The Sterling Crisis: Sick Mitterrand vows to soldier on: France prepares to vote

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Francois Mitterrand has cancer of the prostate but his condition should not affect his ability to govern, his doctors said yesterday. A bulletin issued just before the President, who will be 76 next month, left Cochin hospital, in Paris, where he was admitted for a prostate operation a week ago, said samples taken during the operation contained cancerous tissue.

As he left hospital, Mr Mitterrand was asked if he might resign. 'I haven't thought of it at all. There is no reason for me to do so. They haven't given me a lobotomy,' he said. His doctors said his condition was not serious enough to merit treatment by chemotherapy, which is usually debilitating.

What effect the news of Mr Mitterrand's illness will have on Maastricht voting intentions is a matter for speculation, since opinion polls cannot by law be published in the last week of a voting campaign. With support and opposition running neck-and- neck when the last public polls were released last week, French officials, with access to secret government polls, are hinting that they expect a 'no' vote on Sunday.

Last night the main leaders of the Socialist Party, including Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, and Michel Rocard, who is most likely to be the next Socialist presidential candidate, were at the party's last big rally in the Paris region in favour of ratification. The previous evening, a Paris 'no' rally held by the far-right National Front, at which Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Front's leader, made a particularly virulent speech, produced one of the few instances of violence in this campaign, when members of the audience smashed a television camera from the commercial TF1 channel.

The publication of details of Mr Mitterrand's medical condition was in keeping with a commitment he made when he was first elected president in 1981 to publish regular health bulletins. That stemmed from the confusion caused by the condition of President Georges Pompidou, who died in office in 1974. He frequently missed engageents and his real condition - leukaemia - was kept secret until some time after his death. Officials had put around various excuses, even that he had haemorrhoids, to explain why Pompidou could not sit long at state functions. When the history of the Pompidou years finally emerged, it transpired that France had operated for several months with no effective president.

Even commentators on state radio speculated yesterday that doctors might have known for some time the real nature of Mr Mitterrand's prostate problem and had been keeping it secret.

Mr Mitterrand's illness will provide ammunition for those who would like to see him leave office soon. But this is only really likely if the 'yes' vote, for which he is the principal campaigner, prevails on Sunday.

Then, with victory behind him, he could start the long-promised constitutional moves to shorten the seven-year presidential mandate to five years and move towards his own retirement as his second term nears its five-year mark next spring. If the 'noes' take it, however, Mr Mitterrand has said he does not believe he should add to the chaos, implying that he would stay to manage the ensuing crisis.