However, in what is likely to be his last intervention in the referendum campaign, Mr Mitterrand moderated earlier alarmist claims that a 'no' vote would 'break' Europe, apparently leaving himself room for manoeuvre in the event of a rejection of Maastricht.
The President, replying to questions just before being admitted to a Paris hospital last week for a prostate operation, also stood by his decision to call a referendum which could turn into a defeat for himself and the whole European leadership. The campaign, he said, had allowed a real debate on European issues to make up for years of ignorance, although he regretted the exploitation of fears of German domination which had emerged among both supporters and opponents of the Maastricht European Union treaty.
His words and tone demonstrated a less apocalyptic view of the effects of a 'no' vote. Although most polls show a slight lead for the 'yes' vote, one published yesterday split the vote 50-50. Three weeks ago, polls were putting the 'no' vote slightly ahead.
Some supporters of Maastricht have painted a picture of incalculable chaos if the treaty is rejected, with a return to nationalism threatening peace on the continent. In the past, Mr Mitterrand has endorsed this view. He has declared that such a result 'would break Europe because there would be no more impetus, no one would believe in it any more'. On another occasion, he said a rejection would 'put an end to 45 years of France's foreign policy'.
Answering questions last week, however, he was somewhat more circumspect. A 'no' vote, he said, would be 'a serious reversal for France and for Europe, without doubt, with dozens of years lost before a similar chance would recur'. This is still a dire warning, but significantly it lacks the finality of Mr Mitterrand's previous statements.
Mr Mitterrand refused to be drawn on the consequences for himself of a 'no' vote: 'My personal fate counts for little in this instance and is not at issue in this affair.' He did add, however: 'I would examine the situation created' the day after the vote. 'I trust the wisdom of my compatriots who, after debating with passion, will know where France's interest lies,' he said.
On balance, most political observers believe Mr Mitterrand would opt to stay in office if the treaty were rejected, even though this would represent a personal defeat. In one recent remark he asked why he should add to the chaos caused by rejection, indicating that he and his government would remain to manage the crisis. The government faces parliamentary elections in March while Mr Mitterrand's term runs to May 1995.
In the case of a 'yes' vote, however, there is speculation that Mr Mitterrand, who has suffered from poor popularity ratings for more than a year, might decide to bow out with a victory. An elegant way of doing so would be to call a long-promised referendum on reducing the current seven-year presidential mandate to five years. He will reach the fifth anniversary of his second term next May.
Originally, Mr Mitterrand had appeared to favour a parliamentary vote to ratify Maastricht. Then, after the Danish rejection in June, he opted for a public referendum. Some analysts have speculated that by so doing he also hoped to split the conservative opposition. In the event, the Gaullist RPR has been badly divided between the 'yes' and 'no' camps while smaller splits have affected all the other main parties.
Asked if he had been surprised by the rise in opposition to the treaty, Mr Mitterrand said: 'I never thought that it would be a formality. If I announced on 3 June that the French would be consulted by referendum, it was not because the polls put the 'yes' ahead. It was because it seemed necessary to me to transform a spontaneous but vague support for Europe into
a considered and durable commitment.
'I knew it would need a lot of explanation to make up for the lack of information for some and the lack of interest for others. I therefore expected a vigorous, intense and close debate. It's happening. It allows the French to understand the stakes and European reality better than they have in the previous 40 years, and also to measure what these years of European construction have brought to our country in terms of peace and prosperity.'
Opposition to Maastricht, Mr Mitterrand added, stemmed from 'many fears - the fear of change, of modernisation, of opening up to the world and of opening up to others'.
Europe was blamed for 'imaginary threats while it protects us from real risks' and offered advantages in the face of 'the US and Japan which are not enemies at all but are real competitors on the world economic scene'. Popular resistance came from a lack of information, 'from the feeling of many Frenchmen that they have been kept out of an enterprise which concerns them directly and which rules their future and that of their children'.
But, the President said, giving vent to these anxieties 'seems healthy to me, even if most of them are unreasonable, unfounded or have nothing to do with Europe'.
In the past few weeks of the campaign, Germany has been used by both sides to justify either ratification or rejection of the treaty. In particular the xenophobic violence against asylum-seekers in Rostock has been used to back claims that extremism still thrives across the Rhine.
Mr Mitterrand said he had been 'personally upset by the way in which the defenders of the 'yes' almost as much as those of the 'no' have justified their choice by using the argument of mistrust of the Germans. First, it represents a total lack of trust. Then it encourages the belief that there are demons (the word has been used) exclusive to Germany while every people should be alert to containing its own. Understanding Germany and the Germans requires more respect.'
Without the reconciliation between Paris and Bonn first engineered by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, 'Europe would never have seen daylight. Without their entente, it would not have become a pole of peace and security.' Mr Mitterrand recalled that Helmut Kohl 'wanted German unification to go hand in hand with the unification of Europe. It was together, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that we suggested to our partners of the 12 to begin the process of political union completed in Maastricht.'
Mr Mitterrand said he did not believe that the 'demons' raised by the German debate and other points of controversy would remain issues. 'On the contrary, if the 'yes' wins after such an open debate, it will give Europe a formidable impetus. The European idea will be legitimised by it. The debate will stop being confined to the narrow circle of specialists.'
During the campaign, 'all the concerns have been expressed, all the questions have been put. We have discussed without taboos sovereignty, federalism, the vote for foreigners from the Community, of technocracy, defence, social rights . . . Among those of the 'no' campaigners who are of good faith, some problems which deserve attention have been raised. Maastricht does not have answers to everything, it can be improved and developed and it has clauses and time limits which will allow necessary adaptations.'
Asked whether parliamentary procedure to ratify Maastricht would not have been less of a risk, Mr Mitterrand said 'you cannot say that European construction suffers from a lack of democracy and reproach me with trying to put it, for the first time, on an undeniably democratic basis.'
Given that France's international role was in question, 'I had to invite the French to express themselves . . . since our constitution provides such a possibility. That is the idea I have of my duty.' Mr Mitterrand admitted the process had carried a risk. 'But has the inverse risk been measured, that of a ratification without genuine popular consent?
'We had to have this trial of truth. Our partners, who are following our debates with interest and sometimes with anxiety, must understand this. If the 'yes' wins, as I ardently hope, France's European commitment will come out of it strengthened and Europe will have everything to gain from it.'