France faces six weeks of argument on Maastricht: As summer holidays draw to a close, the political temperature will soar, writes Julian Nundy from Paris

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WERE it not for the posters - 'Europe is mature, give it its majority' or 'Liberty, I cherish your no', a distortion of a well-known saying - and the politicians braving the beaches to explain their views to holidaymakers, there would be no sign at all of the tensions wracking France's political class. France in August is its usual somnolent self and the population seems all but geared up for the frantic six weeks ahead.

After the Assumption Day holiday on Saturday, the campaign for the 20 September referendum to ratify the Maastricht treaty will get into full swing. Supporters and opponents from all ends of the political spectrum will tour the country to drive their message home.

If the French follow the government and most establishment politicians to vote 'yes', European union should recover from the blow given it by the Danish 'no' vote in June and the Maastricht treaty should be implemented much as intended.

If, however, as is just possible, they vote 'no', then the consequences are hard to gauge. French supporters of Maastricht say this would smash European integration and ring in a time of incalculable dangers and a return to volatile nationalism.

'No' campaigners dismiss this as scare talk, or 'intellectual terrorism and blackmail' in the words of one Gaullist. They say rejection would enable Europe to scrap a bad treaty and negotiate a better one or keep things as they are until the Single Market, coming into force on 1 January, is well established. Maastricht, they argue, means the end of the state; EC aims to encourage region-to- region co-operation will herald 'a Europe of principalities'.

Philippe Seguin, a leading Gaullist campaigning against Maastricht, told a meeting in south-west France recently that, with France the only country still to have a public vote on European union, other anti-treaty politicians were looking to the French to vote 'no'. 'Friends in other countries are saying 'It's you who will decide for everybody',' he said.

One such friend is Margaret Thatcher who recently received Philippe de Villiers of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), a viscount and royalist who was a minister in the 1986-88 'cohabitation' government of Jacques Chirac. According to the most recent polls, Mr de Villiers' position is supported by 37 per cent of the UDF. The party's leadership is firmly behind the treaty. In the Gaullist RPR, some two-thirds of the grassroots back Mr Seguin and his fellow Gaullist campaigner, Charles Pasqua, although Mr Chirac, the party leader, supports a 'yes' vote.

In the ruling Socialist Party, where the 'noes' are led by Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the former defence minister, only 5 per cent favour rejection. Outside the main political parties, the Communist and far-right National Front favour rejection, with ecologists almost two-thirds in favour.

This adds up to a 44 per cent 'no' vote, with the 56 per cent 'yes' intentions well ahead. A significant field, reckoned at more than 20 per cent, of undecided voters or declared abstentionists will be the politicians' target over the coming weeks. Over the past two months there has been a steady growth in the 'no' vote with a corresponding erosion among supporters of ratification.

There are two important dates in the campaign. First, on 31 August, posters must come down. A number of unsigned banners are being pasted up. One, proclaims 'Mitterrand, Maastricht, Mensonges - Mitterrand, Maastricht, Lies.' This underscores a serious problem facing the 'yes' campaign: that approval might be assimilated with approval for a government which is disastrously low in public esteem. On 7 September the official campaign gets under way. Two weeks before the vote, no more opinion polls can be published.

For Elisabeth Guigou, the European Affairs Minister who has been actively campaigning at seaside resorts this month, the government has little to fear. 'The French are people of good sense and understand perfectly the importance of this choice for the future,' she said this week. It is a form of words with which her opponents would probably agree. Not until 8pm on the evening of Sunday 20 September, however, as the first results come in, will it be clear which way the 'good sense' has chosen.