France’s Once-Mighty Communist Party Is Struggling to Find Its Voice

French Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel is running for the presidency — and even polling ahead of the long-powerful Socialists. But a campaign heavy on identity also shows that the old workers’ parties are struggling to speak to a changed working class.

French Communist Party candidate for the upcoming presidential election, Fabien Roussel, holds a rally on February 24, 2022, in Avion, France. (Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images)

On February 16, more than 1,500 people crowded into the town hall of Montreuil, a working-class but rapidly gentrifying suburb in eastern Paris. Wearing red surgical masks and carrying flags and banners, they were there to celebrate “le défi des jours heureux,” literally meaning “the challenge of happy days.” Hearkening back to the National Resistance Council program that helped orient France’s reconstruction at the end of World War II, this promise of “happy days” provides the campaign slogan of French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, PCF) candidate Fabien Roussel, who has in recent weeks emerged as a dark horse for April’s presidential elections.

Speaking before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Roussel started his speech with a call for a peaceful solution to the crisis in Eastern Europe. But his focus was less on international politics than the hot-button domestic issues — deindustrialization, purchasing power, inequality — that he has made his calling card since officially declaring his run for the presidency in May 2021.

“Here [in the Paris suburbs], successive administrations of both Left and Right have left inequalities to fester,” he told the crowd of mostly party loyalists and activists. “This class inequality is unacceptable. You are the real heroes of the republic, and you are essential [workers].”

Polls suggest the diverse array of left-wing candidates total just over a quarter of the vote, with right-wingers seemingly the main challenge to incumbent Emmanuel Macron. Yet Roussel’s message seems to be resonating within this subset of the French electorate ahead of the first-round vote on April 10.

In the past month, Roussel has more than doubled his polling average from 1.9 to 4.4 percent, putting him neck-and-neck with Green Party candidate Yannick Jadot and well above Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo, whose campaign has floundered in recent weeks. If elections were held today, the PCF would likely beat the Socialists in a major political race for the first time since the 1973 legislative elections, nearly fifty years ago. This is a remarkable prospect for the Socialist Party, which held the presidency as recently as 2017.

Roussel’s campaign aims to reassert the once-mighty PCF’s identity and reconnect with voters who have drifted away from the Left. In this sense, he has outshone other loosely progressive candidates. But his campaign also illustrates the Left’s much deeper difficulties in rallying the working-class electorate.

Bread and Butter, and Merguez, Too

In Montreuil and elsewhere, Roussel has presented his platform as “Roussellement” – the opposite of “ruissellement,” or trickle-down economics. The challenge of returning to “happy days” — also a reference to FDR’s New Deal campaign anthem — is emblematic of the PCF’s project of reconnecting with working-class voters who have increasingly abstained or moved to the far right.

Seeking to illustrate his down-to-earth, bread-and-butter campaign, Roussel has highlighted the importance of “good meat, good wine, good cheese” made in France — a not-so-subtle jab at other left-wing forces, repeated in campaign stops over the past several months.

Roussel’s campaign has gotten a boost from this “straight-talking” nature, campaign manager Ian Brossat — himself Paris’s deputy mayor in charge of housing— told Jacobin in a phone interview. “A presidential election is of course about a political program, but it’s also about a candidate,” Brossat said. “Undeniably, Fabien Roussel’s personality has helped us to rise in the polls. He is sincere, he is frank, he speaks clearly.”

In a divided left where just 25 percent of the overall vote is split among five candidates, both Roussel and Brossat highlighted the need to bring new voters into the fold. This is also about reinvigorating the PCF: it opted not to run its own candidate in 2012 or 2017, which in turn reduced its visibility on the national scale. Yet the party is still struggling to appeal to a working class that has drastically changed — and faces accusations of further dividing the Left. In Montreuil, Roussel rejected this idea: “My candidacy does not aim to take away votes from other left-wing and green candidates, but to win new ones,” he emphasized.

