Could it be that France, until now one of the most fervent supporters of a single European currency, is having second thoughts about the project? On and off the record, senior French officials are adamant that nothing is amiss. But when Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission and an architect of the Maastricht treaty, says that even he is having serious doubts, the prospects for a single currency seem to dim.
In the Bordeaux newspaper Sud-Ouest yesterday, Mr Delors referred to evidence of an economic slowdown in Europe and said: "The news from France and Germany is not reassuring. It will be difficult to achieve economic and monetary union within the agreed timetable [by 1 January, 1999]." Only four months ago, Mr Delors was insisting that the deadline could and would be met.
Mr Delors, of course, is not the French government, nor yet a member of any elected body in France, though he advises the Socialist opposition. As one of France's most faithful Europhiles and most popular political figures, however, his words are noticed. In this case, they also chimed with a certain Euro-sceptical tendency in France that seems, if not to be growing, then to be edging into the open without apology.
The day before the interview appeared, doubts about the single currency or its timetable were voiced by two other senior figures in France, both seen as supporters of the project. Jean Gandois, president of the main French employers' organisation, said cheerfully that if the January 1999 deadline were not met, "I wouldn't see it as a crisis; what is important is the movement towards a single currency...not the calendar."
The other, Marc Vienot, head of one of France's biggest banks, Societe Generale, was more forthright. Citing the slowing of economic growth, he described France's chances of meeting the single currency criteria as "negligible". The Maastricht treaty, he said, should be renegotiated and the introduction of the single currency postponed.
Their comments were published only days after two long-standing opponents of the treaty - the chairman of the National Assembly, Philippe Seguin, and the head of Peugeot, Jacques Calvet, had come out with fierce restatements of their position.
Mr Seguin said he regarded the idea that it was "now or never" for the single currency as "stupidity of historic proportions". Mr Calvet, for his part, said that the fall of the Berlin wall had rendered the Maastricht treaty irrelevant. "Maastricht no longer exists," he said. "Maastricht is dead."
The question is whether they sensed that the national mood might now be running in their favour, or whether the government quietly set the single currency "debate" in train to prepare public opinion for what would be a major change of policy. The prospect that growth in France could fall as low as 1.5 per cent this year, and the budget deficit prove impossible to shrink without risking social unrest, could make a revision of the single currency timetable a tempting option.
Key people still insist, however, that France is on course for 1999. The governor of the Bank of France, Jean-Claude Trichet, said last week that France could meet the criteria, and on time. Senior officials note that any change would require a renegotiation of the Maastricht treaty, and fresh ratification by the French parliament - the inference being that it might not get through. But their assurances are increasingly sprinkled with references to "flexibility" and "pragmatism", leaving plenty of escape routes open.Reuse content