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French communists find new life in `no`

by : monstersandcritics.com
Thursday May 26, 2005 - 02:59

PARIS, France (UPI) — Facing a small audience of party faithful at a debate Tuesday vening, Patrick Bressac, a clean-shaven, 20-something climber in the French Communist Party offered a passionate primer on why French voters should reject the new European Union constitution at the polls Sunday.

"This is not a question about `yes` or `no` to Europe," Bressac told some five dozen, mostly middle-aged residents of Paris` 18th arrondissement — a colorful neighborhood populated by Algerians and Malians, Eastern European prostitutes and a growing slice of Parisian yuppies.

"I am a European," Bressac said. "And that`s why I`ll vote `no` to this constitution on Sunday."

Bright blue posters rejecting the EU charter plastered the wall of the scruffy meeting room, located a few streets down from the neighborhood town hall. "The European people need our no," one read.

Should France become the first European country to vote against the constitution Sunday — as a spate of recent polls suggest — during a closely watched referendum the vote will not only translate into a stunning defeat for the European Union but for France`s ruling conservative and opposition Socialist parties as well.

But one party will emerge a clear victor from the "no," France`s embattled communists.

Indeed, three years after scoring its lowest election results in history, the French Communist party is finding a new voice — and new adherents — through its campaign against the EU charter.

Rallies for the "no" organized by the communists and a coalition of other far-left and anti-globalization groups have gathered tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters. And the Communist Party`s ranks have swollen by 2,000 members since January, say party officials — who are gambling on a total of 5,000 new members by the year`s end.

"This campaign against the constitution is breathing new air into the Communist party," said Henri Rei, an expert on the far left at the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life. "But whether the party can show long-term staying power is an unrelated issue."

"It`s one thing to join a nonpartisan coalition of refusal on the referendum," Rei added, "and something completely different to construct a real political orientation."

Perhaps one of the most powerful forces in reversing the communists` sliding fortunes is its dynamic, 57-year-old leader, Marie-George Buffet. Voted in as the party`s first female national secretary in 2001, Buffet spent a career climbing the party ranks, before asserting her own political style.

Buffet`s habit of reaching out to other far-left movements like the Workers` Struggle party and the Communist Revolutionary League has brought rich paybacks: Her far-left coalition ticket scored 7 percent in Ile de France during last year`s regional elections — more than double the Communist Party`s 2002 score.

"She`s emotional," political colleague Claire Villiers told Le Monde newspaper in a recent interview. "When she speaks about people suffering, it`s like she`s living it."

Today, Buffet is again reaching out, arranging joint campaigns, rallies and press appearances with a motley coalition of like-minded constitution dissenters.

Their arguments are simple: The European charter, as written, spells disaster for the working class. It will roll back hard-earned social benefits and roll in a cold, callous, money-oriented Europe ruled by transnational companies and free-market forces.

For many French, dogged by glum economic growth rates, rising unemployment and fears of being undercut by Eastern European competitors, the message of the "no" has struck home.

And while European leaders — including France`s center-right president, Jacques Chirac — have categorically ruled out any second chance if the constitution fails to pass, Buffet argues otherwise.

"The door remains open" for the charter to be renegotiated, Buffet told France`s Liberation newspaper — which has dubbed her "the Madonna of the no."

Such arguments were echoed at the Tuesday night meeting.

"We can`t let Chirac alone renegotiate a new EU treaty," Bressac told his audience. "We need to help him." His statement was greeted with scattered clapping.

For all its waxing strength, the French Communist Party is a shell of its 20th-century self. Founded in 1920 by French socialists who supported Russia`s Bolshevik Revolution, the communists rose to become France`s largest postwar party, gathering nearly 29 percent of the votes in 1946 parliamentary elections.

Pablo Picasso was a member. So was the future Cambodian dictator Pol Pot.

Gradually, the party began distancing itself from Moscow, particularly after the brutal repression of Czechoslovak reformers in 1968. In 1981, the communists finally entered into the French government for the first time, under Socialist president Francois Mitterrand.

Paradoxically, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the party`s new status as an establishment force hastened the French communists` decline. Today, many far-left activists consider the communists stuffily passé compared to the hipper Trotskyists and Revolutionary League.

But asked whether communism still made sense today, Communist Party Information Service head Brigitte Dionnet offered a spirited defense.

"We believe communism is still relevant today," Dionnet said in a telephone interview. "Capitalism continues to make men and women of this country suffer. Everything that discriminates and exploits people merits a fight."

At the Tuesday night meeting, longtime party stalwart Louis Baillot, agreed. Both of Baillot`s daughters are also Communist Party members.

"This battle we`re waging against the referendum is a very popular battle — thanks to initiatives the communists have taken," said Baillot, 80, who drew parallels with the current campaign against the constitution and the 20th-century war against fascism. "We`re witnessing a major historic moment."

"Of course, things won`t be over May 29," Baillot added with a smile. "The real changes won`t begin until the next morning."

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