Party members who spoke with Jacobin after the event felt that after years of infighting and reduced national visibility, the party had begun to chart a new course. “Now that he’s starting to carry some weight [on a national level], it’s bringing the party together,” Julien, a thirty-nine-year-old railway worker from neighboring Drancy and member of the General Confederation of Labor (Confédération Générale du Travail, CGT) union, told Jacobin. “It’s been given a new lease of life.”

From Powerhouse to Brink of Collapse

Like many communist parties, the PCF — which celebrated its centenary at the end of 2020 — once played a key role in national and local politics, even briefly becoming the country’s biggest political force in the 1940s following the liberation from German occupation.

“It was not simply a political party, it was a galaxy of organizations that included unions, associations, and the cultural world,” Roger Martelli, a historian and author of multiple works on the French Communist Party, told Jacobin. “It was this galaxy that allowed the Communist Party to establish itself, notably in urban peripheries, and which made it an unquestionable national force.”

Over the next forty years, however, deindustrialization, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the failure to integrate a growing immigrant population into the party’s political project all contributed to the PCF’s decline — a reversal that was particularly pronounced in national elections. By 1986, fewer than one in ten French voters cast their ballot for the PCF, down from nearly one in three during the party’s postwar heyday.

But while Communist Parties in neighboring countries crumbled completely, in France, a combination of alliance-building and strong local activist networks in municipal strongholds like Marseille and the Paris suburbs — forming what was once known as the “Red Belt” around the capital — kept the party alive.

According to Martelli, the PCF nonetheless never succeeded — or even refused — to transform itself to meet the demands of a new working class. “The Communist Party, little by little, lost its usefulness,” Martelli said. “And more recently, this party has seen itself facing competition from other forces.”

By the start of the 1980s, the PCF — facing already-waning membership — was at best a “junior partner” to the Socialist Party and its leader François Mitterrand, whose rule from 1981 to 1996 made him the Fifth Republic’s longest-serving president. The party largely failed to impose its agenda on Mitterrand’s first government and by the end of his rule found itself challenged on opposite sides — from Trotskyists on the Left to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National on the far right. In 2002, the PCF failed to win 1 million votes for the first time in seventy years, scoring barely 3 percent of the vote.

But it was the emergence of La France Insoumise (LFI) in 2016 that nearly sounded the PCF’s death knell.

Founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist Party senator from Marseille, LFI took the French left by storm in the 2017 elections. Its near–20 percent of first-round votes were not enough to make it to the runoff but made it a real force on the national level. Much like Roussel today, back then Mélenchon ran on a platform which targeted “fâchés mais pas fachos” — “angry, not fascist” working-class voters who have either started backing far-right candidates or stopped voting altogether. In 2012 and 2017, the PCF backed Mélenchon’s presidential bids despite disagreements on key subjects including nuclear energy and public security.

But in 2018, the PCF changed tack. Frustrated by what they saw as Mélenchon’s high-handedness and disdain for the Communists, as well as the Left’s failure to win local races despite broad coalitions, the party elected Roussel as the new national secretary and decided to run an independent campaign.

“The PCF judged that [it] had retreated because it had not publicly affirmed its identity enough,” Martelli concluded.

A Divided Left

For members of Roussel’s campaign, staying relevant on a national level was more important than joining a coalition of leftists with little chance of winning in the second round, such as Mélenchon, Hidalgo, Jadot, and Christiane Taubira, flagging in polls despite winning a “popular primary” widely seen as designed to launch her into the race.

“The Left is [totaling] 25 percent, and people don’t have much hope because they say they will never win,” said Haby Ka, a twenty-four-year-old political science student from Montreuil and a member of PCF since 2014.

“I think it is the clarity of [Roussel’s] campaign and the fact that he started campaigning well before [the other candidates], with a real program and without worrying about the popular primary on the Left, that allowed [him] to stand out,” she added.

The PCF’s recent rise in the polls has chipped away at the momentum of Mélenchon’s 2022 campaign. According to the Journal du Dimanche, between 7 and 13 percent of Roussel’s current prospective supporters are former Mélenchon voters. Yet in 2017 an even higher percentage of Roussel’s voter base supported Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, who has since left politics.

