French Maastricht fight starts

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THE FRENCH will vote on ratification of the Maastricht treaty in a public referendum on 20 September, the cabinet said yesterday. The announcement, which had been expected, followed the approval last week by both houses of parliament, meeting in Congress at Versailles, of changes to the constitution to accommodate the treaty. The date, which allows for the return of most Frenchmen from their summer holiday, had also been widely tipped.

The certainties end there. Now, politicians of all sides will be thrown into a 12-week campaign through what is traditionally a politically dead season on an agreement which, while a majority of voters are theoretically in favour, has a solid lobby of opponents. Of the main political parties, the ruling Socialists and the opposition centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), are for the treaty, even if some prominent figures are opposed. The Gaullist RPR, led by Jacques Chirac, is divided and has yet to define a united position. In Congress last week, it abstained although a handful of members, both pro- and anti-Maastricht, defied party discipline. An RPR meeting this weekend may set a firm line.

Otherwise in parliament, the Communist Party is firmly opposed. Outside, the far-right National Front is calling for a 'no' vote, as are some ecologists. The National Front, which has only one parliamentary seat, can campaign on an equal footing with other parties since this is a battle to be fought on the hustings.

An opinion poll in the conservative Le Figaro yesterday showed that 37 per cent would vote for Maastricht while 23 per cent intended to vote against. This left 40 per cent, of whom 23 per cent said they would abstain or cast blank votes, while 17 per cent were undecided.

The poll was taken a week ago - before President Francois Mitterrand made his dramatic visit to Sarajevo. It is the last two categories of voters which will be under pressure from a very determined group of politicians who view Maastricht as a surrender of national sovereignty. In the Gaullist party, they are led by Philippe Seguin and Charles Pasqua. Others include Philippe de Villiers, of the UDF, who is seeking support among middle-class Catholics on an anti-abortion and anti-corruption platform.

His main opponent within the UDF has been Francois Leotard, who had been most prominent in the pro-Maastricht campaign until this week, when he joined the ranks of politicians charged with corruption over a property deal.