French Socialists struggle to hold line on Maastricht

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The Independent Online
FRANCE'S ruling Socialist Party sought to rally its troops behind the Maastricht treaty yesterday, as it began a crucial week in its attempt to get the agreement ratified and hold on to political power. Faced with internal splits and outside pressure, the party is trying to pull itself together.

At the same time Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, said he would not seek to renew his term, which expires in December, in the event of a French 'no' vote on the treaty.

The Socialists, finishing their summer school at Avignon, were told by Michel Sapin, the Finance Minister, that 'to vote 'yes' is a vote for the French economy and to vote 'no' is a vote against the French economy'. There were stirring words from several Socialist ministers, including Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister.

But hanging over the summer school has been the threat that the Maastricht treaty might not be ratified when voters go to the polls on 20 September. The latest opinion survey, for VSD magazine, indicates that 53 per cent of voters who have decided approve the treaty. But 44 per cent of the total have still not made up their minds, according to the survey, and they are evenly split between those who are tending towards 'yes' and those tending towards 'no'.

The party suffered two further blows over the weekend. The Green Party decided that it would not make a decision on how its members voted. And Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former defence minister and a Socialist maverick, launched a citizens' movement opposed to the treaty. His supporters met for what Mr Chevenement called 'at the same time, a refuge for the left and for the whole country'. This puts the left- winger in open conflict with the Socialist leadership.

At Avignon, Laurent Fabius, the party leader, tried to accentuate the social aspects of Maastricht. But the party is under extreme pressure. The referendum is turning into a plebiscite on its conduct of policy. Some members of the opposition want new legislative elections to be held if the treaty is defeated and President Francois Mitterrand's position might also be in doubt. He faces one of the toughest weeks in his career, with a live televised debate against Philippe Seguin, a leading 'no' campaigner, on Thursday.

With legislative elections around the corner and Mr Mitterrand running out of steam, there is likely to be some shifty manoeuvring behind the scenes. Several of the party's main players, including Michel Rocard, the former prime minister, are staking out their positions to succeed Mr Mitterrand.

Mr Delors has made clear that his position depends on the treaty. But Mr Delors, a former Socialist minister, is also considered a possible replacement for Mr Mitterrand. He spoke at a conference with Mr Rocard last week, which - on the surface at least - was a model of harmony. In fact, Mr Delors and Mr Rocard would probably be pitted against each other in any succession crisis.

The referendum is building up into a classic French political struggle, with parties divided at national, local and regional level. The summer schools, a traditional feature of the holidays, have been dominated by intrigues and speculation over the political fall-out.

As Parisians returned to work yesterday after the summer break, they were greeted with torrential rain and newspapers that could speak of little but the referendum. Liberation included a full copy of the treaty, annotated by Mr Seguin and Elisabeth Guigou, Minister for European Affairs. Full- page adverts for the various points of view on the treaty are dotted through all the newspapers, as are articles analysing it from every conceivable viewpoint.