Leading Article: A French baby at risk

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WITH a second opinion poll in two days suggesting the French may say 'Non' to the Maastricht treaty in next month's referendum, it seems history may turn full circle. It was the French who invented the European Community. If they reject Maastricht, they may come to be seen as having initiated its reinvention. The consequences of such a rejection are hard to predict. The eventual outcome might, to the contrary, be a reappraisal that would produce a treaty better suited to a Community of 20 or more members.

The visionary economist Jean Monnet is rightly seen as the EC's intellectual father. But he was preceded by two compatriots, Edouard Herriot and Aristide Briand. In 1925 Herriot, then French Prime Minister, expressed the hope of seeing a United States of Europe. He was succeeded by Briand, who that year put to the League of Nations his plan for a European Community involving the gradual liberation of the movement of goods, capital and people.

The Briand plan was politely rejected by virtually all governments. The concept was revived after the Second World War by Monnet, with successive plans in the Fifties for a European Coal and Steel Community, a European Defence Community and a European Economic Community. The EDC was torpedoed by the French parliament in 1954. But the French played the leading role in shaping the ECSC and the EEC, continuing (with some Gaullist lapses) to cherish their vision of France leading a united and independent Europe that could deal on equal terms with the superpowers, and in which their old enemy, Germany, would become a loyal partner.

The factors making so many French people turn against the process they initiated are many and complex. There are worries on the respectable right that Maastricht will reduce France's freedom of movement: they talk of independence rather than sovereignty. The far right is quick to fan the flames of nationalism and xenophobia, playing on fears that the elimination of internal frontiers will increase immigration. The 'No' camp includes those who resent the European Commission's interference in decisions on mergers and government subsidies to industry; and trade unions reviving the old canard that the EC is a capitalist plot against the working classes. In la France profonde there are the farmers, still simmering with resentment against reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy that threaten their livelihoods. The treaty itself alienates those who read it by its utter incomprehensibility.

Above all, there is the deep unpopularity of President Francois Mitterrand and his government. The treaty's opponents are urging voters to register their disapproval by saying 'No'. The two main opposition parties are divided, but their leaders, Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, have indicated they will vote 'Yes'. Faced with three unloved politicians and much of the establishment appealing for their support, a large slice of the electorate may be tempted to show its contempt by saying 'No'. With polls showing a decline in support for Maastricht, hopes of a positive outcome must rest on the high proportion (up to one-third) of those still undecided. The 'Yes' campaign has barely started. If its arguments are rejected on 20 September, the French people will have punished the child they conceived: whether wisely or foolishly only history will tell.