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French Communist Party clings to Mitterrand coattails

Braces of French and Soviet flags hang limply from the peeling facade of the "Maurice Thorez House," the local Communist Party headquarters named after a former party chief, while pinned-up pages of the French communist daily, l'Humanite, exhort voters to "beat Giscard" by supporting Socialist candidate Francois Mitterrand.

Although protesting hands have ravaged the posters of outgoing President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and left the somewhat disdainful face of Mitterrand intact at the voting stations in this distinctly working-class "red belt" town on the outskirts of Paris, the French Communist Party's (PCF) endorsement of the Socialist leader has been burdened by misgivings.

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Before the results of France's presidential elections were known, the crisis-ridden PCF had little choice but to come out publicly in favor of Mitterrand despite the often bitter feuding between the Communists and Socialists since the Union of the Left's dissolution in 1977.

Jarred by growing party desertions because of its hardline pro-Moscow and often racist policies against immigrants, but above all stung by its worst electoral defeat since 1936 in the April 26 first round of the election, the PCF realized that failure to sanction Mitterrand could lead to disaster. The longing among many traditional Communists for an end to more than 22 years of conservative rule, even at the hands of a Socialist president, was too great to ignore.

While some political observers feel that the PCF has no desire whatsoever to participate in a left-wing government unless it can call the shots, party leader Georges Marchais insisted that Communist votes should be interpreted as a means to eliminate Giscard d'Estaing rather than ideological support for Mitterrand.

Following Mitterrand's election, however, Mr. Marchais changed his tune considerably. "Victory has been won," Marchais announced. "We made a decisive contribution to the victory." The Communist leader said his party was ready to "assume its responsibilities."

In its Sunday, May 10, election edition, l'Humanite called on all voters to go to the polls in order to "impose on Mitterrand the conditions for change." The paper criticized Mitterrand for being too ambiguous during the campaign, particularly with regard to the role of the Communists were he to be elected.

In a front-page editorial titled "The nature of our vote," l'Humanite maintained that only a coalition government incorporating both Communist and Socialist ministers could make a left-wing program of social reform such as price freezing, increased family allowances, and various "anticapitalist measures" work.

But Mitterrand has been extremely careful not to commit himself on whether he intends to bring Communist ministers into his government. He maintains this silence despite campaign pressures not only from Marchais, but also Giscard d'Estaing, who repeatedly warned the country that a left-wing government would only bring about economic and political chaos.

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Although he desperately needed Communist support, Mitterrand geared his tactics toward attracting votes directly rather than making deals with the PCF. With his election victory, however, the Socialists extended themselves far enough to announce they will appoint Communist ministers only if the two parties come to a full agreement on all points of the proposed Socialist economic reforms.

It is still too early to determine whether the April 26 Communist setback was writing on the wall or a momentary lapse among traditional voters wishing to grant Mitterrand substantial support in the first round rather than Marchais. Now that Mitterrand has won, one must wait until the holding of the next legislative elections, possibly in two months' time, to judge party popularity.

Recent events, however, have suggested that the PCF is in decline. Whereas the party used to be able to boast well-known painters, musicians, writers, and intellectuals among its ranks, ranging from Pablo Picasso to Jean-Paul Sartre, hundreds have left in recent years, notably following the invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.

Numerous workers, fed up with party policy and internal repression, have also deserted ship through resignation or refusing to renew their party membership.

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