PARIS — BY voting narrowly in favor of the Maastricht Treaty for European economic and political integration, French voters for the first time gave a popular push to France's 45 years of leadership in Europe's drive for unity.
Just as the small fraction of Danish voters who voted against Maastricht in a June referendum jolted Europe's unification process to a halt, a razor-thin margin of 400,000 French voters out of 36 million restarted the process, analysts say.
The weight of the French vote derives not just from the country's historic importance in Europe's postwar integration, but also from the fact that 13 million French - more than the total populations of six of the European Community's 12 member states - voted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty.
But the extreme tightness of the vote - just over 51 percent voted yes - in a country that continues to consider itself pro-Europe indicates the difficult road still ahead for the treaty.
EC leaders will now be required to take account of the reasons virtually half the French voters voted against Maastricht, while also pursuing its adoption.
British Prime Minister John Major, who holds the EC's rotating six-month presidency, announced that he will call a special EC summit in early October to discuss how to pursue European unification "with the people's support." German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that although the French result represents "a new impetus" for Europe, it also reflects concerns well beyond France that Europe "neither become too centralized nor empty national identity and regional roles of their meaning."
The Maastricht Treaty, which calls for creation of a single currency within the European Community by the end of the decade and further steps toward a common foreign and security policy, faces a tough ratification battle in Britain, and growing doubts about its economic wisdom in Germany, where it still requires parliamentary ratification.
If the French ended up voting yes - or what many analysts say is "yes, but" - an unwillingness to risk seeing France marginalized within Europe and divested of its leadership role was perhaps the deciding factor.
"I wanted to vote no, because I don't like this particular treaty," said one Paris woman who declined to give her name. "But after five minutes in the voting booth I ended up voting yes, because I couldn't imagine what the rest of Europe would think if France said no."
Another voter, a manager with an electronic services company, said any doubts he had were overcome by a desire to build a Europe capable of standing up to American and Japanese economic competition. "No treaty is perfect," he said, "but what is certain is that France and Europe would lose their chance to stand up as a world force if France voted no."
Taking the extraordinary step for France of commenting on a national plebiscite the very night of the vote, French President Francois Mitterrand said the French people had voted "yes to Europe, yes to hope." Responding both to a traditional French desire for a prominent role in the world, and growing concerns about events shaking Europe, Mr. Mitterrand said that by voting yes not only does France "reinforce its security and consolidate peace in a region of the world so cruelly torn by war, but demonstrat es as well ... that [France] is still capable of inspiring Europe - able as of now to equal the few great powers on Earth."
In exit polls, voters who cast a "no" vote listed as their major reasons the loss of national sovereignty they believed would result from Maastricht, and worries about increasingly centralized government by distant EC technocrats.
French leaders said these concerns would be addressed as the EC pursues integration. "After this vote, everything will be done to build a more democratic Europe," said Prime Minister Pierre Bgovoy. Added Environment Minister Segolene Royal, "With this vote the French are saying `yes to Europe, but watch out, in the future you must listen more closely to us.' "
The problem for EC leaders will be taking account of these concerns while reinforcing the EC's ability to play a unified international role in economic and political arenas. Few observers believe a full-scale renegotiation of Maastricht will be undertaken, but certain addenda or "tinkerings" may be approved both to address public concerns and to allow Denmark to resubmit the treaty to its voters.
The danger European leaders face in trying to reduce what is commonly called the EC's "democratic deficit" is that such efforts risk damaging Maastricht's goal to make the Community a more effective, single-voiced, international power.
While any overt federalist movement for Europe is clearly dead for now, a more confederal approach to integration may only reinforce the indecision and supremacy of national interest that have characterized the EC's response to such international issues as international trade negotiations and war in Yugoslavia.
Across Europe, stepped-up debate on Maastricht and last week's tumult in European currency markets said to many Europeans that European monetary union is likely to concern only a club of the EC's wealthiest countries.
France's "yes" vote may have allowed European leaders to breathe easier, but it is likely that they will be catching their breath only to have to explain some more to their worried countries about Europe's construction.