MARTIGUES, France — Delegates to the 30th national conference of the French Communist Party (PCF) meeting in this southern French industrial city, in late March, voted for significant changes to the structure and direction of the party. Party leaders compared the importance of this conference to the party's founding conference in 1921, held nearby.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the PCF has faced a series of devastating problems, particularly the loss of many members and of electoral support.
Conference participants were united in their support for some sort of change. There were widely varying views on what type of change was necessary.
The party also has a more immediate problem. Since 1997 its parliamentary representatives have been part of a coalition government led by the Socialist Party, and hold some ministerial posts. The party has been blamed for government attacks on jobs, education, health, and other social services.
One delegate described the party as "being put to death" because it was part of developing this right-wing government policy. Electoral abstention by trade union supporters of the party has been a particularly worrying trend. This has been "the cost of supporting policies favouring capitalism", said another delegate.
The conference applauded one delegate, quoted the next day in the party's L'Humanite newspaper, who said that instead of the members being able to influence the party, the party was being pressured by the government.
Delegates from Pas de Calais, the northern industrial region of France hit by industrial closures and restructuring, were particularly strong critics of the government for its massive privatisations and its support for NATO.
Others argued that only by being in the government could the party be relevant to French politics. But the longer the PCF has ministers, the fewer people are willing to vote for it.
The approach adopted by the party was summarised by party leader Robert Hue, who called for a more active extra-parliamentary presence to put pressure on the government. He saw parliament as an opportunity for the left, which had to make itself heard.
Outside parliament, according to PCF leaders, there now exists the possibility of building broad networks and alliances with non-PCF activists engaged in struggle. The need to appeal to youth and women was mentioned repeatedly.
On its first day, the conference gave enthusiastic endorsement to a national teachers' strike and rallies, which attracted hundreds of thousands of teachers and students.
The party also stated that it would relate to the feminist and environmental movements. There may be difficulties, however, as there was no sign of debate on the party's unswerving support for the French nuclear power program.
While little time was spent discussing the party's history, a speech was given by party veteran Lise London. She described "Stalinists in the USSR" as "the gravediggers of socialism", and blamed the party's inability to analyse political events on its previous dependence on the Soviet Communist Party. She was hopeful for the future of the party and said she had decided to rejoin after many years outside.
A major problem for the party has been its lack of tradition of internal democratic decision-making and a consequent sense of powerlessness among members. Structural changes include a larger national council elected from the conference, and greater authority for it to direct the smaller executive body.
In all there were nearly 900 delegates present, representing the party's 200,000 members. Quotas resulted in women being 47% of delegates and nearly half of those speaking.
Reflecting the party's poor appeal to youth, the average age of delegates was 45, three years more than at the previous conference in 1996. Only 11% of delegates were under 30. More than 100 delegates opposed or abstained on the key resolutions of the conference.
BY GREG HARRIS