Marchais became a close associate and understudy of PCF leader Maurice Thorez, a Stalinist hard-liner. Because of his association with Thorez, Marchais rose rapidly through the party ranks. Like his mentor, Marchais embraced a pro-Moscow, Stalinist position. In 1957 he became a member of the Central Committee and in 1961 garnered the powerful position of chief of party organization. When Waldeck Rochet, Thorez's successor, became ill in 1969, the politburo appointed Marchais deputy general secretary. In 1972 he was named general secretary.
During the early years of his leadership, Marchais advocated a union of the Left that encompassed both the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, and he and Socialist Party leader François Mitterrand formed an uneasy alliance. Marchais supported Mitterrand's unsuccessful 1974 presidential bid and in 1976 seemed to soften his line by rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat and advocating a pluralistic communist-socialist détente. In so doing, Marchais was in the mainstream of the Eurocommunist movement. But the PCF continued to fare poorly in elections, usually polling only about 20 percent of the vote. Frustrated with these results, Marchais ended the communist-socialist alliance in 1977.
Marchais seemed to revert to his former dogmatic, Stalinist stance by the late 1970s. He convinced the PCF to support the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to resist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms of the mid-1980s. By the time Marchais stepped down in 1994, electoral support for the PCF had declined dramatically, plummeting from 21 percent of the vote in the 1973 elections to only 9 percent in 1993. Marchais died on 16 November 1997 in Paris.
Lisa Miles Bunkowski and Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Fejto, Francis. The French Communist Party and the Crisis of International Communism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967.; Ross, George. The View from Inside: A French Communist Cell in Crisis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.; Vanke, Jeffrey. "George Marchais and the Decline of French Communism." Journal of Cold War Studies 6(1) (2004): 90–94.