Opposition unites in plea for 'yes' vote

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH mainstream conservative opposition has appealed to its supporters to vote for ratification of the Maastricht treaty next Sunday so as to preserve a credible and coherent opposition.

As the debate enters its final days before one of the most crucial votes in French history, Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist RPR leader, who is campaigning for a 'yes', warned right-wing voters of the dangers of 'destabilising' the opposition. In six months' time there are parliamentary elections which are expected to see the defeat of the Socialist government. Ironically, most conservative leaders and the Socialists are currently objective allies in the campaign for ratification.

Some two-thirds of the Gaullist grass-roots and a significant minority of supporters of the RPR's centre-right ally, the Union for French Democracy (UDF), are opposed to ratification, as are the far-right National Front and the Communist Party.

Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, another leading advocate of ratification, reminded Le Monde readers yesterday that the Maastricht treaty was largely the work of French diplomacy.

The statements showed that the debate is moving away from European issues to one of internal politics, amid fears that voters' prejudices against political leaders may swing the vote.

The 'yes' and 'no' camps were running neck and neck in the last soundings made public last weekend, before the legal ban on publishing poll results in the week before the vote went into effect on Sunday. On the Paris Bourse yesterday prices fell on rumours that a private poll commissioned by the Societe Generale bank put the 'no' vote ahead at 50.5 per cent. There was no way of confirming this rumour. One senior employee of a French state bank said many of his colleagues were currently working on the basis that the treaty would be rejected.

Over the past 15 months, President Francois Mitterrand and his Socialist government have steadily lost popularity. Paradoxically, the right, divided for nearly two decades now by a feud between Mr Chirac and Mr Giscard d'Estaing, has picked up hardly any of the support lost by the Socialists. This has gone mainly to fringe parties such as the National Front or the two ecology parties.

The Maastricht referendum, therefore, offers a unique opportunity to the disaffected French voter: if he votes 'no' he can take a massive swipe at the entire conventional political establishment, bringing simultaneous defeat to Mr Mitterrand, Mr Chirac and Mr Giscard d'Estaing. The French voter is a contrary creature and this temptation could be strong.

The positive effects of the Bundesbank decision to lower interest rates and the devaluation of the lira within the European Monetary System, hailed as an example of EC co-operation, could be short-lived.

First, Michel Sapin, the Finance Minister, and Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, both hinted that France would only reap the advantages of lower interest rates if the 'yes' vote wins. The tactic could well backfire. Interest rate fluctuations do not have the same impact in France as elsewhere. Mortgages, for example, carry fixed interest rates, so repayments never change. There is nothing like the repossessions which have caused such trauma in Britain.