Divisions in France's pro-treaty coalition

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH government came under fire from the opposition yesterday for its role in promoting the Maastricht treaty on European union.

With support for the agreement slipping ahead of the referendum on 20 September, the pro-Maastricht camp is starting to split amid recriminations over the success of the 'vote no' campaign, with much of the blame being laid on the shoulders of President Francois Mitterrand.

A new opinion poll showed a majority of voters opposed to the treaty. A survey for Le Point magazine by the Ipsos polling organisation released yesterday showed 52 per cent of those who have made up their minds voting no; though the poll found that about 30 per cent of the electorate would not vote. On Tuesday, a poll by the BVA organisation found that 51 per cent of decided voters were against.

The slide in the 'yes' vote has taken by surprise the uneasy coalition of left and right backing the treaty. 'I hope these polls will have the effect of an electric shock,' said Elisabeth Guigou, the European Affairs Minister. 'It has already started, the 'yes' advocates are mobilising.'

Mr Mitterrand has taken a more public stance in the last few days. He expressed optimism yesterday about the outcome of the referendum next month. 'Only a unified Europe can deal with the difficult problems confronting us from outside our continent,' the President said after a meeting with Germany's Chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

The recent negative opinion polls were a reflection of the failure to make clear to people the advantages of European union, Mr Mitterrand said. 'But we shall do this by 20 September.'

But Valery Giscard D'Estaing, the leader of the opposition centre-right UDF, criticised Mr Mitterrand's government for its role in the campaign. 'Each time the call for a 'yes' comes from the ruling power, it will make the 'no' go up,' he said. The government's unpopularity is one factor in the slide in support for the treaty. A poll by Sofres for Le Figaro said 20 per cent of those interviewed saw the referendum as a vote on Mr Mitterrand.

A government spokesman admitted that Mr Mitterrand was in a difficult position. 'He has to undertake the difficult exercise of presenting Mitterrand the European and hiding Mitterrand the socialist,' he said.

Polls showed a large 'no' vote building up among UDF supporters and partisans of the Gaullist RPR party of Jacques Chirac. There are dissidents within both parties opposed to the leadership's support for Maastricht, and Mr Mitterrand's open association with the campaign is not helping Mr Chirac or Mr Giscard to deal with them.

But the 'yes' campaign has also been hindered by the interplay of other events with the referendum, including the war in former Yugoslavia and the response to it. European politicians have sought to turn these to their advantage, but with little success so far.

Mr Mitterrand underlined France's position that it had no intention of getting involved militarily in the Balkans. 'France is ready to protect humanitarian efforts,' he said, 'but I cannot foresee that in Yugoslavia, there will be a war, with armies confronting one another.'

But these attempts to pinpoint areas of benefit in Europe may be failing. Philippe Seguin, a Gaullist opponent of Maastricht, said that it was not Europe, but the treaty to which voters objected.

'I think they have understood that partisans of the 'no' vote aren't hostile to European construction but they are hostile to a technocratic Europe and a Europe which - in a certain number of areas - would question the sovereignty of France,' he said yesterday.