Spectre of Germany dominates EC plebiscite: Andrew Marshall finds both sides in the French referendum prey on fears of a wealthy neighbour

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IF THERE is one thing that the advocates and opponents of the Maastricht treaty in France can agree on, it is that Germany is the problem. The issue of France's wealthy neighbour has emerged as one of the key themes of the debate, with both the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns seeking to make political capital out of fears that Germany is once more a rising power. As Serge July, of the left- of-centre Liberation, commented yesterday: 'The fear of Germany is called to the rescue.'

The use of the bogyman across the Rhine shows how the politics of fear dominate the referendum campaign, on both sides. Lord Ridley of Liddesdale, the former British cabinet minister who referred to Europe as a 'German racket' in an interview with the Spectator in July 1990, would feel quite at home.

Yet it is the pro-Maastricht camp that has made most use of the German trump card so far. At the weekend Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, said that unification made it necessary 'for Germany to be solidly tied to the European wagon'. This is the view put forward by the treaty's advocates: that by agreeing to a further step down the road to European integration, Germany can be roped in more closely and its freedom of manoeuvre limited.

German singularity in Europe - its isolation at the end of the Second World War, its anomalous status under the four powers and its division - was brought to an end through the European Community. That is the view, in public at least, of the 'yes' campaign, and its members are pressing the point home: if European integration takes a step backwards, all the old fears of an isolated Germany will be revived.

At the weekend Michel Rocard, a claimant to the presidency when Francois Mitterrand departs, said: 'Let us avoid giving Germany the temptation of looking at itself in the mirror. There is the danger that it will see its old demons reborn.'

That both Mr Rocard and Mr Beregovoy used this theme is evidence of how useful they believe the threat from outre-Rhin can be at a time when they are lagging in the opinion polls. But the 'no' campaign has also used the spectre of Germany to mobilise support.

Marie-France Garaud, one of the leading 'no' campaigners, described at the weekend her fears of Germany's 'empire of money'. She asked: 'Is it neccessary that we enter this empire as junior partners?' A recent scandal over the dumping of medical waste in France has heightened sensibilities about trans-border trade. French monetary policy has been a virtual prisoner of the Bundesbank for months.

And lurking behind the more rational fears is always the historical memory of three wars fought in less than 100 years, two of them within living memory. The violence in Rostock has brought this back into the headlines. Nationalism is resurgent.

Yet the pro-Maastricht camp has deployed this as a reason to vote for the treaty. Nationalism of the irrational, aggressive variety is what the treaty's opponents represent, they say. 'The risks of nationalism are stronger than ever,' said Laurent Fabius, a leading member of the Socialist Party. He had half an eye on the Germans and half on his own voters.

This argument about Germany and the EC has traditionally been the strongest weapon in the armoury of those committed to integration. Yet there is a real risk that it will be turned on those who deploy it.

Given that the Franco-German relationship has always been at the heart of the European Community, questioning it now might seem belated. Yet there is a real sense that Maastricht went too far in conceding to the Germans on political aspects of union. But then, as Mr July noted, Maastricht is a compromise, the hardest thing for politicians to defend.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl met Mr Mitterrand last week in a show of united strength. Both leaders underlined the importance of their relationship and of ratifying Maastricht. Mr Kohl has been called in to do his duty in a televised debate, defending, with Mr Mitterrand, the deal that was stitched up eight months ago in the small Dutch town. Mr Kohl, as the reasonable voice of Germany, will defend the idea that Maastricht takes Europe forward.

John Major was also asked to participate in a televised debate but this seems unlikely. The Prime Minister could well become an unwitting victim of the repoliticisation of the Franco-German axis. Since Maastricht, Britain has laid claim to a new 'special relationship' with Germany. But if France is about to become a loose cannon, then Bonn's attention may once more focus upon Paris: old enemies are more important than new friends.