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France in Role of Possible Spoiler With Unity Treaty Vote

By Rone Tempest
and Joel Havemann

Los Angeles Times

PARIS

For nearly four decades since the end of World War II, France has dreamed of being the pivotal country in a united Europe, with Paris as its cultural heart and intellectual center.

Each in his fashion, French leaders as different as the towering nationalist Charles de Gaulle, the worldly aristocrat Valery Giscard d'Estaing and today's Socialist French President Francois Mitterrand all actively joined in a march toward a federal European state to rival the United States and Japan on the world stage.

Never shy in the spotlight, French leaders over the years came to see themselves as the principal shapers -- "architects," in their words -- of a new, borderless Europe. When Mitterrand was re-elected to a second seven-year term in 1988, he quickly identified European "construction" as the central theme of his new mandate. No one, it seemed until recently, was more pro-European than the French.

With Sunday's vote on the Maastricht Treaty for European union, however, the French find themselves cast in the uncomfortable role of possible spoiler.

The eyes of Europe are anxiously upon citizens of the French republic stretching from the once-disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the French Pacific islands as they go to the polls in a referendum many feel can break -- or at least greatly retard -- the 40-year drive toward a politically and economically linked Europe.

"If France says no, she will be viewed as the problem child who has gone off in the corner to sulk," said former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, whose Gaullist political party is badly split over the referendum. "She will be weakened. And the souffle that has been the construction of Europe runs the risk of falling flat."

The French will be voting to ratify or reject a dry, legalistic, 900-hundred-page document known as the Maastricht Treaty, which takes its name from the small Dutch city where it was initialed by the 12 European Community leaders last December.

Symbolically, the Maastricht Treaty has taken on meaning as a measure of just how much the 12 EC nations are willing to sacrifice to build the dream of European federalism.

A narrow rejection by Danish voters in June has put great pressure on the French to demonstrate their faith in Europe. If the referendum succeeds, one of the first objectives of European leaders will be to devise a way to get the Danes to reconsider.

If the referendum fails, the treaty, already wounded by the Danes, will be dead. British Prime Minister John Major has already said he would withdraw it from consideration by his Parliament.

In an interview with the British newspaper, The Independent, Mitterrand brooded about the consequences of a negative vote.

"It would be a serious reversal for France and for Europe, without doubt, with dozens of years lost before a similar chance would recur," he said.

Mitterrand is not alone. Practically all of France's main political leaders, with the exception of Communist Party chief Georges Marchais and extreme right National Front party head Jean-Marie Le Pen, vigorously support the treaty. Nearly every newspaper and important political columnist supports it.

But the most recent public opinion polls showed supporters of the treaty holding only a slight edge, with more than enough undecided voters to throw the outcome either way.

Support for the treaty dropped from a high of more than 60 percent of the those who said they had made up their minds in June to as low as 47 percent in some polls at the beginning of September. A final poll after Mitterrand went on television in a three-hour defense of the treaty earlier this month showed the vote deadlocked, 50-50. London oddsmakers have made the "yes" vote a slight favorite.

Supporters of the treaty see the European union as a way of tying Germany to a common cause. Opponents fear that Germany, with its powerful economy and Western Europe's largest population, will use the EC to dominate Europe. The demonstration of economic power displayed last week by the German Bundesbank in the monetary crisis fueled arguments in both camps.

What most rankles EC bureaucrats in Brussels -- the "technocrats" attacked by treaty foes in the debate -- is that the French president called for the referendum in the first place. Mitterrand had the option of seeking ratification through Parliament, where support seemed assured.

"Mitterrand called the vote in his own political self-interest, not in the interest of Europe," one EC civil servant said, referring to Mitterrand's objective of dividing his conservative opposition before parliamentary elections next spring.

Mitterrand was gambling with Europe's future, the bureaucrat said, a gamble that all of Europe may lose.