French Communists Sell History to Make Ends Meet ; Some of Western Europe's Once-Powerful Communist Parties Find It Hard to Stay Afloat since Fall of USSR

Article excerpt

Black traces are all that's left of the plaque that once hung on the ornate stone facade, identifying the apartment building in a quiet residential neighborhood as the place where Vladimir Lenin lived during a stay in Paris from 1909 to 1912.

The first-floor apartment, where the Russian revolutionary and Communist ideologue wrote some of his works, was a pilgrimage site for Soviet leaders such as Michael Gorbachev. But a museum owned by the French Communist Party is no longer in evidence. "I remember when delegations carrying banners and flags would come here and sign the Internationale [a socialist anthem], but no one comes here anymore," says an employee of a religious bookstore across the street.

The French Communist Party, once one of the most powerful and pro- Soviet in Western Europe, denies reports that it has sold the apartment to raise badly needed cash. But party officials have sold other properties, including the building that housed the North Vietnamese delegation to the 1968-1973 Paris peace talks on the Vietnam War, and received loans of about $1 million over the past year.

More than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communist parties across Western Europe are in the midst of an ideological, financial, and organizational crisis, unable to clearly define what communism means after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Unable to attract young voters, they are loosing out to more radical formations on the left and at times to the extreme right.

Once-powerful parties in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece have either split, merged into broader left-wing coalitions, or lost most of their clout as European societies have modernized and industries such as steel, coal, and shipbuilding - once the Communists' core voting base - have largely disappeared.

"All of the communist parties are in a very bad situation," says Mark Lazar, a French political scientist who has studied European Communism. "Their one remaining trump card is that the Socialists still need the Communists in order to govern. …