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The French Communist Party and the working classes (1920s–1970s): A perspective from local activism


Drawing on research conducted in several areas in France, this article shows that the communist movement was based on the formation of a militant elite based in heavy industry. Party leadership by industrial skilled workers led to the marginalisation of certain blue-collar groups (women, low-skilled workers, immigrants) and other non-elite social groups (agricultural workers, shopkeepers, artisans). We also emphasise the fact that working-class social networks provided fertile ground for communist activism, while also constraining collective action to some degree. These networks had an impact on the forms of engagement within the party, which might be out of sync with the norms set out by the national leaders of the Communist Party. At the local level, activism drew on both political actions by party leaders and the daily activities of the working classes.

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  1. More specifically, the sites are localised in the northern département of Meurthe-et-Moselle, in the rural core of the Allier département, as well as in and around the towns of Saint-Nazaire (Loire-Atlantique) and Grenoble (Isère).

  2. The heroic constructions of the ‘worker’ and the ‘communist worker’ were at the heart of the communist celebration of the leader. Edifying life histories, autobiographies and fictional narratives were used to populate the proletarian myth. See Pennetier and Pudal (2009); Lazar (1990).

  3. This is a general sketch: at the national level, Party leaders could come from more diverse working-class background: Jacques Duclos and Waldeck-Rochet, for instance, had started to work, respectively, as a baker and a market gardener.

  4. Archives of PCF Federation of Meurthe-et-Moselle, lists of the members of the comité fédéral (1944–1999).

  5. A sociological and comparative analysis of rank and file members and leaders of the PCF in this area was conducted with the International Communist archives (regional reports) for the interwar period and then with the PCF Allier and CC archives.

  6. We consulted this material in the Allier and Meurthe-et-Moselle PCF archives.

  7. Marcel Zaidner's report to the CC, 20 March 1974.

  8. Nouvelles Voix de l’Est, 15 March 1965.

  9. Traces of this conflict were collected in the PCF Meurthe-et-Moselle but also in the Miner's Regional Union archives and during an interview conducted in 1999 with its former main leader Albert Balducci.

  10. In this region as in numerous others, the PCF's role in the Resistance had an enormous impact, and this explains the surge in voting and membership during the decade following Second World War. Nevertheless, there was continuity in terms of organisational orientations and most of the leaders came from a generation selected and educated in Party schools before the war.

  11. The notion has been systematised by Kriegel's work (1968).

  12. Archives of PCF Federation of Meurthe-et-Moselle. Letter from J. Zaffagni to the PCF national Secretariat, 6 November 1961.

  13. The CAP, Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle (Professional Aptitude Certificate), is a secondary school and professional school diploma. It provides a qualification as a skilled worker or employee.

  14. Interview with the former mayor of Tucquegnieux, September 1999.

  15. Archives of the PCF Meurthe-et-Moselle, report by R. Chovanel to the CC, 13 February 1963.

  16. Rhetoric and action of the PCF in this area were analysed from propaganda material in PCF Loire-Atlantique archives and in personal archives of the former communist leader Maurice Rocher.

  17. Tignac Town Council archives.

  18. This point about the PCF grafting itself onto long-standing left-wing traditions can be extended to the Allier, where there was a strong tradition of left-wing voting and social protest since before 1914 (Roche, 2004; Mischi, 2010, pp. 251–259).


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This article has been translated from French by Katharine Throssell.

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Mischi, J. The French Communist Party and the working classes (1920s–1970s): A perspective from local activism. Fr Polit 10, 160–180 (2012).

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