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Fear and loathing on the Maastricht trail: The Balkans impasse and economic fall-out from Germany are mocking appeals to European unity. Andrew Marshall explains why the French are saying 'non'

EXPLAIN and convince: that was the task Francois Mitterrand set himself last week as the President of the French Republic pitched himself into the battle over the Maastricht treaty, which is to be the subject of a referendum on 20 September. It is a tough task.

For the benefit of French voters, a remarkable debate is being held across the country. But it is illuminated, like a slide-show lecture, by images from across the continent of conflict and economic instability. Europe is hovering on the brink of a dozen crises.

The French 'yes' campaign is trying to capitalise on what has always been seen as the European Community's strength: its ability to deliver peace and prosperity. When Mr Mitterrand met Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, last week, they sought to show how vital Maastricht is for security. 'The European Community is the best chance we have of sheltering all our members from war,' the President said.

But flickering pictures of artillery bombardments tearing apart Sarajevo undercut that. To the dismay of the French government, the role of the EC in stopping the killing in the former Yugoslavia has been ramshackle.

'The Maastricht treaty is the contractual base that will enable us to build a solid European roof,' Mr Kohl said. 'When we see the images of terror from Yugoslavia, we must understand that our only future is with Europe.' But the opposite case has been put by the 'no' campaigners, who argue that the EC is not the right framework.

The enduring triumph of European integration since the Second World War has been France's rapprochement with Germany. Now the Germans and the French are tied together: their economies, their societies and their politicians. This was the image presented last week, when Mr Kohl and Mr Mitterrand went for a walk on the beach on Borkum Island, swept by the winds of the North Sea. It is the reason why Mr Mitterrand wants Mr Kohl to participate in a debate on French television.

But Germany's economic problems, which brought the European Monetary System to the point of crisis last week, are probably more prominent in most people's minds than the triumph of Franco-German co-existence.

In the EC, prosperity is supposed to be the other side of the coin to peace. But again, it is hard to square the rhetoric of the campaign with the reality. Unemployment is soaring in France and reached record levels in June, nearly 3 million.

With these arguments so ambivalent, the 'yes' campaign's rhetoric looks empty to many voters. Laurent Fabius, a leading Socialist, said last week: 'If the 'yes' wins, Europe will progress. If the 'no' wins, Europe will fall back.' That, however, was the spur Danish politicians used in their ill-fated referendum. It failed; and the Danish people were suprised to discover, the day after they rejected Maastricht, that the sky did not fall.

Something similar may be happening in France. One opinion poll found that more than half of those questioned said the Europe of Maastricht made them fear the future, that they were unhappy about the 'defence of people's interests' and believed most French people would suffer as a result of the treaty. And, as in Denmark, the 'no' campaign is making clear it is not opposed to Europe, merely to the treaty. Philippe Seguin, a leading opponent of Maastricht, said the 'no' campaigners 'are not hostile to the construction of Europe, but are hostile towards a technocratic Europe which casts doubt on some areas of French sovereignty'.

History has been drafted into the campaign. The European Parliament's Socialist group has printed postcards showing French figures who they say 'would vote yes'. 'After the disappearance of my system,' wrote Napoleon, 'I don't think it will be possible to have a well-balanced Europe which is not the agglomeration and confederation of great peoples.'

'Europe is not just the future, it's an old French tradition,' the Socialists said. But the images on television, on the streets, in the newspapers seem to hint that Europe is not even the future.

Fear, money, peace, history; they will all be used as weapons in the debate. But the blunt truth is that the French have yet to be convinced. Opinion polls show the 'yes' and 'no' vote evenly balanced; they also show the number of those intending to abstain, or who do not know which way they will vote, at around 40 per cent.

'We had to make Europe something everyone, not only politicians and specialists, talked about,' Mr Mitterrand said last week. 'It is important to make something out of Europe that is dear to people's hearts.' In the Fifties, the heyday of European integration as a popular movement, French and German students organised demonstrations of solidarity. The reality now is that France is inextricably tied in to the rest of Europe; but love will not keep Europe together, and it is starting to look as if fear may tear it apart.