Communism in France and Italy has experienced a steep decline since the 1970s. In many ways the experiences of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and French Communist Party (PCF) have been very similar – the onset of decline occurred at a similar time for both parties and they both experienced a particular decrease of support from the younger generation. Italy and France went through similar social changes in the 1970s which resulted in a diminishing working class.
Politically, both parties were affected by the breakdown of Soviet regimes and by events in the party system around them and by a strengthening right wing, although the reasons for this differed. They also suffered from internal divisions and a poor public image. Since 1978, the PCF has experienced a steep decline in voters’ support. However, this decline is not a trend which suddenly occurred in the 1970s. The French Communist Party had been experiencing a gradual decline since the 1950s.
After being established in 1924 the party enjoyed a sharp increase of support, up around 16% to 26. 3% at the of the Second World War in 1945. There remained a period of relative stability until 1958, when figures of support dropped and then rose again slightly to remain at between 20 and 22% between 1962 and 1979. The decline in the Communist share of the vote had been an ongoing occurrence but for much of the time it was still the largest party in France. In 1981 they suddenly lost a 5. 1% share of the vote. The decline of communism in Italy occurred at a similar time.
During most of the Cold War the Italian Communist Party (PCI) had been the strongest of it’s kind outside Russia and up until 1976, it had always seen its electoral support grow. But in 1976 it lost votes for the first time, a trend which continued through to the 1983 elections. By the 1987 elections, the PCI achieved only a quarter of the vote, which was no different to the protest vote they used to attract in the 1950s and 60s (Sassoon, 1997, p252). The decline in support for both parties is especially apparent amongst the younger generation.
Between 1978 and 1986 the PCF received 21% and 12% of the vote respectively from those under 34, while the figure only dropped from 11. 5% to 10% for those over 65 (Waller, Fennema, 1988, p 50). The PCF had a Stalinist militarist image, which did not sit well with a generation who had witnessed the violent clashes in May 1968 between workers/students and the right-wing. incidentally, many see the PCF’s failure to support the uprising as a missed opportunity to draw the newly radicalised youth.
They feel that had the PCF supported Mai68, a revolution would surely have occurred. The PCI also saw a drop of support amongst the young. The membership of the Communist Youth Federation (FGCI) almost halved between 1971 and 1986, dropping from about 86,000 members to 45,000 (Waller, Fennema, 1988, p42). The proportion of France and Italy which was working-class declined from the early 1980s in correlation with the industrial decline. Church attendance also decreased, and so followed an embourgeoisement of the electorate as a white-collar middle-class emerged.
The Italian and French communist parties represented working class interests, so as the number of them declined they lost the traditional support from industrial workers which they were familiar with during the French industrial revolution. The PCF and PCI were affected negatively by occurrences within the party system, both parties losing votes to the socialists and being weakened even more by a strengthening right wing. However, the reasons for a strengthening right-wing differed in the two countries.
The PCF lost many members to the French Socialist Party (PS) whose leader Francois Mitterrand was able to inspire loyalty and rally support among the party. He established himself as master of the party and head of the non-communist Left in general. This was due to his history and prominence in French politics since 1965 when he had first stood for President opposite de Gaulle (even though he lost). The PS modelled themselves as a more moderate Left party to secure the centrist vote. This would take advantage of the embourgeoisement of the electorate mentioned earlier.
Similarly, the PCI also lost votes to their Socialist rivals. In 1987 the PSI gained 2. 8% of the vote on 1983, achieving its highest result since 1958. So both communist parties were affected similarly by developments within the party system, but it was only the French communists who suffered from a divided communist vote when two of them ran for President. The dissident communist Pierre Juquin stood against the official candidate Andre Lajoinie in 1988. The PCI, unlike the PCF, was purposefully weakened by the US throughout the Cold War.
America could see that it was important to suppress communism in Italy, more so than in France. Unlike France, Italy’s position was at the frontier between East and West and it was home to the largest Western communist party. In order to beat it, the US financially supported the Communists’ main opposition – the Christian Democrats. In France the rise in unemployment and increase in racial tension led to more support for the extreme right-wing National Front, under Jean-Marie Le Pen, which gained seats in the National Assembly elections of March 1986.
Both the Italian and French communist parties lost support due to the way they were perceived by the public. In an attempt to ‘hug the PCF to death’, Mitterrand had persuaded the PCF to enter a coalition with the Socialists following his presidential victory in 1981, when the PS had a clear majority in Parliament. The PCF gave in to the call of parliamentary power, to their disadvantage. Early on, Mitterrand’s government introduced radical reform – nationalising industries and increasing the minimum wage and social security benefits.
This worsened the ongoing economic crisis and so the government made a u-turn in 1982/3 and replaced the Keynesian approach with a more monetarist one. They rejected protectionism and uncontrolled public spending in favour of increased productivity. This undermined the PCF’s muscular reformist rhetoric and its claim to be the revolutionary party as they appeared pro-capitalist. As a result, much of its traditional base began to turn away from it, either abstaining, voting for the Socialists, or even the Right.
The four Communist ministers resigned from the cabinet in the end, taking their voices with them. In Italy, by 1987 ‘the PCI had become, to all intents and purposes, a mainstream political party which called itself communist’ (Sassoon, 1997,p252). Over 1/3 of the party had university degrees, around the same proportion believed that the working class was no longer central to the party’s direction and only one in four believed in the aim of a classless society and only one in 10 believed in the abolition of privatisation (Sassoon, 1997, p252).
Towards the end of the 1980s, the PCF and PCI became weak and divided, something which would be a concern to any party, but added to the already tarnished images of the PCF and PCI, undermined their credibility even more. The PCI was split into factions of interests between a small group on the right which was relatively close to the socialists, a pro-Soviet group, a group to the left who felt an affinity with with the ecologists and pacifists and even the centre of the party was split between a left led by Tortotella, a centre led by Occhetto, and a right led by Chiaromonte.
In France, the electoral standing of a communist dissident against the official leader, mentioned earlier, was one of a number of disloyal events which exposed division within the PCF. Others since 1978 include a petition with hundreds of names condemning the leadership for not allowing proper debate after the 1978 elections; the revolt of the editorial teams of two communist newspapers , leading to their closure and replacement; and the creation of an opposition to the editorial team of a third newspaper, which included rebel internal members.
After the fall of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc in 1989, the slow disintegration of the French and Italian Communist Parties intensified . The demise of Soviet Communism had an impact on the way they perceived their future in the same way it affected other Western Communist parties. Even though the European parties attempted to distance themselves from the repressive image linked to Soviet regimes by establishing their own brand of Euro-Communism, Russia was still their political ally.
When the regime broke down, and weaknesses in the ideology became apparent, the PCF suffered a further loss of support. Throughout the 1990s neither the PCI or the PCF had been able to counteract the decline in support, both parties failing miserably in elections. In many ways the decline of communism in Italy and France has been alike, due to similar social and political factors, but with some differences occurring. Up until today, neither the leaders of the PCF or PCI have been able to reform their parties to make them appear distinctive and significant, and the decline continues.