Members of Mélenchon’s party have criticized Roussel for further dividing the left in the lead-up to April’s elections.

“I regret that Fabien Roussel is more busy distinguishing himself at all costs than thinking about the popular bloc that we embodied together in 2012 and 2017 qualifying for the second round,” Adrien Quatennens, who is also director of Mélenchon’s campaign, tweeted on February 16. “If we add up Mélenchon’s 11-13 percent and his 3-4 percent, we are [in the second round],” commented the LFI MP.

Brossat disagreed with this, telling Jacobin that on many issues LFI and the PCF were not aligned.

“We don’t say the same thing on every subject,” Brossat said. “On nuclear energy, on security, we don’t have the same proposals, and moreover, I don’t think we are talking to the same electorate.”

Christian Louis, a fifty-three-year-old former train driver from the Nièvre region in central France, told Jacobin that after twice voting for Mélenchon, he plans to vote for Roussel this time. “He speaks like us, and I have confidence in him,” Louis said, adding that he met Roussel in-person at a union event in 2019 and felt like he was “close to [the people.]”

While Louis voted (and campaigned) for Mélenchon in 2012 and 2017, he said that at least some of his union colleagues and friends had abstained from voting and would not vote for LFI in 2022, even against a right-wing candidate. “He had two chances,” Louis said of Mélenchon. “That didn’t do too much to change our daily lives.”

Walking a Fine Line

In Montreuil, Roussel highlighted his campaign’s positive outlook. Everyone, he said, has a “right to happiness, a right to respect,” adding, “We need to speak to those who aren’t voting.”

Brossat echoed this: “We want to address people who may have voted left in the past and who have moved either to abstention or even to the extreme right.”

Yet early polls show that Roussel’s campaign, paradoxically, seems to appeal to white-collar workers rather than blue-collar ones. In one poll, 5 percent of white-collar respondents said they intended to vote for Roussel versus just 2 percent of blue-collar ones. According to that same polling institute, the French Institute of Public Opinion (Institut français d’opinion publique, IFOP), in another sample, 9 percent of “chefs d’entreprise,” a category that includes everything from small business owners to CEOs, intended to vote for Roussel.

We’re not talking about the same working class who once voted for the Left and who today vote for the RN, but a new generation of workers who have replaced their parents, who have the same jobs, the same trade, but who work in a world that is radically different,

said Florent Gougou, who studies the working-class vote in France. “I doubt that we can expect much from the Communist Party in this election.”

Despite his intentions to renew the party, Roussel’s voting bloc still skews old and white, polls show. The candidate, famous for his brusqueness, has also come under fire from various parts of the Left and even his own party for his off-the-cuff comments.

In June 2021, Roussel told a journalist that if migrants “don’t have a reason to stay on French soil, then they have a reason to go back to where they came from.” The comment came the month after Roussel had been criticized by others on the Left for attending a police union protest, a gaffe that one party member considered to “have serious consequences, not only for the campaign, but also for the future — and perhaps the very existence — of the PCF.”

In February of this year, after Roussel’s now-infamous rant on the merits of eating meat went viral on Twitter, French-Algerian militant journalist Taha Bouhafs wrote that “Roussel’s classism in this extract is just alarming.” Roussel was later backed up by a column in none other than Le Figaro — one of France’s most conservative newspapers — in which essayist Céline Pina wrote that the PCF candidate was under attack from the “woke left that loves to point fingers but doesn’t care about social justice.”

On February 20, the French investigative news outlet Mediapart accused Roussel of occupying a fictitious job as a parliamentary assistant at the French National Assembly between 2009 and 2014 — a scandal that could slow his momentum and perhaps even further shake up the Left, as a similar accusation did for the Right in 2017.

Despite the controversies, Martelli, who spoke to Jacobin before the Mediapart article appeared, said that he believes Roussel has a genuine desire to “go back to the fundamentals” and “stop the erosion of the working-class vote toward the extreme right.”

“He does it through a pugnacious style that obviously works well,” Martelli said. “Will he succeed? We will know in a few weeks.”