French Communist Party MP, Fabien Roussel, speaks in front of the "Fonderie de Bretagne" foundry, a subsidiary of the Renault…
French Communist Party MP, Fabien Roussel, speaks in front of the 'Fonderie de Bretagne foundry, a subsidiary of the Renault group, during a gathering of striking employees on March 23, 2021 in Caudan, western France.

PARIS - France’s once-powerful Communist Party is fielding its first presidential candidate in years for the 2022 elections, a choice some consider vital for its very survival. It's one of Western Europe’s last relevant Communist parties, whose latest move paradoxically risks further fracturing an already weakened French left.  

The French Communist Party’s presidential hopeful is Fabien Roussel, a former journalist with a reputation as a bon vivant and amateur fisherman, who has been at its helm since 2018. He got strong backing at a party meeting last weekend, although the movement’s base must still endorse his candidacy next month.  

A new poll finds France's Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel would score only a tiny percentage in the next presidential vote. But some say a run is key if the party is to stay relevant. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Announcing his run Sunday, Roussel said he wanted to offer the French people a program of hope — not only in defeating the coronavirus pandemic but also unemployment, poverty and inequality. 
 
France’s century-old Communist Party was once a major political force. In the 1970s, it was the country’s most powerful leftist party, with about 20% popular support. It also governed a raft of working-class towns around Paris nicknamed the Red Belt, with streets named after communist icons like Marx and Lenin.  
 

The French Communist Party headquarters in northeastern Paris, designed by leading Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1965, when the party was a major player in French political life. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Today, it’s a shadow of its former self — although it's among a handful of Communist parties across Europe with deputies in the European Parliament. Here in France, center- and far-right candidates have pierced the Paris-area “Red Belt” and the Communists now control just one French department.  

FILE - French Communist Party (PCF) deputy Marie-George Buffet attends a session of questions to the Government at the French National Assembly in Paris, Apr. 14, 2020.

The party’s last presidential hopeful, Marie-George Buffet, got less than 2% of the vote in 2007. Roussel was partly elected on his call for another run.   

Political analyst Jean Petaux says Roussel’s move is almost an existential decision for the party. If the Communists don’t field a candidate they risk disappearing altogether. If they do, they risk another humiliating defeat.  
 

Lefitst newspaper l'Humanite was once owned by the Communist Party and had a circulation of half a million. It still maintains links to the party, and like it, the paper's fortunes are rocky. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

The immediate outlook isn’t very promising. A meeting this Saturday aims to unify France's fractious left, which runs from the Greens Party and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon to Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Supporters hope to find a single candidate for next year’s presidential race.  But Melenchon, one if its most powerful figures, says he won’t attend.  

Even if the left unifies, political commentators say it’s unlikely Roussel will lead the ticket. If Roussel runs on his own, that will further divide the left.  

Either way, things look grim for the Communists and other leftists.

FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a press conference, in Paris, France, Feb. 25, 2021.

An IFOP poll Sunday found President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen leading in voter intentions for next year’s elections. It found no leftist candidate would score more 13% — and Roussel only capturing 2.5%.   

FILE - Leader of France's National Rally Party Marine Le Pen speaks during a news conference in Milan, Italy, May 18, 2019.

Analyst Petaux says it’s a paradox, since the coronavirus crisis has left some French hungry for the kinds of messages the Communist Party has long embraced — like the return of the protector state. Yet even among the working class, the party has lost its shine. Many have turned instead to Le Pen’s far-right National Rally.