French Souring on Government Could Jeopardize Europe Treaty

Economic woes nudge voters toward a `no' vote of protest

IT may indeed be August, when more than a third of the French work force goes on vacation, but summer's lull has done nothing to put low public esteem for government on holiday.

Prime Minister Pierre Bgovoy, called in last April by President Francois Mitterrand to reverse the record-low public appraisal of predecessor Edith Cresson, finds himself tumbling in opinion polls toward the Cresson abyss.

Yet the French Socialist leadership's chronic unpopularity might be dismissed as having little relevance beyond French borders if it were not for the referendum on ratification of the European Community's Maastricht Treaty for economic and political union that Mr. Mitterrand has set for Sept. 20.

With a sour public mood growing in France despite the summer sun, French analysts, European capitals, and financial markets are increasingly worried that French voters might follow a tradition dating back to President Charles de Gaulle, and vote against the referendum to express their rejection of French leadership.

In that case the EC's battered integration process would suffer a debilitating blow, experts agree, and the Maastricht Treaty would likely be doomed. A "no" vote in France risks "shattering" the process of building a more-unified Europe, says Thierry de Montbrial, director of the French Institute for International Relations and columnist for the Paris daily Le Figaro.

"It would," he says, "be deeply worrying if in September, Europe - our one grand collective project since the Second World War - fell, victim of a nervous provincialism in our country."

So far support for Maastricht among the historically pro-European French appears to be holding up. A poll released this week showed 57 percent of those intending to vote in favor of the treaty, down from 62 percent in the same poll two months ago.

But the poll also shows that nearly half the voters could still change their mind, with those supporting Maastricht less sure of their position than those rejecting it.

And even though few "no" supporters cite a lack of confidence in the country's leadership as the reason for their position, many analysts echo Mr. De Montbrial's opinion that France's dark domestic mood could determine the Maastricht vote.

"If the French vote `no,' the deciding factor will not be concern over the treaty's affect on national independence. You don't find here a grand national debate over a European single currency," says Christophe Nadaud, a political analyst with the Sofres polling organization here.

"The `no' isn't so much a reasoned rejection of Europe as an inarticulate feeling people have of being fed up with the situation the country is in," he adds. Scandals, bad economy sap confidence

France's high, still-rising unemployment - just under 3 million workers, or 10 percent of the work force - remains the country's single greatest preoccupation and the major reason that less than one-third of the French approve of Bgovoy's performance, according to surveys. The prime minister's indecisive handling of a truckers' strike last month, which for a few days brought the country to a near standstill, is another factor in the public's sinking confidence.

With legislative elections scheduled next spring, Bgovoy appears to have little reason to worry about a second summer holiday heading the government. Advisers at the Elysee presidential palace say Mitterrand is already working up a list of candidates for prime minister from the opposition center-right.

But Mr. Nadaud adds that other issues not directly attributable to Bgovoy, yet very much associated with the Socialists in the public's eyes, are part of the mood affecting not just the government but the Maastricht referendum's prospects.

Newspapers and TV news shows are full of accounts from the trials of four high-ranking health officials charged with knowingly circulating blood contaminated with the HIV virus associated with the AIDS disease. In addition, corruption investigations into political party finances, focusing on the Socialist Party, are continuing. Last month's revelation was that the Socialists' former treasurer, now president of the National Assembly, will be indicted. Mitterrand appeals to French voters

"All of these things add up to a rejection of the government, a feeling that it is not in control or preoccupied with the same problems as the people," Nadaud says. "There is an anguish that does not favor a bold step in the direction of something [Maastricht] many still see as a vast unknown."

French leaders favoring Maastricht's ratification - beginning with Mitterrand - are laboring to divorce the referendum and European construction from government unpopularity. In his traditional Bastille Day interview, the French president, whose approval ratings are lower than Bgovoy's, emphasized that voting for Europe should not be confused with "voting for me."

In an obvious reference to then-President De Gaulle's fateful decision to stake his political future on a 1969 referendum on a regionalization program, Mitterrand said he and his government's popularity was "not in the balance in this question, neither with a `yes' or a `no.' "

Other leaders in the political opposition agree.

"The time will come for the French to sanction the Socialist leadership," says Pierre Mehaignerie, leader of the centrist CDS party, in a reference to next year's legislative elections. "We want to help Europe win; the other battle will come in its time."

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