Colourful viscount rallies 'no' vote: Julian Nundy watches Philippe de Villiers, a former minister, whip up anti-Maastricht feeling in Chartres

AT THE end of the evening, the crowd stood for the 'Ode to Joy', the European anthem. The speaker stepped down from the podium decked with the French and European flags to the applause of more than 700 followers.

Two hours before, when he began his speech, Philippe de Villiers urged his listeners to form 'a grand 'no' chain' against ratification of the Maastricht treaty in the 20 September French referendum, 'like a Tupperware chain where you persuade another 10 or 20 people'. His theme, illustrated by a banner behind the stage, was 'Save Europe. No to Maastricht'.

Hinting that he had access to one of the regular and confidential police polls which are considered the most accurate soundings of public opinion in France, he said the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns were running neck and neck with just a week to go. The result 'could be just a matter of 300,000 votes' among France's 38 million voters. And he added a new element. Of the 25 to 30 per cent of undecided voters, 21 per cent tended towards support for Maastricht while 51 per cent were potential 'no' voters, he said.

The choice of the cathedral city of Chartres for one of Mr Villiers' big campaign rallies was appropriate for a politician who is anything but run-of-the- French-mill. Mr de Villiers - full name Viscount Philippe le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon - is, at 43, a traditionalist Catholic with an anti-abortion, anti-contraception message. His appeal, backed by his movement called 'Combat for Values', appears strongest among middle-class provincial Catholics, the nearest France has to a silent majority.

A politician who has made his career, including a brief spell as junior culture minister in the 'cohabitation' government of 1986 to 1988, in the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, he is now out of step with his parliamentary colleagues and few expect him to remain allied to the UDF for long.

With family links to the 19th- century writer the Comtesse de Segur, who wrote moral tales for childen which are still popular in the best bourgeois nurseries, his fief is the Vendee on the Atlantic coast south of Brittany. He wrote the script and set up a now regular summer sound and light show in the department, depicting the massacre of royalist Vendeen peasants by revolutionaries in the Terror of 1793. Royalist passions are still strong in the area and Mr de Villiers, the president of the department's council, is a fitting representative.

Mr de Villiers has always been known for a sharp tongue. When he worked for Francois Leotard, the 'cohabitation' culture minister, their relations were fraught, although they were from the same political family. Mr de Villiers once said of his boss: 'I lent him a book but he hasn't finished colouring it yet.'

Now, on the campaign platform, his style is surprisingly populist. Painting an Orwellian picture of the powers of the European Commission, he talks of a Europe run by 'people who earn money while they sleep', of a 'little Europe of the wealthy', of Euro-enthusiasts who, 'like kid-goats on a stool bounce up and down shouting 'Europe, Europe, Europe'.'

Like the other main anti-Maastricht campaigners, who are in a minority in the mainstream French parties, one of the Mr de Villiers' main complaints is that the treaty does not provide for the early integration of the former Communist states of East Europe and the former Soviet Union. They should have been allowed to 'plant their flags' in Brussels immediately, he insists.

Maastricht would consecrate 'a wall of institutions, a monetary wall, a wall of the rich. We completely messed up decolonisation and now we are messing up the entry into Europe of countries which suffered in prison, of this post-penitentiary Europe. We are about to create a new Latin America.'

Scoffing at the 'yes' campaigners' contention that a rejection of the Maastricht treaty by the French would lead to chaos, Mr de Villiers said the European Community could survive the crisis under the existing Treaty of Rome, the European Monetary System and the forthcoming Single Market while new provisions were negotiated.

Of John Major's speech this week warning of the dangers of a French rejection, he pointed out that Britain, by refusing the social charter and seeking an exemption clause, was in an exceptional situation. 'For an Englishman, it's easy. He didn't sign the same treaty. That's very English.'

As for Denmark, which rejected Maastricht in its own referendum in June, he found a silver lining. Denmark, he said, was 'dragged through the mud by the wise men, by the nomenklaturas and the oligarchies. Then what happened? It became the European soccer champion.'

PARIS - Simone Veil, the former president of the European Parliament, told an international women's conference that Frenchwomen should back the Maastricht treaty because the European Community had been instrumental in securing their rights, Reuter reports.

(Photograph omitted)