Polls bring new expectations of a French 'yes'

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The campaign for the Maastricht treaty in France has received a much-needed infusion of hope with new opinion polls showing a rise in support for the treaty on European union. The two latest opinion polls show support rising to 51 per cent and 53 per cent of decided voters, up from 49 per cent and 48 per cent, according to BVA and IPSOS, French polling organisations.

But other polls show President Francois Mitterrand, the leading figure in the 'yes' campaign, lagging behind in the popularity stakes. As he goes into a television debate tonight with Philippe Seguin, the anti-Maastricht campaigner, his rating has fallen to a record low, according to a poll in today's Paris-Match by the BVA organisation. Only 33 per cent of those questioned had a good opinion of the President, compared with 59 per cent who had a bad opinion of him. Opinions about Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, have also worsened in the last month.

The latest data suggests that the 'yes' campaign has gained from the last week of campaigning, picking up two or three percentage points in the polls to take it back above 50 per cent. Four polls in a row have all shown support for Maastricht picking up. When opposition to the treaty seemed to be peaking last week, a flurry of activity brought the President and opposition leaders on to the campaign trail within days. But opinion polls can be unreliable, as few politicians need reminding. France has more than its fair share at the moment, seeming to be a country under permanent statistical siege. Every point is seized and analysed in minute detail. But this welter of data, more and more of which pours off the presses every day, gives no clear idea of a trend as to why and where support is shifting.

Some polls show support growing because of a shift on the centre right; others deny that this has occurred. Some show a decline in support amongst Mr Mitterrand's Socialists.

Nor is there much agreement on the numbers of those who will abstain, or who do not know how they will vote, though they seem to be declining, falling from around 30 to 40 per cent of the electorate to 20 to 30 per cent.

The government is banking on an all-out offensive in the next two weeks to push home its advantage. The central theme of their campaign is fear of what will happen if the treaty is not ratified. 'If we do not seize this historic chance, the world of the 21st century may return to the ills of the early 20th century,' warned Mr Beregovoy.

Yesterday, Britain was dragged into the debate. Valery Giscard D'Estaing, president of the centre-right UDF party, warned that 'if we break the bond of closeness and reciprocity which we have tied with Germany . . . another link will take its place'. The former French president said that Britain was making 'great efforts' to supplant France in Germany's affections.

In Strasbourg, the Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, courted controversy by pleading for a 'yes' vote in the referendum at a packed Socialist Party rally. He said the Maastricht treaty would prevent a return of totalitarian forces which had isolated his country for decades. 'We must overcome the strong nationalist feelings that pushed Europe into two wars,' he said.

The fear of Germany has been exploited, with campaigners saying that the failure of the treaty would unbind France's old enemy; so has the fear of economic and financial meltdown. These have helped to change some minds. The problem is that such threats can only be credible if there is a belief that they will materialise. After preliminary sparring, the two sides are now likely to get down to serious arguments over the treaty itself.

Mischief backfires, page 29