Mr Mitterrand softened his earlier claims that a rejection of Maastricht would usher in chaos and end European integration. With rejection now a distinct possibility, his measured words seem designed to cool the atmosphere and ease the task of managing the crisis if the verdict is 'No'.
One poll yesterday put the vote at 50-50, another at 52-48 and a third at 53-47. This was certain to send fresh shivers through international financial markets, which view the vote as crucial to the future of Europe's currencies.
Mr Mitterrand replied to questions from the Independent on Sunday last Thursday, shortly before going into hospital for a prostate operation which was successful but which will take him out of the campaign for the final week. His officials believed this was his last intervention in the debate.
While he had previously spoken in extremely strong language of the catastrophic effect of a 'No' vote, on Thursday he appeared to indicate that he viewed it as a grave setback, but not a terminal blow for European unification. It would be, he said, 'a serious reversal for France and for Europe, without doubt, with dozens of years lost before a similar chance would recur'.
A 'Yes' vote, by contrast, would give Europe a 'formidable impetus'. 'The European idea will be legitimised by it.'
French officials are now telling their EC counterparts the result is impossible to predict, but that it could well be 'No' - or 'Yes' by a very slim margin, which could be just as serious in its implications. And like Mr Mitterrand, senior EC officials are preparing the ground for a rejection by playing down the consequences.
International banks have arranged their own private surveys of opinion to bypass an official ban on the publication of polls in the last week of the campaign and, unusually, London banks will also open their foreign exchange trading operations for business on Sunday, the day of the vote, so that they can react to the first straw polls.
Britain, as the current president of the EC, is also laying plans. EC finance ministers will be in Washington that day for a meeting of the International Monetary Fund; EC foreign ministers will be in New York, for a United nations meeting. If the vote is 'No', it is likely that they would convene an urgent gathering, probably in Washington.
A 'No' would derail progress to a single European currency and could trigger the first realignment of the European exchange rate mechanism in five years. The embattled Italian lira would be almost certain to devalue against the German mark with considerable pressure being placed on the pound to follow suit.
A devaluation of sterling would be humiliating for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who have staked the Government's credibility on maintaining the pound's existing parities against the mark.
But avoiding devaluation could force a hike of two percentage points or more in British interest rates to prop up the pound, propelling the economy deeper into recession and threatening higher mortgage rates for millions of homeowners. Most worryingly, the City fears that a 'Yes' vote may not be enough to prevent upheaval in the ERM. Central banks have spent billions to shore up the lira in recent days, but it has remained pinned to its ERM floor, raising fears that devaluation is becoming inevitable whatever happens.
Full interview, page 16
Bloody Sunday, Business section
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