FRANCE and other countries of the European Community are beginning to contemplate the consequences of defeat for the historic Maastricht Treaty on European union as fresh opinion polls suggest a dead heat in the French referendum on the treaty set for Sept. 20.
Four polls released here Tuesday night indicate a virtual 50-50 split on the treaty among French voters, a spectacular slide in support - and equally stunning rise in rejection - since polling at the beginning of the summer showed better than two-thirds of the electorate supporting the treaty.
Most chilling for supporters of European union as outlined in the far-reaching treaty is one poll showing for the first time a slight majority - 51 percent - intending to vote "no."
The treaty, signed by the EC's 12 members earlier this year, is still undergoing difficult ratification battles in several countries.
Most EC countries are sticking to parliamentary ratification. But after Danish voters shocked Europe by narrowly defeating the treaty in a referendum June 2, French President Francois Mitterrand quickly announced that France, too, would hold a referendum.
Mr. Mitterrand saw a referendum in France as a way of erasing the doubts raised by the Danish vote, since three-fourths of the French regularly pronounce themselves in favor of continuing the European construction process begun after World War II. The irony now is that a "no" vote from France would very likely kill the Maastricht Treaty.
The growth in support for rejection of the treaty since debate began this summer and the complete text became widely available "shows that the French are expressing themselves in response to the treaty itself and nothing else," says Phillipe Seguin, a French senator and leader of the "no" movement, speaking on French television. It is proof, he adds, "that they understand very well" the consequences. The polls also indicate that the French understand that "a `no' vote is not anti-Europe," says Mr. Seguin , "but against a certain vision of Europe."
THIS week's polls will undoubtedly instigate a more aggressive campaign among treaty supporters who have been slow to respond to a well-coordinated "no" campaign.
But even as the campaign shifts to high gear until the Sept. 20 vote, leaders here and across the EC will be looking more seriously at how to respond in the event France does say no.
Up to now the official word out of Brussels and EC capitals is that the treaty cannot be renegotiated. Yet while it is true that renegotiation would be difficult given today's darker economic and political mood, most analysts agree that the EC would nonetheless attempt to do so.
Still, prospects for a single EC currency in this decade would recede, with Germany very likely thinking twice about giving up control of its deutsche mark for a jointly administered currency.
On the political side, European leaders such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, would argue forcefully that the Community should expand membership to include Eastern European countries and others who have already applied - Austria, Sweden, Finland - before any new treaty is negotiated.
But others like EC Commission President Jacques Delors believe that "expanding before deepening" would doom the Community to the role of a vast free-trade zone with little clout in the international political arena. Mr. Delors and other Maastricht supporters also fear the consequences of a Europe without enhanced political power for dealing with the dangerous challenges facing the continent.
"It's not at the moment that nationalism is flowering everywhere that we need less Europe, but more Europe," says former French prime minister and Socialist Party First Secretary Laurent Fabius. With the French polls showing many French voters unsure of the position they've adopted on Maastricht, Mr. Fabius still has three weeks to convince them that his view is right.