Polls show dead heat in French referendum

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The Independent Online
THE FIGHT over the Maastricht treaty in France is now neck and neck. An opinion poll released yesterday, by IFOP for L'Express, showed 'yes' and 'no' both at 50 per cent. The battle lines are still flexible, and with some 40 per cent of the population yet to be convinced, the result could go either way on 20 September, the day of the referendum.

There was snow in parts of France yesterday: summer is over. Everyone is trailing home from holiday and children are heading back to school. The ruling Socialist Party must wish it could stay on holiday. It is to be pitched into a contest that has sparked more debate and dissent than any political event for years.

The party is unpopular and so is President Francois Mitterrand. The party's summer school in Avignon gave the appearance of 'a tired party, constrained by sloth,' according to Le Monde yesterday. Some party leaders did not show up and the event was disrupted by farmers' protests.

A succession of Socialist politicians tried to give the appearance of unity. But Lionel Jospin, a former minister, said it was 'necessary to allow the idea of a critical 'yes',' admitting that some in the party have problems with the treaty. While the meeting was going on, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, on the Socialist left, launched a renegade anti- Maastricht platform, an embarrassment to the party.

Some 250 meetings are planned between now and polling day, 177 by the treaty's proponents, 76 by its opponents. Every day there are long discourses in the newspapers on the evolution of Europe and France's role in it. The lectures are overlaid by the politics of personality. One by one, every public figure - from former ministers to the singer Johnny Hallyday - declares 'yes' or 'no'. The former prime minister Raymond Barre was the latest to endorse the treaty yesterday.

The issue appeals to the Manichaean element that lurks in the soul of every French politician. It is yes versus no, right versus wrong - in public at least. The debate is promoting a strange pattern of alliances and ruptures. All main parties are divided, and both campaigns are ideological patchworks. Yesterday two new groups added their voices: former French settlers in Algeria decided to back a 'no' vote. And the Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Traditions party put itself in the same camp. Following the decision of the Green party to leave the issue up to individual members, this is more bad news for the Socialists.

The 'yes' campaign has mocked the other side for its bizarre assembly of characters. Is it plausible, they ask, that a government could contain the veteran Communist Georges Marchais, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front leader? Can Philippe Seguin and Charles Pasqua of the Gaullist RPR and Philippe de Villiers of the conservative UDF, leading campaigners for the 'no' vote, hold up their heads in such company?

The 'yes' campaign, though centred on the ruling Socialists, embraces much of the centre right as well. They are having problems hanging together. They are aware of the treaty's limitations in some areas. Right-wing campaigners for Maastricht are having a hard time keeping a united front.

Above all, the RPR and the UDF do not want to be contaminated by the Socialists' unpopularity and have warned them to keep quiet. 'The more the Socialists speak during this campaign, the more catastrophic it is,' said Nicholas Sarkozy of the RPR.

The 'yes' campaign is drawn from the mainstream of French politics. As regional elections earlier this year showed, in French politics, the middle of the road is where you get run over. The Socialist vote collapsed, and the main victors were the far-right and the environmentalists.

The French campaign, like the Danish one before it, contains a strong streak of anti-establishment rancour. 'Maastricht seems to have become for a number of our fellow citizens the scapegoat for all our ills, the referendum the occasion for a great letting off of steam,' wrote Jacques Lesourne, director of Le Monde, in a front-page article yesterday.

The reason this is such an entrancing campaign is that no consensus exists on any issue. The divisions between and within parties were also seen in Denmark, where the Social Democrats were split by the issue, and in Britain, where both the Conservatives and the Labour Party have their differences. But the French party system, which is relatively loose, cannot contain it, and has produced a far more instructive debate than that which took place in Britain.

Longer-term damage to the political system may be severe. The Maastricht referendum will leave many questions unanswered, about France's longer-term commitment to European integration, and about Mr Mitterrand's position. If the Socialists cannot stay together, there is a risk that the party may crumble back into the groupuscules from which it emerged in 1971.