your book." But his irony only led to a protest walk-out by the entire Center-Right Party (Union for French Democracy, known as UDF). Soon there were additional arguments and breast-beating, also caught by TV cameras, in the corridors. PCF leader Robert Hue told reporters that his party had, in his phrase, "paid dearly" for being slow to condemn Stalinism and thanked Jospin for putting an end to what he called "politicking that no longer has any place in our country."
Until Hue took over control of the party three years ago from ailing long-time chief Georges Marchais, the PCF had been run under the principle of "Democratic Centralism," a euphemism for rule by Marchais and a small inner group. Marchais only got around to condemning Stalinism in 1976, 20 years after Nikita Krushchev revealed the dictator's crimes, and even in the 1980s he called the record of East European Communist regimes "good overall." Hue, whose ingratiating moderation has made the PCF respectable again, last week praised the "Black Book (for charting) a human drama (and) a monstrous movement (that he condemned) without reservation."
Elsewhere in the West, where the question has largely been settled, yesterday's French Left-Right face-off over Communism's merits and demerits would have seemed to have belonged to another era. But in France, the furor was an integral part of today's political and intellectual life.
Politically, Jospin needs the Assembly's 27 Communist deputies to maintain his slim parliamentary majority and the PCF needs its ministers in the Government to certify its respectability. Intellectually, many French have only in recent years caught up with the disillusion and disgust with Communism that overtook other Westerners decades ago. The biggest sign of that recent change is the continuing best-seller status of a 1995 book, "The End of An Illusion" ("Le Passe d'une Illusion"), by the distinguished historian Francois Furet, himself a former Communist.
Even so, the "Black Book's" reckoning of Communism's victims as ranging from 85 to 100 million --65 million in China alone-- and Courtois' linkage of Communism and Nazism have been challenged by many intellectuals, as well as by two of the volume's own contributors. The "illusion" may have ended in France, but the ideological wars are far from over.