France rallies stars to defend Maastricht

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CATHERINE DENEUVE says vote for Maastricht. So do Gerard Depardieu, the chef Paul Bocuse and a host of other French notables drafted in by the ruling Socialist Party to back the government's campaign for a 'yes' vote in the forthcoming referendum on European union.

The appearance of the big guns is a sign that France's politicians are putting on their helmets and fixing their bayonets for a tough fight. Support for the Maastricht treaty is wavering, and the campaign to persuade voters of its merits is being put on to a battle footing. 'The risk is great . . . we must decree general mobilisation,' said Simone Veil, a French former president of the European parliament yesterday.

The French government is fighting on the beaches, taking its campaign to those on holiday, and over the wires, with a new page on the French Minitel computer system. It will never surrender, it says, to the anti-Maastricht lobby, which is pushing home its attack in the run-up to the French referendum on 20 September. It knows that the eyes of every European government and many others around the world are fixed on Paris this summer, because if France rejects Maastricht, then the treaty is finished.

There is a growing fear that European governments have made a tactical mistake by keeping the campaign low-key so far. When they met in Oslo two days after the Danish referendum defeat, they decided to keep their heads down, giving Denmark time to sort out its next steps. In particular, Paris decided to keep a low profile over the holiday period. It was hoped that the Maastricht sceptics would burn themselves out over the summer, and a big push once voters had returned, tanned and happy, would serve to persuade them of the treaty's merits. 'It's been a limbo period for the pro-Maastricht campaign', said Cathy Savage, a political analyst at the Nomura Research Institute in London.

This may have been a tactical error. Opinion polls taken over the holiday period in France seem to show a slow diminution in the 'yes' vote. According to a poll published in the Evenement du Jeudi, a weekly magazine, 53 per cent of those who will vote are in favour of ratifying Maastricht, down from 56 per cent in early August. The 'no' vote was 47 per cent, up from 44 per cent. The slide in the 'yes' vote has hit French financial markets, and some foreign investors in Europe are starting to get worried. 'The French government might have misjudged it,' said Ms Savage.

These polls give a misleading image of how cut and dried the battle is. Forty per cent of those asked in the latest poll said they would abstain. The high level of undecided voters, or of those that will not vote at all, shows that anything is still possible.

The French government has stepped up its campaign. Jack Lang, the flamboyant Education and Culture minister, and Elisabeth Guigou, the tough-minded European Affairs minister, are leading the offensive, pulling in support from every conceivable angle. The stars are all said to have signed a pro-Maastricht declaration. Ministers have contributed articles to newspapers arguing the treaty's merits, including a piece by Paul Quiles, the Interior Minister, arguing that control of immigration will be reinforced.

Even if the French campaign is successful, the Danish problem still lingers. Copenhagen has said it will await the result before moving ahead with plans for a White Paper sketching out how it might be brought back on board Maastricht. 'We are going to find a model which will make possible the continuation of our membership of the EC,' Poul Schluter, the Danish Prime Minister, said on Wednesday. It is likely that a second referendum will be held.

Opinion polls in Denmark are equivocal. A recent poll revealed that the percentage of Danish people opposed to the Maastricht treaty is unchanged, at 51 per cent. The number of don't knows has increased at the expense of those in favour. The opinion poll also showed that while there are several elements of the treaty to which Danish voters are opposed, the defence aspects of Maastricht arouse the greatest ire.

The biggest question, since the Danish referendum, has been whether Europe's politicians could keep their nerve. At the Oslo meeting, some of the more hot-headed ministers wanted to take much more severe action against Denmark to persuade it to change its mind over the treaty. At the Lisbon summit in June, similiar divisions threatened to emerge, but the cracks were very skilfully papered over. If support for Maastricht slides, politicans will start to lose their cool; and it would only take one outburst of unseemly argument for the whole edifice to start to crumble.

VADUZ - Prince Hans Adam II of Liechtenstein thinks his government has bungled its tactics over Europe and threatens to crack the whip, Reuter reports. He says the referendum scheduled for 20 December on whether Liechtenstein should join the European Economic Area (EEA), is too late. 'I'm afraid that if we vote at the end of December and the EEA is rejected, we may no longer join other Efta countries, particularly Switzerland, which will be negotiating to join the European Community,' he said.

What if the French say 'non', page 21