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France: Georges Marchais--A Communist Who Failed Every Test

Paris, 17 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The death yesterday in Paris of long-time French Communist Party leader Georges Marchais may have spared the West's last Stalinist-styled leader from witnessing history's ultimate judgment on his work.

That will come soon with the opening of the PCF's confidential files --promised last week by Marchais' successor, Robert Hue, who in three years as party chief has brought the party back into France's political mainstream after Marchais had rendered it disreputable and marginal.

History has already been rather severe with Marchais, who failed every one of its major tests. In the quarter-of-a-century he led the PCF, the party's share of the French electorate dwindled from 21 to nine percent. In large part, that's because Marchais refused every opportunity to reform the PCF --the way chosen by his counterparts in neighboring Italy and Spain, who kept their parties respectable. He maintained so-called Democratic Centralism --meaning absolute rule by a small inner group-- until 1993, a year before he stepped down as party leader because of growing cardiac problems that eventually killed him yesterday at the age of 77.

It took Marchais 20 years after Nikita Krushchev's 1956 speech revealed Stalin's crimes to acknowledge publicly the Soviet dictator's faults --and even then he did so with great reluctance. Marchais courted and flattered Nicolae Ceaucescu well after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had given up on the Romanian tyrant.

He refused to countenance Gorbachev's "perestroika" with any conviction, and was quick to support the failed 1991 Moscow coup to restore old-style Soviet rule. He also backed the Soviet-led invasion of reforming Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, supported the 1981 repression of Poland's Solidarity movement, and as late as the mid-1980s was still assessing the record of Central and East European Communist regimes as "generally good."

Throughout, Marchais denied the PCF's obvious wealth owed anything to financing from Moscow. This was proved to be a lie with the opening several years ago of Soviet files that revealed the French and the U.S. Communists Parties had received more funding from Moscow than others in the West. (During Marchais' only visit to the U.S. five years ago, he met with his counterpart Gus Hall --although neither man apparently knew how much the other owed to the Soviets.) The full extent of the lie, however, will only be known when Hue opens the PCF's own files.

Marchais also lied about his personal history. Documents show that he spent three years in Nazi Germany as a volunteer worker for Messerchmitt aircraft company --not, as he maintained, as a political prisoner or a forced laborer. Even before, as a young metal-worker, he first held a strategically important job, which kept him from being conscripted into the French army that collapsed before the 1940 German onslaught, and later worked for a French aircraft-repair factory requisitioned by the German air force. He played no part in the extensive French Communist resistance to the Nazi occupation that began after the June 1941 German invasion of the USSR. Later, that made him an ideal partner for Moscow, which distrusted indigenous resistors like Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito.

Marchais only joined the PCF in 1947. Beginning as a bodyguard for then party General Secretary Maurice Thorez, Marchais quickly rose through party ranks with hard work and considerable political skill. In 1956, he was awarded a seat on the PCF's Central Committee and three years later was admitted to its ruling Politburo, where he occupied the critical post of organizational secretary. This made him the PCF's effective leader when Thorez' successor, Waldeck Rochet, fell ill in 1969 and official General Secretary when Rochet died three years later.

All this has been common knowledge to most French politicians for years. Yet out of generous deference to the dead man, and cautious respect for the PCF's electorate, most of those who commented yesterday praised Marchais' record. Conservative President Jacques Chirac said his death marked, in Chirac's words, "the disappearance of a true leader (whose) strength and sincerity of beliefs" had impressed him. Socialist Prime Minster Lionel Jospin, who needs the PCF to hold the Left's slim parliamentary majority, hailed Marchais as what he called a "man of the people who became one of the strongest...figures in French politics."

Only Jospin's predecessor, conservative Edouard Balladur, was honestly critical. Balladur said that Marchais "impeded the renovation of the (PCF) more than he helped it. In this era when everyone is being asked to repent, if there is anyone who should do so it is the Communist leaders."

As for PCF leaders, they outdid themselves. Hue said that Marchais "gave so much of himself to the party ...and was so unfairly treated." A former Politburo colleague called Marchais "history's victim." And party militants were inconsolable. One weeping woman told French radio (Radio France Internationale): "He had such beautiful blue eyes."

To which one can only ask: Is there no end to human folly?