“Share everything!” “No more lay-offs!” “Away with NATO!” “No to global capital!” These and other similar, moth-eaten slogans are brought back by the fans of the hammer and sickle in the run-up to every election in France. And although Paris’ threadbare “red belt” is gradually shrinking, the country still has plenty of die-hard communists
On the eve of the parliamentary election, red flags flow again above the squares of former working towns, where left-wing radicals hope to find unflagging support. Today their biggest rivals are candidates for the ultra-right National Front which has won a big share of the proletarian electorate.
GREETINGS FROM LENIN
Two years before his demise, Georges Frêche, the president of the Languedoc-Roussillon Region, managed to erect a monument to Vladimir Ulyanov in Montpellier, a university city in southern France. Despite numerous petitions and protests, the Bolshevist leader has had his seat in the city's square a long time. “Of course, Georges Frêche was quite an eccentric character,” a Montpellier city hall official admits, “but, he did a lot for the community. So far, the municipal council has not discussed any suggestion of removing Lenin.”
“I am not going to build monuments to every political pigmy,” Frêche said as he promised to give the community “a true square of Great Men” in Montpellier. “I am not interested in Chirac, Mitterand, or Sarkozy. After Lenin, we are going to raise monuments to Mao Tse-tung, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin.”
In the end, Frêche failed to implement all his projects, but his views are not seen as strange — at least, not by everyone. “If it had not been for Lenin, the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America would have never shed the yoke of colonial oppression,” says Yusuf Dari, a legal student of Algerian origin, born in one of the predominantly communist Parisian suburbs. “Lenin is a great 20th century politician,” he continues with conviction in his voice, “It is normal that many streets around the world bear his name.”
Stalinist repressions, the GULAG, China’s Cultural Revolution, and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia wiped off almost 90 million innocent lives, according to historian Stéphane Courtois’ Black Book of Communism, but these historical facts continue to be largely ignored by scholars, politicians, and public opinion in France. Courtois’ term “class genocide” meets with constant sabotage on the part of the left-wing French academics, who disown the culprits saying that they were not “real communists.”
LIBERALISM AND LILIES OF THE VALLEY
Every May First, communists towns from Paris’ “red belt” all look alike. In every street, square, and corner, flower stalls pop up like mushrooms as the Communist Party replenishes its treasury.
“Since the Soviet Union stopped financing the French communists, they have not been able to do anything but sell flowers,” former Trotskyite Valentin Duflot says. Duflot, who is a school teacher, said he “has never been particularly fond of communists,” but has sympathized with ultra-leftists for a long time. “I was shocked by the constant purges in the French Communist Party, in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and in the post-war years. I will soon turn 70 and I've seen a lot: L'Humanité’s disgraceful editorials with eulogies to Stalin, and strange oaths of fidelity to Moscow on the part of the PCF secretaries general Georges Marchais and Maurice Thorez…”
In the recent presidential elections Mr. Duflot voted for the centrist François Bayrou, and in the second round for the new president Hollande. “Age is a good cure for radicalism,” he jokes, adding, “The world revolution is actually a dangerous utopia. As a student, I wanted to be simultaneously an anti-communist and ultra-leftist. Back then, Trotskyism was all the rage. But one visit to Cuba cured me of my ultra-left-wing convictions. Starving children, empty shops, fearful eyes… I realized that it was madness to reject the market. Yes, private property certainly emphasises inequality. Yet the bloodbaths, accompanying every coercive expropriation and redistribution of property, are even worse.”
Mr. Duflo regrets that in 2009 French socialists would not support the European Parliament’s resolution on condemning communist and Nazi crimes: “Even the moderate left-wing resent talking about a possible trial of communist crimes. They often reduce the problem to personalities like Stalin and Mao. They will go out of their way to avoid admitting that communism is a freakish twist of the human mind, in order to keep their allies in the election.”
Since the 1930s, the “red belts” around the French capital and other big cities (Marseilles, Lyon, Lille) have been made up of around 1,000 predominantly working-class suburbs, vibrant with plants and factories and trade unions. With financial infusions from Moscow, communists easily recruited voters here.
Five-storey apartment blocks, reminiscent of Khrushchev-era housing in the Soviet Union, are typical of these towns. Streets bear the names of Gagarin and Gorky, and there is more public housing than private. While in the past, the booming French economy allowed the “red” suburbs thrive on stable revenue from enterprises, recent oil and financial crises have dramatically changed the landscape.
Working-class quarters are now blighted with unemployment. The largest, like Saint-Denis, have an unemployment rate of almost 50%. Clinging to power, communists are building patron-client relationships with their electorate, promising numerous welfare payments and subsidies. However, buying votes in this way is becoming increasingly more difficult.
You cannot butter your bread with populist slogans. The “red” towns gradually fade into pink, or even turn green, as they slip under the control of socialists or environmentalists. “The popularity of the Communist Party was buttressed by welfare – paid leave ahcieved by the Popular Front in 1936, or universal social security achieved by the communists after the war,” explains Madeleine Derome, a native of Saint-Denis, which is still run by communists. “However, times have changed. People need jobs, but there are none. You can keep denouncing the 'rapacious nature' of capitalism and NATO, as the Left Front does, but that doesn't create new jobs.”
Ms. Derome goes on to recall, “It was an isolated world of sorts. As a schoolgirl I would go to Soviet-style summer camps. We knew L’Internationale by heart. Of course, no-one told us about prison camps and punitive psychiatry.”
Ms. Derome is convinced that grim reality is bringing formerly obscured icons out of the collective consciousness. “A crisis is an agile corrector,” she remarks emphasizing that Hollande has been the first post-war leader to refuse an alliance with the Left Front, made up of the remains of the PCF and ultra-leftists, in the run-up to the parliamentary election.
“Nothing is announced officially, but there are indirect signs showing that President Hollande might become the first French socialist leader to draw a clear line between the moderate left and its radical counterparts.”
It is still too early to draw any conclusions about the new government. The Republic’s new officials, which indeed do not include a single communist, have just begun working. The parliamentary election, scheduled on June 17, is certain to adjust the situation. Moreover, the PCF will appear as part of the Left Front at the next vote, rather than as an independent force.