French Referendum: Mitterrand loses political gamble

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FRANCOIS MITTERRAND. Whatever is said about him in the days to come, he has gambled and lost.

When he decided to call a referendum on the Maastricht treaty on 3 June, the polls put the 'yes' vote at 65 or so per cent. On 14 July, Mr Mitterrand modestly predicted a 60-40 per cent vote in favour. For the daftest observer, adding up the votes of various minority groups, such as Hunting, Fishing and Tradition, let alone the Communist Party and the far right National Front, the equation soon looked more complicated.

As the 'yes' to the Maastricht European union treaty appeared to take the upper hand by the tiniest of margins last night, the French President was present, fresh from his 11 September prostate operation. On television, he told his compatriots who had voted 'yes' that they had voted for the future and the security of Europe while he reassured those who had voted 'no' that he understood their fears.

'Imagine now the joy of the Community, our nearest friends who were waiting for a sign from us that they needed. Imagine the joy of other European countries, almost all of them who want to join us, especially those which have been deprived of freedom for such a long time,' Mr Mitterrand told viewers. 'I am happy, my dear fellow citizens, that you have chosen youth, renewal, protection of the present which requires from you so much effort and luck, all the luck of tomorrows.'

Mr Mitterrand lost his bet quite simply because it was plain three months ago that he thought the French electorate would vote for ratification by a healthy majority.

Firstly, the President is unpopular and has been so for a year. So are the main leaders of the opposition, Jacques Chirac for the Gaullist RPR and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the leader of the centre-right Union for French Democracy. In all the established parties, anti-Maastricht dissidents emerged and they took the initiative. With jolly tales of silly bureaucracy imposed by the Brussels European Commission, their message carried much more fun than the defensive discourse spreading the pious gospel of European union so far. Among the Gaullists, this brought to the fore Philippe Seguin, 49, who is seen as the main moderate. He has had the merit of taking the limelight from the Communists and the National Front while Mr Mitterrand's entourage stressed the President's respect for his entourage.

So, where does Mr Mitterrand go from now? Technically, but only technically, he has won.

Next month, he will be 76, a good age to retire. He has promised his compatriots that he would offer them another referendum by the end of this year to reduce the presidential term to five years. If applied to himself, he would leave office next May, five years into his second term.

Even more logically, he could opt to hold presidential elections before the next parliamentary elections next March. That would facilitate a clean and easy transition to a new president and a new government.

Although an immediate poll last night suggested that about half of the French thought Mr Mitterrand should serve out his full seven-year term until 1995, this enthusiasm, probably inspired by his illness, is likely to be short-lived.

Since the beginning of the Maastricht campaign, France's politicians have promised 'a recomposition' of the political scene. An early announcement by Mr Mitterrand could be the kick-off.