Chirac will back 'yes' vote on Maastricht

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The Independent Online
PARIS - Jacques Chirac, the former prime minister, broke a political silence of nearly two months to give his reluctant backing to the Maastricht treaty on European union yesterday.

His intervention followed a series of opinion polls showing growing opposition to the treaty. The 'yes' campaign is composed of the ruling Socialists, led by President Francois Mitterrand, and the opposition centre-right parties. It is in growing disarray, with some pro-Maastricht politicians openly blaming Mr Mitterrand for the collapse in support. Two of the most recent polls forecast that a narrow majority of voters would reject the treaty in the referendum on 20 September, while three others showed a narrow majority in favour.

'I shall vote 'yes' . . . I ask those who have trusted me to trust me again on this,' Mr Chirac said in a radio interview, asking voters to put the future of Europe before their dislike of the ruling Socialists in next month's referendum.

Mr Chirac joined the fray after surveys showed Maastricht opponents had gained the upper hand in his neo-Gaullist RPR party. Mr Mitterrand, who has sought to stay above the fight, has also become personally involved. The presence of two politicians who are widely mistrusted and dislike each other will not make the 'yes' campaign any easier.

Mr Chirac called the Maastricht treaty mediocre and poorly negotiated by Mr Mitterrand. But he added: 'My conviction is that we do not have the right to stop the construction of Europe . . . to isolate France and make it in some way the black sheep of Europe.' The rise of anti-Maastricht feelings, upsetting France's traditional pro-Europe consensus, has been largely fuelled by discontent with the Socialists.

For the second time in less than a week, the Socialist Prime Minister, Pierre Beregovoy, appealed for opposition help on Wednesday night. 'The more Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing will speak out, the better for Europe,' he said.

Mr Giscard, a former president, hit the campaign trail yesterday. He is expected to repeat his message that voters should not confuse issues and should wait for next March's general election to voice discontent with the government. Speaking in the western town of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, he told voters the 'yes' depended on the opposition speaking out together. 'The 'yes' depends on us, the centre and centre-right,' he added. However, relations between Mr Chirac and Mr Giscard are also cool.

The 'no' campaign has moved swiftly to exploit the partisan differences. Philippe de Villiers, a leading anti-Maastricht dissident in Mr Giscard's divided UDF party, said a 'yes' vote would boost the Socialists. 'I do not know who would lose out from a 'yes' vote, but I know who would win. It would be a victory for Mitterrand,' he said.

In the latest sign that the vote will be very close, a source at the French bank Societe Generale said yesterday the bank had commissioned an opinion poll that showed a vote of 50 per cent for and 50 per cent against.

(Photograph omitted)