'I AM just myself; je suis comme je suis; and I'm not going to change. But I won't use my femininity: that's why people say I am cold.'

I am at the Quai d'Orsay. I have passed the policemen at the entrance with flat hats and bulging jackets, been passed to the flunkey in black tail coat, white waistcoat and white bow tie, am through the waiting room piled with large cardboard boxes labelled 'Dossiers traite de Maastricht', which have been given to every French voter ahead of Sunday's referendum, and am in the presence of Elisabeth Guigou, Minister of European Affairs.

Mme Guigou's recent life has been devoted to encouraging these people to give the answer yes to the question 'Approuvez-vous le projet de loi soumis au peuple francais par le President de la Republique autorisant la ratification du traite sur l'union Europeenne?', but her very Parisian chic has turned a good many voters against her. They find her chief opponent, the overweight, rumpled, Gitanes-smoking Gaullist, Philippe Seguin, much more sympathique.

The French call her La Dame de Glace: the Ice Maiden. Does she mind this nickname? 'It's just a nickname. It comes from men, never from women, and is probably a manifestation of the difficulty some of them have with women who have a profession, and all that implies.'

While some top political women surround themselves with doting, mellifluous and handsome men, Mme Guigou's office is staffed by cool, chic young women. A press assistant wears stinging yellow; another is in lime green, and the only woman in an English civil servant-style black suit carries a crimson briefcase.

Elisabeth Guigou has been France's Minister for European Affairs since May 1991. Appointed by Francois Mitterrand, very much on her own merits, her reputation is that of an outstanding 'technocrat' (a word which, in French, translates into a cross between bureaucrat and technician). During the past four years she has travelled to every European Community country, met her opposite number in every government, and sat in on every major conference on the road to Maastricht.

'My job,' she begins, 'is first of all to co-ordinate the French position on European questions; to make sure that we all talk the same language in Brussels. It's also very important that my colleagues in government play their full part in matters European. We often have breakfast meetings to discuss European questions that have not been solved by the administration; and if these still remained unresolved between ministers, we would call on the Prime Minister: but that's rare.'

Paris this week is plastered with posters, most of them inciting the French to vote 'no'. One large National Front poster reads: 'MAASTRICHT . . . MITTERRAND . . . NON]' in huge letters across a picture of a rusty, cobwebbed spanner. The headline on the cover of a current magazine says: 'Maastricht: 145 raisons a dire non.' Was Mme Guigou happy to have the President call a referendum on the matter? 'Yes. It was his wish, but it would also have been my advice.' Why?

'In France, the idea of Europe is not explained enough. We have had 40 years of no debate on Europe; a very dangerous situation. So the referendum was chosen to give the French people a voice, so that each individual would have to choose. Of course, the risk is that they will use the referendum to give a verdict on the presidency. On 20 September, if we have a yes - and I think we will - that will give a definite popular legitimacy to Europe. This campaign has got everybody talking about Europe. It has become the centre of attention.'

Elisabeth Guigou was born and brought up in Marrakesh in Morocco. Her family moved, when she was 20, to Provence, where they still live. She attended university both in Rabat and Montpellier, and married two days before her 20th birthday. Was this early marriage a stroke of luck?

She pauses for an uncharacteristically long time before replying. I sense that her early married life was not necessarily an uncomplicated idyll. Then she laughs. 'Well, for a start, I didn't work very much in the early years. We both wanted to travel. We sold all our furniture to finance a trip to America.'

When she was 25, Mme Guigou attended the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, France's 'factory' for top-flight civil servants in Paris. 'My husband is perfectly comfortable with my job and always has been. It has never been a problem for him, because he was lucky enough to have a mother who, despite having four children, also had a job - which was less common then than it is today - and who was also a very feminine woman.'

Has he had to accommodate his career to hers? 'Not really. He commuted between Paris and London when I was in the embassy there (she was financial attache), but it suited him very well because he had a book to write at the time, so he did three days lecturing in Paris and the other days writing in his study at the top of our house in Chelsea. Our son was born in London.'

Was this deliberate? For the first and only time in our conversation she appears vulnerable for a moment. 'We had been married for 14 years by then and, if I had chosen, I would have had children before. So Edouard was a great joy.'

Mme Guigou ceased to be a 'technocrat' or civil servant in March, when she was elected a councillor from Vaucluse department to the Provence region. 'I spoke at meetings attended by thousands of people, all very passionate, asking highly intelligent questions. There is a real dialogue on the best way forward.'

If the referendum receives a no vote, what will she do then?

'I have made my decision, but I won't state it now. But if it is a no, it will be a disaster for Europe. I always tell people in my public meetings that not only will we lose a treaty that corrects some of the lacunae and insufficiencies of the Treaty of Rome; we would lose the European momentum, and there would almost certainly be a regression. I say in my meetings: what could you tell your children? The young are massively for Europe. It's their new life space. What will we say after a no vote when they ask, why did you do this to us?

'They live Europe. Their grandparents, who remember the war, are pro-Europe, like the young; the generation that hesitates is the one in between, which has never felt the urgency of Europe. I am convinced that we will make Europe with and by the people rather than by treaties.

'The President was very clear in his last television appearance, and I want to remain confident of the result of the referendum; but we must fight until the last day.'

We have been talking for more than an hour and I sense that my time is up. Can I ask her a last, trivial question? Her eyebrows rise. Mme Guigou is exquisitely dressed in a long red wool tunic over a dark skirt over slender black legs over tiny neat shoes. Where does she buy her clothes?

'Mostly from Chanel. Some are lent to me by the house - I borrow all my evening dresses and some day outfits - and some I buy. I also go to Saint Laurent, but when I'm no longer in this job the first thing I'll do is wear sweaters and trousers. I spend my weekends in jeans.' She stands up. A few pleasantries, and I am ushered out.

(Photograph omitted)