Jospin Is Coddling The Communists And Missing His Big Chance

Ever since his surprise win in France's general elections this summer, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has nurtured a close relationship with his French Communist Party (PCF) allies. He immediately recruited three Communists into his cabinet, and PCF leader Robert Hue received a rapturous reception at the Socialist Party's November congress, the first time in seven decades a Communist was invited to attend.

Jospin needs Communist support to stay in power. Without the 36 PCF votes, he can't muster the 289 required for an absolute majority in France's lawmaking National Assembly. But Communist backing has a high price. Jospin may be depriving the Socialists of a historic chance to seize control of France's political center as Tony Blair did in Britain.

The Communists have yanked Jospin's chain vigorously at times. They have, for example, threatened to nix welfare reforms and defense cuts and block privatizations. They now insist that Jospin honor a campaign pledge to scrap tough immigration laws put in place by right-wing governments.

But for now, the Communists are a lot weaker than they appear. The threats to bring down the government are largely empty: Forcing a new election while Jospin is so popular could decimate the PCF at the polls. As a result, Hue's troops stood by and watched as Jospin cut social security benefits, privatized chunks of state-owned companies like France Telecom, and allowed Renault to close plants. "The French Communists are swallowing a lot of things they don't like," says Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

Jospin, though, has been slow to exploit the PCF's weakness. Socialists such as Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn would like to see more centrist policies, for instance on privatization, that would make it easier to extract France from its economic woes. Jospin, however, can't afford to go too fast. Voters rejected decisively the free-market nostrums of former Prime Minister Alain Juppe.

WARM FUZZIES. Hue, meantime, is shedding the Stalinism practiced by his predecessor, Georges Marchais, who led the party from 1972 to 1994. Marchais, who died on Nov. 16, kept a dictatorial grip on the party, rejected Italian-style Eurocommunism, and endorsed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The PCF is undergoing a profound transformation. Hue has quietly dispensed with rigid Marxist dogma, and French Communists now accept a mixed economy consisting of both public and private capital. Instead of trying to foment revolution and class struggle, the party is focusing on modest goals, from a shorter workweek to curb unemployment to taxes on financial speculators. The party's tone, once strident, is warm and fuzzy. "[We want] a society that is more just, more humane, and less hard--where making money isn't the leading value," says PCF National Committee member Daniel Cirera.

Hue may have to quicken the pace of his reforms. Under Marchais' rigid reign, the party's share of votes in national elections fell from 25% to 7%. Hue's reforms already have halted the slide. This year, the PCF won 9% of votes. Bolder moves may be needed to regain lost ground. "The PCF has no choice but to evolve toward a social democratic party or lose support and die," says political analyst Alain Duhamel.

By constantly looking over his left shoulder, Jospin is giving Hue the time he needs to fix the PCF. In the long run, that could turn out to be a calamitous move for the French Socialists--and make it easier for the Right to regain power.