Poll raises spectre of a Eurosceptic France

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A French election in which the voters cared little about Europe may end with a European sting in the tail. And if it does, it will be the new British government, in the EU presidency from next January, which has to try to put the Humpty Dumpty of the single currency back together again.

A Eurosceptic French government and a Eurofriendly British one? How things change.

We are not there yet. It is not certain that the left will win the second round of the French elections next Sunday, even though the Socialists and Communists combined topped the polls in the first round yesterday. Even if they do win, and the Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, becomes prime minister, in co-habitation with the centre-right President Jacques Chirac, it is not the death sentence for EMU and the single currency.

It will, however, scramble all the predictions for what already looked like a monstrously difficult timetable of negotiations for EU governments in the next year. The British government, and the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, in particular, will be thrust into the leading role, taking over the rotating presidency of the EU council of ministers in January when the final negotiations on EMU are due to begin.

Mr Jospin, the Socialist leader, has not campaigned against EMU. How could he? It was a French Socialist President, Francois Mitterrand, and a French Socialist Prime Minister, Pierre Beregovoy, who negotiated the Treaty of Maastricht for France. It was a French Socialist, Jacques Delors who guided negotiations as President of the European Commission.

But Mr Jospin did campaign on the need for a softer interpretation of the treaty, and its small-print on the single currency, than is currently employed by EU governments, mostly at the insistence of Bonn. The Communists, his likely partners in any left-wing French government, are adamantly opposed to EMU and all its works. So are some left-wing members of Mr Jospin's own party.

Any of this sound familiar? For Mr Jospin on the French left, read Mr Major on the British right. If Mr Jospin becomes premier, the scene would be set for a potentially cataclysmic confrontation between France and Germany, the countries at the core of the European Union.

But that is also the most convincing reason for believing that some kind of deal could, and would, be found. The Franco-German alliance, and the EU, are too important a part of the domestic political landscape of both countries for a deal not to be made.

It remains difficult to see what that deal might be. Mr Jospin is insisting he will inflict no more budgetary pain on French people this year - no more taxes, no more spending cuts - to meet the Maastricht guideline of a deficit of no more than 3 per cent of GNP in 1997. He is also calling for the scrapping of the rules imposed by Germany which could impose financial penalties on any country back-sliding on budgetary disipline after it joins the single currency.

Bonn will reject all three points. Other countries will also be reluctant to re-open so many cans of worms at once. Over to you Mr Cook...

What chance has the French left of winning on Sunday, only three years after is suffered the most devastating defeat in the 1993 parliamentary elections? Based on the projections last night, it is marginally more likely that they will bring it off than the centre-right. But the outcome will depend on the movements of a few hundred votes in each of up to 100 constituencies where there will be three-cornered contests between the left, the centre-right and the far-right National Front.

No computer can accurately project such movements, based in part on local considerations. It is also possible that the disillusioned voters of the centre-right, may be motivated to turn out next Sunday by the prospect of a left-wing government and a messy period of five years of left-right co-habitation.