The deplorable road to Maastricht: Michel Debre, a former French prime minister, predicts a popular uprising if his country is misled into voting 'yes'

FRANCE is faced with a new Dreyfus affair. I use the term for any issue that not only divides the French deeply, but fosters an atmosphere of civil war.

This will surely be the outcome of the Maastricht controversy unless France is removed from the map (a ploy some are indeed considering). If, misled by their leaders, a majority say 'yes' to Maastricht, there would be such an outburst of passion that a popular uprising would soon be the penalty exacted for the mistake.

Let me explain. A nation's sovereignty is as valuable a principle in the political order as a human being's innocence is in the moral order. Indeed, a legitimate state exists only where the executive power owes its existence to the people's vote. Outside this democratic model there is only arbitrary power.

In 1954 the French prime minister Pierre Mendes-France attended a meeting in Brussels where, under the stern gaze of the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and with the US ambassador's approval, he was insulted by our European neighbours simply because he was French. When he returned to Paris, Mendes-France nevertheless set to work on the plan for a European army. But aware of the project's unpopularity, the French parliament rejected it, and reason won the day.

On that occasion it seemed that the 'federalists' realised they had created a chasm similar to that caused by the Dreyfus affair; and decided not to impose on an innocent nation a comparable tragedy. How deluded I was.

Like all powers of evil, the 'federalists' yield only to force] Once, they feared the wrath of General de Gaulle, who spoke in the name of a France whose dignity was restored. Then they dreaded the ire of Mrs Thatcher, who fought for a liberalism which threatened the dirigisme of Brussels.

But de Gaulle has gone, France is weakened, Mrs Thatcher has left the stage, and the 'federalists' have reared their heads again and set off down the same deplorable road.

It scarcely matters that Mrs Thatcher's successor, John Major, has succeeded in removing the term 'federal state' from the Maastricht treaty. The idea lives on. Soon the European Court of Justice will grant foreigners the right to vote in French national elections as European citizens, despite the opposition of our parliament. In the wake of this will come the right to be elected.

Furthermore, we now know the conditions laid down by the British Prime Minister before signing the Maastricht treaty: conditions which we should have supported, rather than condemned.

Our technocrats, still smarting (this is an understatement) from the defeat they suffered 40 years ago, are now poised for their major coup. Exploiting the ignorance or indifference of the population, they are attempting to bolster their cause through the single currency. A currency may be regarded by some as merely an instrument of commerce; but the technocrats hope the single currency will succeed where the re-arming of West Germany in the Fifties failed.

But once again the technocrats are wrong. What escapes their notice, as always, is the political impact of their plans. History repeats itself, notably in the errors they commit.

By voting 'no' to Maastricht the French will not only make themselves heroes in the history of their nation; they will teach the Brussels bureaucrats a lesson and impose the principle of liberty on the construction of Europe. And they will do all this without plunging the nation into the turmoil of another Dreyfus affair.

Michel Debre was prime minister of France 1958-62, and helped to draft the constitution of the Fifth Republic. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in 'Le Figaro'.