French barely approve treaty on European union

September 21, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

PARIS -- The French said "yes" to Europe yesterday, but very faintly.

More than 70 percent of France's 38.3 million eligible voters turned out under leaden skies over much of the country and approved the Maastricht treaty on European political and monetary union by a fraction over 50 percent.

The treaty is designed to take the European Community to a single currency by the end of 1999, to advance the idea of "European citizenship" and to encourage further synchronization of defense and foreign policies among the 12 members.

But the vote was so close that it failed to give the European idea the strong impulse it needed in the present chaotic circumstances. Rather, it bounced the question over to Britain, where it must be ratified by Parliament and can expect a hostile reception from opponents energized by the French ambivalence.

Private polls had predicted a close race but still anticipated a more decisive "yes" -- by 3 to 4 percentage points,

Last night, President Francois Mitterrand spoke to the nation on television from the Elysee Palace. He declared yesterday to have been one of the most important days in the country's history.

"France not only assures its future, reinforces its security and consolidates the peace in a region of the world so cruelly torn by war, it also shows yet again that it is still capable of inspiring Europe," he said.

But for Mr. Mitterrand and most other mainstream French political leaders who had staked their reputations on a positive outcome, the victory had no glitter.

It was "a pseudo-success, a mediocre yes," said the treaty's most rabid opponent, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the neofascist leader of the National Front party.

Mr. Mitterrand decided to put the treaty to a referendum immediately after it was defeated in Denmark's June 2 referendum. At the time he thought it would win easily. But the "no" vote gained momentum through the summer, and in August the polls indicated likely French rejection. Only in recent weeks did the "yes" vote nudge ahead.

In Washington, finance ministers of the seven leading industrial nations expressed relief at the result and predicted in a communique that it would "ease tension in the foreign exchange markets."

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the French referendum result "will give a new impulse to the European ratification process in the other states of the community."

But it might not be so.

The treaty's next difficult hurdle is certain to be in Britain, where opposition, strong from the very beginning, was further aroused by last week's currency crisis.

The Europhobes in Britain are stronger in Prime Minister John Major's Conservative Party than they are in the opposition Labor Party. Because of that, and because Mr. Major's political esteem was so diminished by the ravaging of the pound last week, he will have a difficult time getting his party to approve the treaty. A resounding "yes" vote in France would have helped.

Originally the plan had been for the British government to put the treaty before the House of Commons after the French vote. Last week a high British official said Britain would now want to wait until some kind of arrangement had been made with the Danes, who voted down the treaty earlier.

Following the French vote, Mr. Major called a summit of EC

leaders for early next month.

The campaign on the French referendum was unexpectedly passionate, possibly because it was the first time France truly debated to such an extent the question of Europe and the country's place in the European arrangement. But the debate, at least as far as the opponents were concerned, often dwelt on issues off the question at hand, such as fear of German economic power, the rising clamor of refugees trying to enter Western Europe, rising unemployment, even war and peace and the threat of violent nationalism raging in Southern and Eastern Europe.

There was also an evident resentment among many French people toward the European Community "technocrats" who they believe make decisions without regard to the people affected by them.

Elisabeth Guigou, the government's minister for European affairs, seemed to acknowledge the legitimacy of this complaint. The "no" vote will have to be listened to, she said.

The Maastricht treaty is alive, of course. Or rather, it is not dead. Since it must be approved unanimously by the 12 member states of the EC, the Danish veto must be reversed or some special arrangement made between Denmark and the others that will allow the treaty to come into force without that.

The consensus was, and probably remains, that this can be done.

Denmark was bad for Maastricht. But the currency debacle of last week was worse, for it revealed an unexpected weakness in the EC's Exchange Rate Mechanism, the system put into place in 1979 to keep the community's currencies in parity with each other.

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