'Don't knows' hold the key: As the French vote today on the Maastricht treaty, 'fault-lines' and fears of German power have turned the British public against closer unity

THE ROLE of Germany, one of the most controversial questions in the French Maastricht referendum campaign, suddenly resurfaced on the eve of today's vote. And the carrier of the message was John Major.

By convention, the 24 hours before a poll in France are free from any coverage of politics connected with the vote. So, in theory, the pro- and anti-Maastricht campaigns ended at midnight on Friday. It is a convention that the French media follow scrupulously. But this agreement does not cover foreign news: so it was Mr Major's remark on Friday, about the European Monetary System being geared 'to the national interest of any individual country', that led French news bulletins yesterday.

Thus ended a week which had started with the Bundesbank's decision to lower interest rates last Monday being hailed by the French government as a magnificent example of European co-operation and an encouraging sign of things to come as the EC moved towards monetary union.

Together with its economic power, Germany has been painted by all sides in the referendum campaign as potentially dangerous if it is not tied down by international agreements and European unity. It is a theme that has deeply irritated politicians across the Rhine and threatens, at least, to cool the Bonn-Paris axis which has been the motor of European construction for nearly 40 years.

With 38 million French voters called to probably their most crucial vote ever today, the result remains too close to call. French electoral law prohibits the publication of opinion-poll results in the last week of a campaign. So the last polls, mostly putting support for ratification ahead, were aired last weekend.

Since then, however, a multitude of privately commissioned polls have been conducted, mainly for banks and other financial institutions. Although these are technically confidential, details of them have leaked out.

In the first half of the week, most of these polls gave a slight lead to the 'No' vote. One, commissioned by the Gaullist RPR party, which is deeply split over Maastricht, came up with the finding that the only region in France where the 'Yes' vote would be in a majority was the Rhone-Alpes around Lyons.

Then came the announcement on Wednesday that President Francois Mitterrand was suffering from cancer of the prostate. On a television programme that night, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, anti-immigration and anti-Maastricht National Front, charged that the announcement had been deliberately timed to attract sympathy.

His remarks caused an uproar and the 'Yes' vote gained ground, particularly among women and the elderly, pollsters said. Of five polls commissioned by banks at the end of the week, four predicted that the French would vote for ratification by some 55 to 52 per cent. The fifth poll, for a bank, gave a solid 56 per cent to the 'No' vote.

Then, details of a government poll, carried out by the Renseignements Generaux security police, leaked late on Friday. Carried out that day, it put the 'No' vote ahead with 52 per cent. The Renseignements Generaux has a reputation for accuracy, but even it has to allow for a margin of error of two to three points, meaning that the result was still on a knife-edge.

A computer projection should be available soon after the polls close this evening. Last night analysts were predicting a high turnout. With 25-30 per cent of don't-knows showing up in most polls conducted over the summer, it was difficult to forecast how their vote might swing.

But the disarray in the financial markets over the past week in the very area where European co-operation is supposed to be so effective, combined with the Anglo-German feud, can only be a handicap to the pro-Maastricht establishment.

(Photograph omitted)